On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife, Abigail. He was in Philadelphia attending the second Continental Congress and she was at home at Peacefield, the family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, which today is part of the greater Boston area. The future president wrote, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
While we mark July Fourth as the birthday of our nation, the process of declaring independence from the British Crown and establishing the United States of America did not occur with a single pen stroke on July 4, 1776 followed by a parade, picnic and fireworks show.
Second Continental Congress
The second of two Continental Congress sessions convened in May 1775 to further discuss the ongoing problems with British rule and occupation. At that time the majority of colonists still thought of themselves as British citizens. What they wanted, initially, was representation in Parliament rather than to establish a new nation.
A series of oppressive measures by King George III toward the colonies, however, caused many to question why the 13 colonies should continue be ruled by the Crown. More than 150 years had passed since the 1607 founding of the first successful British settlement, Jamestown, located in present day Virginia. The colonies were hardly fledgling outposts anymore. Many fine cities – Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Williamsburg—had been established, productive farms operated in every colony, and multitudes of independent businesses thrived.
In his July 3 letter, Adams told his wife, “The Hopes of Reconciliation, which were fondly entertained by Multitudes of honest and well meaning tho weak and mistaken People, have been gradually and at last totally extinguished. — Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes, by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphletts, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13, have now adopted it, as their own Act.”
Seeds of Independence
The seeds of independence began more than a decade earlier when Parliament imposed revenue acts and trade restrictions on the colonies which provoked the first cries of “taxation without representation.” For the most part, the British had leniently ruled their North American colonies with a policy of salutary neglect for generations, but after fighting the French-Indian Wars (1756–1763), the British treasury was drained. For seven years the British and the French fought over expansion and trading rights in the Ohio Valley. The American colonists fought with the British and the French made allies with Native American tribes.
When the conflict ended, the colonists learned that one of the provisions of the peace treaty signed in Paris in 1763 was that the British colonies were not supposed to expand west and grow beyond the Appalachians. They also soon learned that because the war had stressed the British treasury, they were to be taxed to help pay for the military expense of maintaining an army far from its home base. Parliament passed a variety of laws restricting the colonies to trade with Britain alone and revenue acts including the Stamp Act of 1765 which imposed a tax on almost everything printed on paper such as professional licenses, court proceedings, land grants, newspapers, pamphlets, even playing cards.
The colonists organized boycotts of British goods and demanded a representative voice in Parliament. A year after its passage, the Stamp Act was repealed only to be replaced in 1767 by the Townshend Acts which levied taxes on glass, lead, paint, paper and tea among other things.
To further protest, the colonies joined together in acts of resistance, which caused King George III to send British troops to the colonies in 1768 to squash threats of rebellion. With British troops occupying the colonies, tension arose between soldiers and colonists. An incident involving British troops and a crowd of angry Bostonians came to a flashpoint on March 5, 1770. First icy snowballs and insults were hurled by the Americans. The skirmish grew until shots were fired by the British. Two men were killed in the first round, Crispus Atticus and Samuel Grey, followed by three more. The incident became known as the Boston Massacre.
The American Revolution Takes Root
As news spread that British soldiers fired on colonists, the beginnings of what would become the American Revolution took root. Some colonists were more eager for independence than others. Many still wanted both reconciliation with England and representation in Parliament. In 1773 Britain imposed the Tea Act requiring the colonists to buy their tea only from the British. The colonists decided they would not let ships from the East India Company— the shipping company authorized by the British to transport goods from England to the colonies and raw materials from the colonies to England— enter the harbors. On December 16, in Boston members of the Sons of Liberty dressed as Mohawk Indians boarded ships moored outside the harbor and dumped the tea overboard to deprive the British government of the tax.
As an act of retribution, in 1774 Parliament imposed what the colonists came to call the “intolerable acts.” They closed the Boston harbors and demanded that the East India Company be repaid for the tea that had been destroyed. They took away the right to local control of local political and judicial matters in Massachusetts, demanded that British troops be quartered by the colonists.
For many, including Sam Adams and John Hancock, the imposition of these new laws was the last straw. Adams and Hancock, leaders of the Sons of Liberty, agitated for rebellion and encouraged the colonists to prepare themselves to defend their property against British incursion. In mid-April, 1775, British troops were sent to capture Adams and Hancock and secure ammunition stockpiled by the colonists. The Battles of Lexington and Concord ensued; the colonists’ militia –the minutemen, who were ready to fight with just a few minutes of warning— won against the British army. Britain responded by sending more troops to crush the rebellion.
Colonists divided themselves along Loyalists and Patriot lines –those loyal to the Crown and those who sought independence. Despite the fact that not all colonists were behind the rebellion, it was difficult to sustain an army across an ocean. The colonists, while not as well equipped as the British, had the home team advantage.
They were also buoyed by Common Sense, a 48-page pamphlet first printed in January 1776 by Thomas Paine. The little booklet condemned monarchy, heredity succession and pointed out that an island could not rule a continent. Paine advocated that it was time for the citizens of the colonies to claim their independence and rule. His treasonous but plain-style pamphlet spread like wildfire, inflaming the desire for independence.
In June 1776, as the Second Continental Congress deliberated the future of the American colonies, a committee of five was appointed to draft a statement explaining the cause of independence. The committee in turn asked Thomas Jefferson, a junior delegate from the newly proclaimed independent state of Virginia, to begin an initial draft. He worked on the document between June 11 and June 28 before presenting his text to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The three made 47 alterations to Jefferson’s original text, including the addition of three paragraphs before text was presented to the delegates who then read and studied the document and debated and discussed what it said and what it meant. On July 2, the delegates voted to declare independence from England and over the next two days they continued to edit the text, making 39 additional changes before voting on July 4 to adopt the final wording.
The text of the Declaration of Independence was set in type and printed on broadsheets so it could be distributed and read throughout the colonies. On July 6, the Pennsylvania Evening Post was the first newspaper to print the text, and the first public reading of the declaration was in Philadelphia on July 8.
Delegates to the Continental Congress did not begin to sign the engrossed parchment document that we think of as the Declaration of Independence until August 2, and even then not all of the 56 signers signed on that date. In fact, some of those who voted on the Declaration didn’t sign the final document. In January 1777, the first printed copies of the Declaration that included the signers’ names were distributed throughout the colonies.
Building a Nation
The Revolutionary War continued until the fall of 1783. Four years later, in 1787 the U.S. Constitution was written. It was ratified by 9 of the 13 colonies, the necessary amount of colonies for the Constitution to become law, on June 21, 1788. George Washington became our first president April 30, 1789. The last of the original colonies to ratify the Constitution was Rhode Island in 1790 and the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in December 1791, 15 years after the Declaration of Independence.
It is easy to have the protracted events of the American Revolution and the founding of our nation telescope into historical blur. The birth of our nation did not occur quickly or without passionate disagreements over many details. To celebrate the Fourth of July is to celebrate so much more than parades, picnics and fireworks. Certainly that is a part of it, but as John Adams predicted in his letter to Mrs. Adams—even though he had the date wrong— “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
God bless the United States of America on her 235th birthday.
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