How the Fourth of July Came About

Drama, heroes, fights for freedom and the defeat of tyranny. Sounds like makings a really good book or movie, doesn't it? Well, you can find all of that and much, much more in our story - the story of the United States. It's one we all should know about.

The Backdrop

For years, the King of Great Britain, George III, ruled the original 13 colonies with an iron fist. He made the colonists pay many different kinds of taxes - taxes the colonists had no way to oppose or approve because they had no voice in the British government. "Taxation without representation."

He encamped hundreds of armed British troops in the colonies and often forced the colonists to feed and house them. He controlled the court system. Many colonists were put on trial for all sorts of crimes "against the King," and they were almost always convicted and severely punished.

The Colonists Try To make It Work

The colonists' first formal government, called the First Continental Congress, tried to work out these and other differences with the King. Nothing worked, and the colonists became more and more uneasy and rebellious. Eventually, the King sent more soldiers to the colonies in case things worsened. And it did.

In 1775, British troops marched toward Concord, Massachusetts, and the colonists fought back. "To arms...the British are coming!" It was the Battle of Concord, and it began the American Revolution, with the "shot heard around the world."

Time To Govern Ourselves

The colonists continued their efforts to work things out with the King, and when that failed, delegates from each colony were sent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for the Second Continental Congress. This Congress took action.

In June of 1776, it formed a committee of five persons, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The committee was given the job of writing a document that would break the ties between the colonies and Great Britain. The committee came up with the Declaration of Independence.

One Powerful Document Tells the Tale

The Declaration of Independence announced to the King that the colonists of the "13 united states of America" (not the 13 colonies) had had enough. They didn't want to be ruled by Britain any longer.

It states many of the basic ideas that are the foundation of our form of government, and the ideas that we hold dear today: That all persons are created equal and have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And, of most importance, it declares that when a government fails to protect or respect those rights of the people, the people have the right to form a new government.

The Declaration is Approved

On July 2, 1776, the Declaration was presented to the Second Continental Congress for a vote. Two days later, on July 4th, after some debate and minor changes to the wording, it was approved by 9 of the 13 colonies and adopted by the Congress.

On July 8, 1776, the Declaration was read to the public in Philadelphia's Independence Square. It was a day of celebration; bands played music, and a large bell in Independence Hall, where the Declaration was signed and adopted, rang continuously while the Declaration was read. That bell was later named the "Liberty Bell."

The next year, on July 4th, the Congress took the day off and the city of Philadelphia celebrated with ringing bells, music, bonfires and ... fireworks. It didn't take long for other cities and towns to follow suit, and celebrations with picnics, music, and fireworks became common throughout the 13 states.

Congress established July Fourth, "Independence Day," as a holiday in 1870. In 1938, the US Congress made it a paid holiday for employees of the federal government.

Now You Know

We celebrate the 4th of July as the anniversary of the date the US declared its independence from Great Britain. It was the important first step, and well worth celebrating.

And, oddly, the party you're going to this July 4th won't be much different from the one in Philadelphia in 1777 and later years. There'll be food, music and fireworks, of course. While it's not likely that anyone will read the Declaration out loud while everyone enjoys the day with friends and family, you may want to take a moment during the day and think about that document and what it meant to the colonists back then, and what it means for us today.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I'm a direct descendent of Thomas Jefferson. Do I have any rights to a private viewing of the Declaration?
  • I read that my state, Pennsylvania, voted "no" to adopting the Declaration. Is there any way I can start a petition or something to have Pennsylvania added to the list of states that voted "yes?"
  • I have some letters and other papers that were written by Thomas Jefferson. I want to donate them to the national archive, but I want to make sure that they're displayed for the public, and if not, I'd like them returned to me. Can you help me with this? Also, is there any tax benefit for me if I make this donation?
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