The long history of the Fourth of July

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flag and fireworks

This country has holidays devoted to our war dead, the working man and women, veterans and presidents. No holiday, however, has a longer history than the Fourth of July — the birthday of the United States of America.

Slowly but surely, the way toward independence was paved after the passage of the Coercive Acts of 1774 and the meeting of the First Continental Congress.

In England, the government was dominated by a conservative element that insisted that the center of the empire was the mother country. In the colonies, the Whigs, patriots or radicals were gradually becoming more united.

It was but a question of time before the break would come. It did with the Prohibitory Act of December 1775; no imperial commercial trade with the rebellious colonies.

Common sense

While the colonies were denouncing the Prohibitory Act, there came from the printing press a pamphlet that was to fertilize the movement toward independence. Written in a style that the average colonist could easily understand, Common Sense drove home with fierce blows the necessity of independence.

Written by Thomas Paine, the 50-page booklet published in Philadelphia described reconciliation as only “an agreeable dream.” With a circulation of 120,000 in just three months, the tract crystallized the independence spirit.

On June 7, 1776, the Revolutionary statesman Richard Henry Lee, on behalf of the Virginia delegation, submitted a resolution stating that “these united colonies ought to be free and independent states … and that all political connections between them and Great Britain be totally dissolved.”

Three days later, the second Continental Congress voted to appoint a committee to prepare a declaration in support of Lee’s resolution. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston and Thomas Jefferson were the committee members.

Jefferson’s proclamation

The task of drafting the proclamation was entrusted to Jefferson. Before submitting his draft to the committee, Jefferson showed it to Adams and Franklin, who together made some 26 alterations, mostly verbal, but they did include three new paragraphs. The draft was viewed and approved by the whole committee and submitted to the Congress.

During the debates in Congress, further changes were made, the most important being the omission of the paragraph on the slave trade and rewording in the final segment.

In spite of these modifications, the famous document is essentially the penmanship of Jefferson. On July 2, 1776, Congress approved Lee’s resolution. This resolution is, strictly speaking, the official declaration of independence from Great Britain.

The work of Jefferson’s committee was approved after the Lee vote and was a document proclaiming to the world the reason for declaring independence.

Three major parts

Approved by Congress on July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence contained three major parts. One was a repetition of Lee’s resolution.

The second was the preamble, which stated the natural rights formulated by John Locke and other earlier philosophers. Among the most important were that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed … with certain inalienable Rights; … life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This statement was similar to the first article in the Virginia Bill of Rights, written by George Mason.

The third part contained the “facts” which caused the declaration to be issued. These consisted of some 28 grievances generally indicting King George III, head of the government from which the colonies were declaring their independence, for “repeated injuries and usurpations.” Little was new in the statements, except that the emphasis was shifted from Parliament to the King for the wrongdoings.

The Declaration of Independence was not signed immediately. The engrossed parchment was not ready until Aug. 2, 1776, and the formal signing then began. Because some members were absent from Congress that date, they were allowed to sign their signature later. The last of the 56 signatures was affixed in the summer of 1781.

Political effects

The pronouncement of independence had grave political effects on the new United States. It was a distinct triumph for the radicals, who had been largely responsible for bringing it about.

It was a terrible blow to the conservatives or Tories. They felt they must remain loyal to King and country, but by so doing, they became traitors and enemies in the eyes of their neighbors.

For the moderate element, reconciliation with England no longer existed. Some of them tried to remain on the fence, supporting the U.S. troops when they were near and England in the presence of British troops. The majority of moderates drifted to the cause of independence during the American Revolution.

Milestone

The Declaration of Independence is one of the great milestones in the history of man. It served a purpose beyond that of a public notice of separation. The ideas in the document inspired mass fervor for the American course by asserting the rights and worth of man.

By simplifying the issues of the conflict, the Declaration made the revolution a personal contest for the common man to fight the odious features of European despotism which so many had fled from in earlier years.

By giving the common man a personal stake in his government, the ideas of the Declaration brought the revolution within the range of popular aspiration and strengthened it with the force of popular emotion.

John Adams, member of the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and second president of the U.S., was so fired with zeal for independence, that on the evening of July 4, 1776, he wrote a letter to his beloved wife Abigail.

In jubilation, he scribbled that the event “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, forevermore.”

In Adams’ last year in Congress, 1777, he presented the resolution establishing the U.S. flag with 13 red and white stripes and a union of 13 stars on a blue field representing each state.

Adams and Jefferson in retirement corresponded with each other, and on his deathbed, Adams’ last words were of his old friend: “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

But by an extraordinary quirk of fate, Jefferson died the same day, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence for which they had both struggled so hard. That’s your history!

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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.

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