A brief history of Independence Day.

July 4, 2014

“We 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.”
– The Declaration of Independence.

Alongside being the day that I make my American friends take to Skype to recite the Pledge, July 4th is one of the most recognisable dates in history, with what appears to be a straight forward narrative. The day the colonies declared independence from Great Britain, with a finely crafted and beautifully worded document owing to the genius of Thomas Jefferson, and enshrining the liberty of all in one meaningful sentence. Those months between January and July 4th 1776 are both intriguing and surprising. Intriguing, for the political wrangling that took place, and surprising, in that July 4th wasn’t the date that independence was declared at all.

It was late in December 1775 that Parliament pushed the colonies one step further on the path to independence, by prohibiting trade with the new world. Until then, most colonial leaders had hoped that reconciliation would be achievable by the end of 1776. The prohibition on trade, turned the tide entirely, and by July 1776 there existed 90 localised independence movements throughout the colonies, with instructions given to their delegation in the Continental Congress to declare independence. The first to take note of this growing voice for independence (largely taking root since the January publication of Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’) was the ever revolutionary Virginia convention, who on May 15th in Williamsburg declared:

“…the Delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this colony to such a declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming foreign alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies.”

– Having received this instruction, Richard Lee of Virginia proposed independence to the Congress on June 7th. It was a revolutionary act, and one that wasn’t going to be easy to proceed with. It was the first official call to the colonies to gather and declare independence. Indeed, Congress agreed to halt a vote on independence whilst delegations from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New York, and New Jersey traveled back to their colonial assemblies to gather support for independence. It was going to be a tough sell, given that Pennsylvania had elected a new assembly that was not in support of independence.

John Dickinson; a delegate from Delaware refused to support independence when the vote came up on July 1st. He believed that the states should complete a Constitutional framework first, secure foreign aid second, and only then should independence be declared. His refusal to vote left Delaware in deadlock between Thomas McKean – favouring independence – and George Read – favouring reconciliation for Britain. Hearing there was deadlock, Caesar Rodney – also from Delaware – incredibly raced 70 miles through the night and through a thunderstorm to arrive at the State House in Philadelphia to add his vote to McKean’s and thus add Delaware to the list of those voting Yes on independence. Anti-independence sentiment in Delaware was strong enough to disapprove of Rodney’s actions, to the point in which he lost his seat for Kent County for the new Delaware General Assembly. But on July 2nd 1776, it set off a chain of events that would go down in history.

Now that Delaware had joined with the voices of independence, South Carolina soon followed on the same day. John Dicksinson of Delaware was also a delegate for Pennsylvania, and his abstention along with fellow Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris, meant that Pennsylvania now voted 3-2 in favour of independence. New York abstained (though finally announced their support for independence on July 15th). Independence had now been declared by 12 of the 13 colonies, on July 2nd 1776. The Pennsylvania Gazette the next morning, on July 3rd 1776 wrote:


– Indeed, John Adams was so excited by the declaration, that he wrote to his wife Abigail, that July 2nd would forever live in the memory of America as the day independence was declared:

“The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. 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.”

– Two days later, on July 4th, the wording of the Declaration – originally penned by Thomas Jefferson in June, and subject to several revisions and amendments – was approved and sent to publication. Contrary to our imagined scene in which all the delegates sign the Declaration together in Philadelphia on July 4th, the document wasn’t signed by the delegates until August 2nd. The date of July 4th was preserved in history, because it appears on the final draft of the declaration, rather than the date that independence was actually declared, which was July 2nd. Further, the first independence day celebration, was July 8th 1776, when Philadelphia threw a parade and street party for the new independent colonies.

The scenes of mass jubilation and celebration were not present in the early years after independence. It was only with the new Democratic Party and the Whig Party, following the decline of the Federalist Party (not too keen on the wording of the Declaration), that July 4th started to become a big national day of celebration, largely due to renewed interest in Thomas Jefferson. Both the Whigs and The Democrats – having split from the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans – based themselves to some degree on Jefferson’s ideas. Both of the new main parties promoted July 4th as a day to celebrate, as homage to a man they considered their own. It’s also perhaps worth noting that July 4th took on an even greater degree of importance, when both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams – the second and third Presidents – died on the same day, in the same year, fifty years after the approval of the Declaration that they both helped to draw up… on July 4th 1826.

Happy July 4th, to all of my American readers!