We did not actually declare independence from Mother England on the Fourth of July. What happened was, the Second Continental Congress approved a formal declaration on the Fourth of July, explaining the Lee Resolution adopted two days earlier, the Second of July, which actually declared the independence. Here's the story.
I. Hostilities Break Out.
When the Revolutionary War began in April 1775 in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, independence was a minority opinion, and not the goal of the fighting. Most here hoped to remain under the English Crown, and objected rather to the acts of Parliament re the colonies, who were not represented in Parliament. The Seven Years War had concluded twelve years earlier in Europe, with England and Prussia and other German states (there was no Germany in the modern sense) against France, Russia, Sweden, Austria, Saxony and later Spain.
Our French and Indian War was actually a part of the Seven Years War, and broke out in 1754, though the Seven Years War is dated from its European outbreak in 1756. It lasted another seven years, hence the name, until 1763, and Winston Churchill called it really the first world war, with hostilities happening not just in Europe or over just seven years, but in North America, India and West Africa in the combatants' colonies. England won, more or less; things didn't change much in Europe per se, but England emerged the world's dominant colonial power.
But it left Mother England in huge debt. To pay for the war debt, all kinds of taxes were enacted by Parliament, particularly to bring in revenue from the colonies. England saw it as the colonies' fair share of being fought for; the colonies thought that since they were not represented in Parliament that body had no right to tax them. England was stingy with currency in the colonies anyway, and many took to using the Spanish currency the dolar from La Florida, now a state but then a Spanish colony South of us, which is why we have "dollars" to this day.
The beef was with Parliament, not the Crown. Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and others, proposed something like what is now the British Commonwealth, preserving unity with the English Crown but leaving Parliament the legislative body for England only, elsewhere being under legislative bodies where they were represented. It was even hoped that the Crown would intervene with Parliament for the colonies.
II. Tom Paine and Common Sense.
But unfolding events did not go that way, and brought more and more over to the cause of independence even if remaining under the Crown would have been their preference. A major boost came on 10 January 1776, when Thomas Paine published a 48 page pamphlet called Common Sense. It was published anonymously, for obvious reasons, and royalties went to support General Washington's Continental Army. It was signed, By An Englishman, which he was, from Thetford, Norfolk. He emigrated on the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, and arrived in Philadelphia on 30 November 1774, too sick from the typhoid fever that plagued the ship to get off the boat without the assistance of Franklin's physician.
In making the case for independence, Paine intentionally avoided the Enlightenment style, which used much philosophy from ancient Greece and Rome, and wrote more like a sermon, using Biblical references to make his case, so as to be understood by everyone, not just the educated. Now don't go thinking he was some sort of Christian founding father. Paine had no use for Christianity, be it Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, or for any other religion either. In later works he specifically rejected claims about Jesus as Son of God and Saviour as fabulous, literally, fables, nothing more than reworked sun worship, and advocated Deism, "by which I then meant, and mean now, the belief of one God, and an imitation of his moral character, or the practice of what are called moral virtues".
"Then" and "now" refer to the first and second of the three separately written parts of his The Age of Reason; the quotation is from the second part. Paine and Common Sense though were not much on the minds of the Continental Congress, which was more concerned about how a declaration of independence would affect the war for it, and for that matter John Adams thought Common Sense "a crapulous mass", which we might express as a piece of, well you get the idea. Paine spent much time abroad, back in England, and eventually in France where he became part of the French Revolution too, but ran afoul of Robespierre, and was imprisoned 28 December 1793. He was scheduled to be guillotined, but the door to his cell was open to let a breeze in, and when his cell mates closed it the marking on the door faced inside. After the fall of Robespierre, 27 July 1794, he was released in November. He later became friendly with Napoleon, advising him on how to conquer England, but noting Napoleon's increasing dictatorship, although Napoleon though a gold statue of Paine should be in every city everywhere, Paine called Napoleon "the completest charlatan that ever existed".
He did not return to the US until 1802, at the invitation of President Jefferson. His support of the French Revolution then Napoleon, his disdain for religion of any kind, his antagonism to George Washington, and his distinctly un-Federalist views made him deeply unpopular. When he died, 8 June 1809 at 72 in Greenwich Village New York, his obituary, originally in The New York Citizen and reprinted throughout the country, said he "lived long, did some good and much harm" and only six people came to his funeral.
It went a little differently for our revolution. The Virginia Convention on 15 May 1776 instructed the Virginia delegated to the Continental Congress to propose to that body a declaration of independence. Richard Henry Lee, General Lee's great uncle, so proposed on 7 June 1776, hence the name Lee Resolution. It was seconded by John Adams of Massachusetts. Here is the text:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
Not all of the colonial conventions had so instructed their delegates to vote for independence, so support was rallied and debate put off. Meanwhile, a Committee of Five was formed to draft a formal declaration. The five were, John Adams (Massachusetts), Roger Sherman (Connecticut), Robert Livingston (New York), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Thomas Jefferson (Virginia). Jefferson was given the job of writing the draft by the other four, who reviewed it. The declaration was proposed to the Congress 28 June 1776.
Congress approved the Lee Resolution on 2 July 1776. It was not unanimous. New York abstained from the vote, as their colonial convention had given them no instructions, which assent came on 9 July. Then on 4 July the Declaration of Lee's Resolution was approved, adding Lee's Resolution at the end. However, the delegates did not all sign it right then, most of them signing 2 August 1776! But the image of everybody signing endured and even the elderly Jefferson and Adams remembered it so, though it wasn't. Although John Adams thought 2 July would be Independence Day, from the outset 4 July has been celebrated as Independence Day.
IV. The Declaration of Independence.
In my humble opinion, The Declaration of Independence, explaining passage of the Lee Resolution, is one of the towering accomplishments of the mind of Man. Consider its famous words:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
We now sometimes cynically say how could it be that someone who could also write words like "all men are created equal" also owned slaves. We have it backwards. When the concept of democracy arose, in ancient Greece, there was nothing about all men are created equal to it. Democracy was a function of the free class, those with the leisure to devote to becoming informed enough to participate in democracy; those who work do not have this leisure and cannot participate. Even by that great ancestor of our Constitution, the Magna Carta, in 1215, the first time ever that subjects forced concessions from a ruler and placed subject and ruler alike under law rather than the ruler's divine right to rule, there was nothing about all men are created equal to it. The subjects were themselves rulers, lower ranking nobility.
The wonder is not then that someone who wrote "all men are created equal" could also own slaves; the wonder is that someone who owned slaves as part of the warp and woof of his time and economy could also envision "all men are created equal". And no-one was more aware of the untenable tension between the two, and the untenable nature of slavery, than the man who wrote those words. It is no discredit to him that it would fall to later leaders to work out the implications he knew full well; it is to his credit that these words were even there for later leaders to work out.
And while we're noting things, we may also note that equality of all men is not just the way it is, or the way Man is. It says all men are created equal, which means there is a Creator, and that all men have rights not because it's just that way but because all men have been so endowed by their Creator with rights that therefore may not be taken away, and that it is the function of government to secure, not grant, these rights. The Creator is essential to this, and is the source of this, which role is not diminished by our freedom to understand the Creator as we, not a government, or a government's state church, will. No Creator, no equality.
V. The Celebration of Independence.
The next year, 4 July 1777 -- the war was still on, btw, that didn't end until 1783 -- Bristol, Rhode Island, which had refused to supply the English army and got bombarded for it, fired off 13 cannon, one for each colony, at dawn and sunset to commemorate the first anniversary of the Declaration. The next year the British had taken Bristol, but in 1785, independence secured, Bristol established the Bristol Fourth of July Parade, the longest running Independence Day commemoration in the US.
The country's largest Independence Day thing is Macy's Fireworks Spectacular, which began with the bicentennial year 1976. And cities throughout the country do much the same on a smaller scale, not to mention in streets and backyards all over.
Maybe old John Adams wasn't so far off. The Fourth of July is indeed itself Independence Day, and has survived the lunacy of Day and Day (Observed) of the Uniform Holidays Bill of 1968, changing four Federal holidays from what they are to Mondays to create a three day week-end, a spirit which has infected the church calendar in modern revisions too. But I guess a Fourth of July and a Fourth of July (Observed) is too absurd for even the modern mind.
But it is not at all uncommon in those years when the Fourth falls on a work-week day as we now know it, which was along time coming in 1776, for fireworks etc to be done on the nearest week-end.
And get this though -- on the third Fourth of July ever, in 1779, the Fourth fell on a Sunday, for which reason it was celebrated the next day, Monday. How about that -- the original Monday week-end was because of the Lord's Day, Sunday! Guess old Paine wasn't the main force here. At least then.
Judas H Priest, now if the Fourth falls on a Sunday we want Monday off, not because Sunday is a Lord's Day, a little Easter each week, but because we didn't get a three day week-end! Not to mention our churches making Saturday Sunday now too, so we can get church "out of the way", er, increase participation, as if most people don't get it out of the way by just not going, either day!
Sunday is still Sunday, and the Fourth of July is still the Fourth of July. After independence was declared on 2 July, the next day John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail the following, though he thought it would be for the Second of July, the day independence was actually declared, but regardless, it stands as an enduring statement of what our commemoration of independence is all about, and that ain't three-day week-ends:
"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 shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
Roger that. Happy Fourth Of July!
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