y the middle of the 1700s,
the thirteen colonies that made up part of England’s empire in the “New World” were growing impatient with the laws and restrictions set by a king 3,000 miles away. They were resentful about taxes imposed upon them; they felt that they should not have to pay British taxes because they were not allowed representatives in Parliament. Their sentiments were expressed in the slogan “Taxation without representation is tyranny!”
Many colonists wanted to be selfgoverning and free from British rule.
But independence would be a gradual and painful process. Some colonists could not forget that they were British citizens, and felt that they owed allegiance to King George III.
Others wanted the protection of the “Mother Country.” Yet almost all colonists were dissatisfied with the way they were governed by Britain.
Unrest and tensions continued to grow, and by 1765 many colonists had joined secret groups called “Sons of Liberty” to plan action or even violence against British authority. This angered the king and he sent more troops to enforce British law. The colonists sometimes taunted the British soldiers or threw stones at them.
Finally, two major events strongly united the colonists against Britain, and hurried destiny. On March 5, 1770, British troops fired on an angry group of Boston citizens, kill
ing five and injuring others. The incident, called the “Boston Massacre,” stunned and infuriated the colonists.
The second major event involved a tax on tea. Tea was a popular commodity in the colonies, but England’s tax laws gave an unfair advantage to one tea merchant, the British-owned East India Company. This made the colonists angry, and they decided to stop buying and drinking tea from the East India Company. To dramatize the protest, Samuel Adams and other men of Boston organized the “Boston Tea Party.” On December 16, 1773, they dressed up as American Indians, boarded an East India Company ship and dumped its cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. King George responded by closing Boston Harbor and enacting more restrictions and punishments. In addition, he required citizens of Boston to house and feed British soldiers.
Representatives in the Virginia colony took the first step toward independence by voting to set up a committee, the Continental Congress, to represent the colonies. The First Continental Congress met in September of 1774 and had delegates from twelve colonies. They drew up a list of grievances against the crown, and this became the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. In the meantime, colonists continued to organize protests against Britain, and to train their own militias.
The Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, when British
troops tried to raid the Massachusetts militia. Colonists were quick to form fighting units and resist the British troops. In May of 1775 the Second Continental Congress met, and elected Virginia delegate George Washington to be Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. He led American troops against the British throughout the war. For the next eight years, colonists fought fervently for independence. They were not as well trained or well equipped as British troops, but they had other advantages: They had a fierce and united purpose; they fought on familiar terrain; and they used new tactics learned from the Native inhabitants. They often had no uniforms, but their clothing helped camouflage them in the forests, while the British soldiers, called “Red Coats,” were highly visible in their bright red uniforms.
During the fight for freedom, another war—a war of words—was being waged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress prepared a second draft of the
list of grievances. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign. The document, the Declaration of Independence, was considered treasonous by the crown, and the fifty-six men who signed it were in danger of being executed. Yet on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, officially breaking bonds with England and forming a new independent nation, the United States of America.
Independence Day is celebrated on July 4 because on that day independence from Britain was officially declared. On July 8, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time and people celebrated. Bells rang out, bands played, and ships fired their guns; people lit candles and set off firecrackers. But the War of Independence dragged on until 1783 when independence was finally won. That year, Independence Day was made a holiday in the thirteen new states. But not until 1941 was Independence Day officially declared a federal legal holiday.
John Adams, who became the Second President of the United States, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote to his wife, “I…believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival…. It ought to be [celebrated] with pomp and parades, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”
John Adams’ words may have predicted or inspired future Independence Day celebrations. Early Independence Day, or “Fourth of July,” celebrations did, indeed, include games and sports events, shows, military parades, fireworks, and the liberal firing of guns and cannons. But the firearms and fireworks caused many injuries, and even deaths. So in the early 1900s, citizens convinced officials to prohibit guns and to control the use of fireworks on Independence Day. The phrase, “a safe and sane Fourth” became a popular slogan, and is still used today to encourage safety and common sense on the Fourth of July. Today, many cities prohibit fireworks or allow only small items like cherry bombs and sparklers. Some cities organize a local fireworks show, run by trained pyrotechnics specialists.
Every Fourth of July Americans have a holiday from work or school. Communities and families have all-day picnics with favorite foods like hot dogs and hamburgers, potato salad, baked beans, pie, and watermelon. Afternoon activities would not be complete without lively music, a friendly baseball game, or Fris- bee toss, and maybe, a three-legged race, and a pie-eating or watermelon-eating contest. Some cities have parades with people dressed as the original “founding fathers” or early colonists, who march to the music of high school bands. At dusk, people gather to watch the city fireworks display. In many areas of the country, special events take place.
For example, a Freedom Festival is held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Costumed Americans often reenact historical scenes, and read the Declaration of Independence for the crowd. In Massachusetts, the ship U. S.S. John F.
Kennedy may come in to Boston
Harbor in full sail on the Fourth of July, and the Boston Pops Orchestra will play a musical concert of patriotic songs as hundreds of people watch fireworks burst over the water.