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Declaration of Independence

Overview of Independence Day

Independence Day is the celebration of the independence of the American colonists from England.  This occurred on July 4th, 1776 when the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.   In a sense, this is like the birthday of the United States, and its party is celebrated by Americans every year on its birth date.


Origin of Independence Day

European countries began exploring the “New World” in the 16th century and two settlements had been established prior to 1600.  By 1732, the British had thirteen colonies established in modern day America.  Before there was a United States, there were these thirteen colonies that were under the rule of the British Empire.  Their laws were dictated by King George III, thousands away sitting on his throne 3000  miles away in England.  The English made it hard for the colonists and would tax them without giving them any representation in the British Parliament.  For instance, after an Indian tea company (then part of the British Empire) began losing money, England placed a tax on tea within the colonies.  Samuel Adams and a number of other “rebels” dressed up as Indians and went down to Boston Harbor where a number of ships were transporting tea.  The group threw the tea into Boston Harbor and this act has since been called the Boston Tea Party.  King George sent armed troops into Boston and after the crowd became unruly, the British shot into the crowd and killed a few of the protesters. This made people upset, and began to tie people from all the colonies together with the ideological battle cry of “No taxation without representation.”  This unrest brought about the notion of creating their own separate nation.  The thirteen colonies sent representatives to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1774 to discuss the issues of how to deal with the British and if succession would be necessary.


The representatives could not agree on a plan of action and decided to hold anything drastic, such as going to war.  However, several states began to prepare for war if that became a reality.  Meetings took place to discuss potential war scenarios, articles were written in newspapers and journals, and civil dissent became commonplace.  Then on April 19, 1775, the rebellion became bloody when British troops clashed with Massachusetts Minutemen the morning after Paul Revere made his famous midnight ride [see Patriot’s Day for more information].


In May of 1775, after hearing of this bloody clash, the colonies sent representatives once again to Philadelphia for the convening of the Second Continental Congress.   The representatives once again did not want to do anything hasty and it was not for another year until they finally drafted a Declaration of Independence that stated that the American Colonies no longer wanted to be a part of the British Empire and wanted to be their own separate country.


On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee (of Virginia) introduced this resolution.  Three days later a committee was created for this purpose. The Declaration drafting committee was headed by Thomas Jefferson and its other distinguished members included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman). The Continental Congress did not accept the committee’s first draft, but after many changes, it eventually voted on a final version on July 4th of 1776 [note: the resolution for its adaptation was approved on July 2nd].  Although this version was passed by a two-thirds vote, it was not unanimous.  Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against it, Delaware was undecided and New York abstained from the vote (but eventually voted for it on July 9th). Click here for the full text of the Declaration of Independence.


The delegates began to sign their names to the document the following month - a sign of bravery, since it was like signing their own death warrants once it was made public to the English government.  John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress signed his name first and especially large so that King George could read his name without wearing eyeglasses. [Note: The actual signing of the document took several years and the last signature by Thomas McKean was written in 1781.]

 History of the July 4th (Independence Day) Celebration


The signing of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated since 1776.  The Declaration was published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6th, then public readings were made within the next few days.  One of the more famous of these readings occurred twice on July 8th in Philadelphia’s Independence Square where people shouted, celebrated and bells were rung – including the Liberty Bell (then known as the Province Bell).


Independence Day became an “official” holiday in the United States in 1783, the year that the Revolutionary War ended.  In 1941, the U.S. Congress officially declared July 4th of each year as a federal holiday.


Each year afterwards, even during the Revolutionary war itself, the day was celebrated for our American pride and remembrance of the ideals of our country was created upon.

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Last modified: March 20, 2012

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