We did not actually declare independence from Mother England on the Fourth of July. What happened was, on the Fourth of July the Second Continental Congress approved a formal declaration explaining the Lee Resolution adopted on the Second of July which actually declared the independence. Here's the story.
I. Hostilities Break Out.
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,
The objection. rather, was to the acts of Parliament re the
were not represented in Parliament, especially those exacting taxes.
OK, so why did Parliament want taxes from the colonies? The biggest
reason was to pay the huge war debt from The Seven Years War. That 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.
French and Indian War, which broke out in 1754, was actually a part
of the Seven Years War, though the Seven Years War is dated from its
European outbreak in 1756. It lasted another seven years until 1763,
name. Winston Churchill called it really the first
world war, because hostilities happened not just in Europe or over just
seven years, but in North America, India and West Africa in the
combatants' colonies as well.. England won, more or less; things
much in Europe per se, but England emerged the world's dominant
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; but 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.
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
II. Tom Paine and Common Sense.
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
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
"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. 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".
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.
went a little differently for our revolution. The Virginia
Convention on 15 May 1776 instructed the Virginia delegates 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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
We now sometimes cynically say how could it
be that someone who could write words like "all men are created
equal" could also own 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.
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
stated as 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 that's just the way it is, but because all men have been
endowed with certain rights by
their Creator. It is because those rights are the endowment of their
Creator that therefore they may not be taken away, which is also why
the function of government to secure, not grant, these
rights. The Creator is essential to this, and is the source of this,
and that role is not diminished by our freedom to understand the
as we, not a government, or a government's state church, will. No
Creator, no equality.
V. The Celebration of Independence.
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.
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!
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
"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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