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The First Fourth of July (Short Version)

continentalcongressby Damon Huss

Today, we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, parades, and barbeques. A national holiday, it marks an important date in U.S. history: July 4, 1776. On this date, the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

Were there great celebrations on that historic day?

The answer is no. No fireworks went off. No signing ceremony took place.

What did happen on that historic day?

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia. It debated whether to adopt the Declaration of Independence. The delegates came from the 13 states (no longer colonies). Thomas Jefferson, the author of the declaration, was there.

Not much else is known. The debate was closed to the public. No one wrote down what was said. Even the delegates’ letters revealed nothing about it.

The delegates voted to approve the declaration. Only John Hancock, the president of Congress, signed it. No one else signed that day.

Bells rang throughout Philadelphia. No other celebration took place. Congress had declared American independence. Many struggles had led to the declaration. And many battles lay ahead.

Background

The conflict that led to the declaration began in 1763. In that year, Britain ended a war with France. Although the British won the war, it left them in debt.

To help pay the cost of the war, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765. This law called for stamps on all documents sold in the colonies. Americans had to buy the stamps from British tax collectors. The stamps raised the cost of everything printed: newspapers, legal documents, pamphlets, and even playing cards.

Americans hated the Stamp Act. They considered themselves loyal citizens of Britain. They already paid taxes to their colonial legislatures. They had no representatives in Parliament, and yet Parliament was trying to tax them. This taxation violated what they considered their rights as British citizens.

Many colonists protested the stamp tax. Some rioted. Many adopted the slogan: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!”

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. But it soon passed new taxes on paper, glass, and tea. Many colonists boycotted, or refused to buy, British goods. The British sent more troops to the colonies.

bostonmassacreIn 1770, British troops in Boston fired on a crowd of angry protestors. Five colonists died. This event was known as the Boston Massacre. It caused great anger against the British.

Protests continued. In 1773, a group of Americans boarded British ships in Boston Harbor and dumped their cargo of tea into the water. This was called the Boston Tea Party. The British reacted with harsh new laws.

In 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. The delegates sent a list of complaints to King George III. They agreed to continue boycotting British goods. And they decided to form militias in their cities and towns.

In April 1775, British troops marched on Lexington, Massachusetts. Waiting for them were about 100 armed Americans. Shots were fired. More fighting took place that day at nearby Concord. The American Revolution had begun.

Many Americans supported the revolution. They were called Patriots. But many Americans were unsure. In January 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, a pamphlet favoring independence. It helped win over many Americans to the Patriot cause.

Declaring Independence

On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. The delegates debated whether to break from Britain. Since the break seemed likely, they assigned a committee the job of writing an explanation of their decision. Thomas Jefferson was on the committee, and he did the writing.

It took him two weeks. Then the committee presented the document to Congress. On July 4, 1776, Congress voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence.

Spreading the Word

Overnight, a printer made many copies and sent them to the 13 states. People of all walks of life gathered to hear public readings of the declaration. They heard the words that “all men are created equal” and that everyone has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In New York, some listeners were so inspired, they tore down a statue of King George III. The revolutionary words were taking effect.

Even so, some Americans opposed independence. They were called Loyalists or Tories. Benjamin Franklin’s own son, William, was a Loyalist. He was the governor of New Jersey. He and his father grew apart and never got over it. Another Loyalist governor, Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, had been driven out of office and back to Britain in 1774. Tensions between Patriots and Loyalists remained high.

In a ceremony on August 2, delegates signed the declaration. John Hancock, still the president of Congress, again signed first. His large signature is today a famous symbol of the American Revolution.

crossindelawareTo War

The odds did not favor the Continental Army and the Patriots. About 2.5 million people lived in the 13 colonies in 1780. One-fifth of them were black slaves. Twenty percent of the people were Loyalists. America’s population was small compared to Britain’s 11 million. The British army was better trained and better equipped.

Of the American generals, the most famous was George Washington, the commander in chief. His army was defeated in New York. And it took a daring nighttime escape to prevent its capture. Washington rebounded with a surprise attack on the British in New Jersey.

Washington led the army through the severe winter of 1777–78 in Valley Forge. He won battles. And he lost battles. He was a great leader, but the odds favored the British.

The situation changed at the battle of Saratoga. In fall 1777, Patriots defeated the army of the British General John Burgoyne. Benjamin Franklin had been trying to persuade the French to help the Americans. After Saratoga, the French agreed and formed an alliance with the United States.

declarationWith French troops fighting alongside Americans at Yorktown in 1781, the British surrendered. The war was over. The victory cost Americans more than 25,000 military deaths and another 25,000 wounded.

Universal Words

The nation was independent. The words of the Declaration of Independence expressed the ideals of the United States. They inspired the courageous Patriots who fought hard against great odds. They have also inspired Americans to live up to the words, “All men are created equal.” The movements against slavery, for women’s rights, and for civil rights all echoed its words. But these words have not just inspired Americans. They have inspired democratic movements around the globe.

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