July 4th History

The history of America is rich with stories of settlers, battles, expansion and innovation. However, one fundamental principle that forged our history is our desire for self-governance. We celebrate our independence on July 4th but many don”t realize what sacrifices were made to gain the liberties we enjoy today.

Settlers first began to arrive from Europe in the early 17th century, founding Jamestown in 1607. Religious and political oppression led many people to American shores. The opportunities available in the new land or the chance to flee a criminal past spurred Europeans into buying passage on one of the small ships that made the dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Religious oppression led some British citizens to go to Holland, where they were tolerated but allowed to do only menial work. Eventually some of those people boarded the Mayflower and sailed to Massachusetts.

After they landed, the Mayflower passengers, believing themselves to be out of reach of any formal government, created their own charter called the Mayflower Compact. Part of the Compact indicates that their goal was to “enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the General Good of the Colony; until which we promise all due submission and obedience.” While they still considered themselves subjects of King James, they wanted to create a form of government to maintain order.

The History of Taxes

Over the next 150 years, men and women continued to come to America from around the world. It was customary for the King of England to dispense land grants as favors. Companies were formed in which individuals could own stock in whatever commodity the company owned, be it land, goods or services. It was common for the company to enforce the laws of the government of England. The King or the head of the company selected men to be governors of the territories owned by the company.

Eventually, the costs of defending the colonies from the French and the Indians became too high for the King. The British Parliament decided that rather than continually going to the English people for money, which was always an unpopular move, the colonists themselves would be taxed. Although the colonists often taxed themselves, they vehemently opposed the idea of Britain imposing “taxation without representation.”

The Sugar Tax of 1764 taxed not only sugar imported to America, but also coffee, silk and wine. The Currency Act, prohibiting the colonies from printing currency, and the Quartering Act, requiring colonists to house British soldiers, put additional burdens on the colonists.

Finally, the Stamp Act incited an uprising. The Stamp Act levied a tax on printed material including newspapers, pamphlets, leases and legal documents. This tax created an enormous burden, especially on lawyers, merchants and businessmen. They rose up against this tax with violent resistance, breaking into customs offices and destroying the stamps. After the uprising, no one would take the job of customs inspector to levy the tax.

The Continental Congress: A Step Toward Independence

The First Continental Congress sent a list of grievances to King George III. The King did not respond to the grievances. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress was formed. Richard Lee of Virginia drafted another letter to the King. His resolution began, “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States.” In addition, the Second Continental Congress created an army, a national currency and a post office.

King George did respond to these actions by declaring that his American subjects were engaged in rebellion. Events progressed quickly, as England sought German mercenaries to fight against the Americans, and the Americans began to outfit their ships with weapons for protection against their enemies.

Common Sense: A Precursor to the Declaration of Independence

While not all colonists were in favor of severing ties with England, the King”s continued taxations and threats of war against America convinced many that separation was their only option. In January of 1776, Thomas Paine published his pamphlet “Common Sense,” in which he outlined his reasons for separating from England. “Common Sense” was both an indictment of the monarchy and a call to independence from it. A precursor to the Declaration of Independence, “Common Sense” galvanized the colonists to stand firmly against their English oppressors.

The Declaration of Independence

In June of 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed five men to draft a document that would explain their grievances and their actions to the world. Those men were John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson wrote the initial draft, Adams and Franklin subsequently made over 80 changes. On July 4th, 1776, the Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Although the Congress had stipulated that every member sign the Declaration and most had signed by August, not all did. For example, Robert Livingston, who was one of the original Committee of Five, and John Dickson, refused to sign, hoping that there would still be reconciliation with England.

Celebrate the Fourth of July

July 4th was declared a federal holiday in 1870. Every state celebrates July 4th with parades or picnics. Fireworks are synchronized to music broadcast over radio stations. It”s a day of celebration and pride for the United States. It also commemorates the courage of colonists who decided that self-governance was a risk worth taking.

Coincidentally, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4th 1876, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.