Independence Day, the birthday of the United States, is celebrated on the Fourth of July, when the words of the Declaration of Independence were approved.
On this day in history, July 4:
In 1776, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, adopted the Declaration of Independence, which proclaimed the independence of the United States of America from Great Britain.
American opposition to British policy began in 1765, when the Parliament in London passed the Stamp Act to raise revenues for a standing army in the colonies. In October, rallying under the banner of “no taxation without representation,” colonists convened the Stamp Act Congress to express their opposition to the tax.
When the act took effect in November, most of the American colonists, especially the Sons of Liberty, called for a boycott of British goods, and organized attacks on the homes of tax collectors and burned stamps. In March 1766, after months of protest, Parliament voted to repeal the Stamp Act.
Boston Tea Party
In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act to aid the British East India Company by decreasing its tax and granting it a monopoly on the trade. The lower tax enabled the company to undercut tea smuggled into America by Dutch traders, and many colonists viewed the act as another instance of tyranny.
Angry, rebellious colonists, some disguised as Indians, organized the Boston Tea Party in response. Some 340 chests of British tea valued at 18,000 pounds sterling were dumped into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773.
In May 1774, outraged by the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the Intolerable, Acts, closing Boston to merchant shipping, making British officials immune to criminal prosecution in America, establishing British military rule in Massachusetts, and requiring colonists to quarter British troops in their homes.
Patriots from 12 colonies called the first Continental Congress in September 1774, with Massachusetts leading the resistance to the British Empire, creating an alternative revolutionary government, and forming militias to fight the British army. It also passed measures abolishing British authority in America.
In January 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, a political pamphlet that advocated American independence and republicanism in place of monarchy and hereditary rule. It sold more than 500,000 copies in a few months and had a significant influence on public debate in the colonies.
Support for independence surged in the spring of 1776. The Continental Congress urged the colonies to set up their own governments, and a committee was assigned to draft a declaration. Its five members were Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Robert Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.
Jefferson was chosen as the primary author of the document. In justifying American independence, he drew inspiration from the political philosophy of John Locke, an advocate of natural rights, as well as the enlightened ideas of other British thinkers. The declaration included a long list of grievances addressed to British King George III that provided the reasons for rebellion.
“All Men Are Created Equal”
The Declaration of Independence contains the immortal line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This has been called “one of the best-known sentences in the English language” and “the most potent and consequential words in American history.”
The document was presented to Congress for review on June 28. Debate on Richard Henry Lee’s resolution resumed on July 1, with a majority of the delegates voting in favor. The dramatic words of his resolution — “these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states” — were added to the end of the declaration.
Congress maintained it was important that independence be proclaimed unanimously. So, the final vote was delayed until July 2, when 12 colonial delegations voted to approve, with the New York delegates, unsure of how their constituents wanted them to vote, abstaining.
John Adams wrote that July 2 would be celebrated as “the most memorable epoch in the history of America.” But it was forgotten in favor of July 4, when Jefferson`s edited declaration was formally adopted by 12 colonies after revisions, including changes in wording and nearly a fourth of the text deleted, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade. New York approved it on July 19. The declaration was signed on August 2.
A Free and Independent Nation
Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in several forms. It was first published as a printed broadside that was widely distributed and read in public. The most famous version, a signed copy usually regarded as the original Declaration of Independence, is displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
General George Washington had the declaration read to his troops on July 9. He hoped it would inspire them and encourage others to join the army. After hearing the declaration, joyous crowds destroyed symbols of royalty. An equestrian statue of King George in New York City was pulled down and the lead was used to make musket balls.
The American War for Independence lasted five years. Still to come were the patriots’ key victory at Saratoga, the harsh winter at Valley Forge, the decisive treaty with France, and the final victory at Yorktown in 1781. With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States of America became a free and independent nation.
Adams predicted that Independence Day would always be celebrated in America. “It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty,” he wrote. “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.”
- Becker, Carl. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. 1970.
- Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. 1999.