by Melissa Begley
Immediately following September 11, 2001, people talked about what to do with that date on the calendar. Folks talked about making it a national holiday and perhaps having the day off. Others strongly opposed this idea. Some said it was suffer the same fate as Memorial Day, or Veterans Day, or the Fourth of July. It would become just that: A day off. Perhaps a day to eat hot dogs and hamburgers. Or a day to determine whether or not one could start wearing white, or a day to shoot off fireworks.
My grasp on American History leaves much to be desired. As I got older and started to actually pay attention in history classes, and not just try to memorize dates and facts for exams, I realized there was actually some super cool stuff that went on. I always heard that quote about how if we do not study history, we are doomed to repeat it, but in the younger grades, I didn’t really grasp the gravity of this phrase. As an adult, some programs on the history channel intrigue me, but I’ve never seen anyone get as excited about history as the audiences of “Hamilton.” If only we could have a Broadway show for every important person and event from our nation’s history. Then we would all be extremely well versed in all that helped form our country.
So what is July 4th?
One’s memories of celebrating this day are clouded in fireworks and hot dogs and patriotic decorations and perhaps Old Navy flag-adorned T-shirts. Most learned about it as a kid, but the details may be hazy. The phrase “the birth of our nation,” comes to mind, but many are not exactly sure what it means.
Join in for a stroll down memory lane.
People in England, and other European countries, were looking for a better life and took a trip across the Atlantic to find it. They thought they were going to India, but found an unchartered land instead. Once there, they still were being ruled by a king across the ocean that did not treat them well, and they grew tired of it. The phrases No Taxation without Representation and Boston Tea Party are running through that head, aren’t they?
Here’s a quick synopsis: In the 1760’s, the colonists in America were being taxed at a high rate for tea and other goods such as stamps, sugar, paint, paper, glass, and lead, yet not being allowed a say in how they were governed in British Parliament. Groups of enraged citizens popped up. New Acts were being passed constantly to generate revenue for Britain who had accumulated much debt during the Seven Years’ War. Overtaxing the colonies seemed like a simple way to make some quick money, hence, the Stamp Act of 1765, The Townshend Acts of 1767, and The Tea Act of 1773. One group of angry colonists threw snowballs at British soldiers who were there to establish a presence and to enforce the Townshend Acts. When the soldiers retaliated, this became known as the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770).
The Boston Tea Party subsequently followed. A group of colonists dressed as Native Americans dropped what would today be a million dollars’ worth of tea into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. England followed up with the Intolerable Acts. In Great Britain, they were called the Coercive Acts or the Punitive Acts, and were put in place to help establish control of the colonies. They had the opposite effect and caused many to join the side of the rebellion. The meeting of the First Continental Congress was called in response to the Intolerable Acts.
In the Summer of 1776, delegates met in Philadelphia. They decided it was time to pursue liberty. Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion on June 7, 1776 called the Lee Resolution at a meeting of the Continental Congress. It contains the bare bones of the Declaration of Independence. It included the phrase “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved.”
Sounds pretty familiar.
While the delegates wanted Lee to pen the Declaration, extenuating circumstances prevent this from happening. Lee was already writing the Articles of Confederation and his wife had fallen ill. Instead, the Committee of Five was established. On June 1, the Committee of Five begins drafting a Declaration of Independence. The five are John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee chooses Jefferson to write the first draft.
On July 2, the Continental Congress formally adopts the Lee Resolution. John Adams felt that July 2 would be the day that would be “solemnized with Pomp and Parade with shows, games, sports, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”
He was a few days off.
On July 3, the Continental Congress begins drafting and editing the Declaration and makes 86 edits and cuts the length by a fourth. Many think that July 4th is the date that the Declaration of Independence was signed, but that’s not exactly it. July 4 is the day the Continental Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence and formalized what had already been decided on July 2. This date may have become the chosen celebration day because three of the nation’s our first five presidents died on this day: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.
After the wording of the Declaration has been agreed upon, Congress hired printer John Dunlap to print copies of the Declaration to be distributed throughout the colonies. The next day, Dunlap delivered 200 copies of what are now called “Dunlap Broadsides.” One copy was officially entered into the Congressional Journal and the other copies were distributed throughout the colonies. There are 25 of these known to be in existence today.
On August 2, fifty delegates signed the Declaration. These men voted in favor of independence and were in attendance that day. The final signature comes in November.
The significance of the Declaration of Independence is that the colonists switched from wanting to have rights as Englishman to wanting to break away from England’s rule entirely. The turmoil and distress the colonists felt changed what had started as a rebellion to a revolution.
And lastly, a little fun fact. There are many who are thought to be among the ranks of the founding fathers of the country, but there are four who never signed the declaration….and some may be surprising. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison never signed the document.
Washington was Commander of the Continental Army, and was defending New York City in July 1776. As instructed by John Hancock, Washington read the Declaration of Independence to the army on July 9.
Hamilton was with him and was only 19 years old when this was drafted, approved and signed.
Jay was a delegate to the Continental Congress (and would later become its president), but was recalled by his home state in May. Madison was just 25 years old when the Declaration was being signed, and a member of the Virginia state legislature. His longevity combined with his role as Father of the United States Constitution and as fourth president of the United States, caused people to believe he had inside knowledge of the events surrounding the Declaration of Independence, but there is no signature from him either.
Like all things in life, one can grow used to them. Many take for granted the freedoms for which various Americans have fought and died. It’s hard to imagine the guts it must have taken to dream of a better life- a life where a bunch of regular folks were in charge of the rest of the regular folks. After a time, a different regular guy would be in charge. But that’s just what happened.
On July 4, when posting photos to Instagram or Facebook of red, white, and blue outfits, or the perfect pasta salad, perhaps pause to think about what it means. Or talk about it with friends and kids.
I just poked around for about five minutes on the internet and found and ordered a three dollar booklet of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and all the other greatest hits of our country’s history. I’m going to share those with my loved ones on that day. Hopefully, in your own way, you can find a way to reflect upon the day that helped secure our nation’s independence.