HISTORY OF INDEPENDENCE DAY
Although most of us already had this history lesson in school, we probably weren’t really paying attention as the clock ticked closer to recess or the end of the day. But we can’t fully appreciate our freedoms if we don’t know how we got them — and, more importantly, how close we came to losing them. The story of America’s independence is truly fascinating with more historical twists and turns than we can possibly get into here. But at least we can get you started with the basics.
In the 1700s, America wasn’t really a nation of ‘united states.’ Instead, there were 13 colonies with distinct personalities. From 1763 to 1773, Britain’s King George III increasingly placed pressure on the colonies as he and the British Parliament enacted a succession of draconian taxes and laws on them. Excessive taxes on British luxury goods like tea and sugar were designed to benefit the British crown without any regard for the hardships of the colonists. By 1764, the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny” spread throughout the colonies as the rallying cry of outrage.
The more the colonists rebelled, the more King George doubled down with force. Imagine if enemy soldiers not only had the right to enter your home but the soldiers could demand that you feed and house them. The Quartering Act of 1765 allowed British soldiers to do just that.
But the Stamp Act of 1765 became the straw that broke the colonists’ backs. Passed by Parliament in March, this act taxed any piece of printed paper, including newspapers, legal documents, ships’ papers — and even playing cards! As the colonial grumbling got louder and bolder, in the fall of 1768, British ships arrived in Boston Harbor as a show of force. Remember, the British Navy dominated the seas all over the world due to the far-reaching presence of the British Empire.
Tensions boiled over on March 5, 1770, in Boston Harbor during a street fight between a group of colonists and British soldiers. The soldiers fired shots that killed 47-year-old Crispus Attucks, the first American and Black man to die along with three other colonists in the Boston Massacre.
In 1773, the Boston Tea Party (from which today’s Tea Party Republicans get their name) erupted when colonists disguised as Mohican Indians raided a British ship, dumping all the tea overboard to avoid paying the taxes. Continued pressure led to resistance and the start of the Revolutionary War in the towns of Lexington and Concord when a militia of patriots battled British soldiers on April 19, 1775. Conditions were ripe for American independence.
When the first battles in the Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, only a handful of colonists wished for total independence from Great Britain, and those who did were considered extremists.
However, halfway through the following year, many more colonists had come to lean more toward independence, as a result of growing hostility towards Britain and the spread of revolutionary views like those conveyed in the bestselling pamphlet published in early 1776 by Thomas Paine — “Common Sense.”
On June 7, 1776, the Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in Philadelphia and Richard Henry Lee, the Virginia delegate, introduced a motion calling for the independence of the colonies. Amid heated debate, Congress rescheduled the vote on Lee’s resolution but appointed a five-man committee — including Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Robert R. Livingston of New York — to draft a formal statement justifying the defect from Great Britain.
On July 2, 1776, in a virtually unanimous vote, the Continental Congress voted in favor of Lee’s resolution for independence, and on July 4th, it formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, which had been written largely by Jefferson. Ultimately, the drafting of the Declaration of Independence was a contentious process. After much debate over what to include and what to leave out, Thomas Jefferson, tasked with pulling the document together, envisioned a nation where “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” crystallized the very meaning of being an American. The document proclaimed the 13 American colonies’ liberation from Britain and reaffirmed their rights as free men — declaring that they were no longer subject (and subordinate) to the monarch of Britain, King George III, and were now united, free, and independent states.
John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that July 2 “will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival” and that the celebration should include “Pomp and Parade…Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.”
By an extraordinary coincidence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the only two signatories of the Declaration of Independence later to serve as presidents of the United States, both died on the same day: July 4, 1826, which was the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. Although not a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, James Monroe, another Founding Father who was elected as president, also died on July 4, 1831, making him the third President who died on the anniversary of independence. The only U.S. president to have been born on Independence Day was Calvin Coolidge, who was born on July 4, 1872.