The Fourth of July is a big holiday. There will be 160 million people cooking out; we will consume more than 155 million hot dogs. More than $650 million will be spent on personal fire works with another $318 million spent on professional shows.
So, what are we celebrating on the Fourth of July? You’ve probably seen the videos of people unable to answer that question. An acceptable answer would be, “It’s our nation’s birthday” or “It’s Independence Day.”
How did our Independence Day come about? Given the conflicting backgrounds, ideologies, and aspirations of the people inhabiting the Thirteen Colonies of America in contrast to those of the Mother Country, there was destined to be an irrepressible conflict between the two in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
Since the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the colonists had gotten used to a system of self-government. Great Britain had followed the companion policies of the establishment of representative institutions in the colonies and benign neglect. After 1680, the elected assemblies won the right to initiate all legislation that governed the colonies. They controlled the purse strings, including determining the pay for judges and government office holders.
Britain embraced an economic system called mercantilism (sort of a mixture of fascism and crony capitalism of today). It had long been accepted that they had the right to impose restrictions on trade and manufacturing. But, the revenue from the tariffs hardly covered the costs of administrating them; and most of them were pretty much dead letters because of pervasive smuggling.
It generally was accepted, even by the British, that Parliament could not tax the colonists for revenue.
The irony is that the precipitating event which brought about the separation of the American colonies from Great Britain was the culmination of their partnership in an enterprise that seemed to be a huge benefit to both: their shared victory in the French and Indian War (1754-63).
Among other things, as a result of their victory, Britain was given Canada and the area between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
The downside was that Britain had run up a tremendous debt fighting the war (it was called the Seven Years’ War in Europe) and they needed to station 10,000 troops in garrisons in their newly won territory to guard against a French or Spanish invasion and depredations by Indians against the settlers. Because the colonies would benefit from these actions, Britain did not think it unreasonable for the Americans to absorb some of the costs involved.
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However, the idea of a standing army was anathema to Americans; and they only were willing to pay taxes that their own elected representatives had passed.
The vast majority of political thinkers among the colonists embraced the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704). They believed that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed; and that men naturally possess certain rights, the chief among them being life, liberty, and property.
As for the attitude toward Britain, the colonists generally fell into three categories. There were those who supported the British Government in all they did (the Tories); those who wanted reconciliation with Britain (the conservatives); and those who wanted the rights of Englishmen (the radicals). Subsequent events gradually would cause most of the members of the latter two groups to realize that reconciliation was impossible and that rebellion was unavoidable.
Desperate for money to defray its debt, in 1765, Parliament passed the Stamp Act. A tax was imposed on every piece of printed paper the colonists used: documents, licenses, newspapers – even playing cards. The tax impacted most severely the lawyers and merchants, until now the most reliable supporters of the British Government.
The widespread reaction was the beginning of the revolutionary movement in the American colonies. In May 1765, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed five resolutions made by Patrick Henry that declared that America possessed all the rights of Englishmen; that the principle of no taxation without representation was an essential part of the British Constitution; and that Virginia alone enjoyed the right to tax Virginians.
Riots occurred in August. Tax collectors were run out of their homes and had to seek refuge in military garrisons. Clubs of patriots, calling themselves “Sons of Liberty”, organized across the colonies. A Stamp Act Congress was convened in New York in October 1765. If the Stamp Act had not been repealed, a revolution would have started a decade before it did.
Things settled down for a while until Parliament passed the Townshend duties in 1767, putting duties on tea, colors, glass, and paper that should be used “for defraying the charge of administration of justice, and the support of civil government” in the colonies.
By the time the duties were supposed to go into effect, the colonies had organized a boycott of British products. The boycott failed, but Parliament repealed all the duties except that on tea. In response, the colonists switched to coffee or drank smuggled Dutch tea.
There was another lull for a couple of years, then Parliament passed the Tea Act of 1773. Its purpose was to bail out the East India Company which was on the brink of bankruptcy. It kept the three pence tax on imported tea. But, because it allowed tea to by-pass the British middlemen, it actually was cheaper than smuggled tea.
Parliament misjudged the Americans. Their assumption was that the Americans would disregard the tax and welcome the cheap tea, but, they stuck by the principle of “no taxation without representation” and agreed to boycott the cheap—but, taxed tea. In the port cities, the tax resisters desired to keep the tea from being disembarked so the duties would not be collected.
The Boston Tea Party was held on December 16, 1773. A group of patriots dressed as Indians went aboard the ship, “Dartmouth”, and dumped all the tea overboard. Actually, there were other tea parties, for example, in Charleston and Yorktown. In Annapolis, the brig, “Peggy Stewart” was burned, destroying over a ton of tea.
In London, the British Government was incensed. In retribution, Parliament passed the Port Act which closed the port of Boston until the East India Company was compensated for its lost tea. The day the Port Act became effective, July 1, 1774, there were riots throughout the colonies. At the urging of supporters in New York, a Continental Congress was convened. The tipping point had been reached.
On both sides of the Atlantic things escalated. Parliament passed a series of “Coercive Acts” (Americans called them the “Intolerable Acts”). Parliament unilaterally changed the charter of Massachusetts. The Quartering Act required the citizens of Boston to open their homes to British soldiers. Most galling to the colonists was The Quebec Act which annexed the area between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, later known as the Northwest Territory, to the Province of Quebec.
In October 1774, Congress passed the Nonimportation Agreement providing that Americans boycott all British products. British troops moved into Boston. Units of Minutemen were formed; military stores accumulated; committees of observation appointed to monitor the British troops in Boston.
At the Second Virginia Convention, meeting at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Patrick Henry, who had earlier been elected a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, on March 23, 1775, declared:
“…The question before the house is one of awful moment to this country.
For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom
or slavery… Gentlemen may cry, peace, peace—but there is no peace. The
war is actually begun. The next gale that sweeps from the North will bring
to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the
field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would
they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price
of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others
may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
Less than a month later, on April 19, 1775, the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington followed by more fighting at Concord. For those who still wanted reconciliation or peace, events were spinning out of control. Opinions changed over-night. Militias assembled in Boston to lay siege to the British hold up there. Militia troops under Ethan Allen captured Fort Ticonderoga on May 10.
In Philadelphia, on June 14, Congress created the American army. The next day, they unanimously elected George Washington to be its Commander-in-Chief. On June 17, the British moved against the New England troops who had occupied Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. They won the battle but paid a terrible price and were still under siege in Boston.
On October 26, 1775, King George lll addressed the opening of Parliament by declaring that America was in rebellion. Lord Dunmore, the king’s governor of Virginia, who had evacuated Williamsburg, had naval forces destroy Norfolk on January 1, 1776. Thomas Paine published “Common Sense” in January calling for a declaration of independence.
The hiring of foreign mercenaries by Britain was the last straw for many Americans. In April 1776, American ports were declared open to the ships of all nations except Britain. On May 10, 1776 Congress advised the colonies to establish governments whose authority was derived from the people rather than the king.
On May 15, the Virginia Convention unanimously instructed its delegates to Congress to vote for independence. Thus, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in Philadelphia, to the effect that the “united Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free, and independent States”, and that foreign alliances and a plan of confederation ought to be established.
A vote was postponed until July 1 so some delegates could consult with their states on how to vote. An overwhelming majority of delegates voted for independence on July 2. A committee led by Thomas Jefferson was appointed to compose it and on July 4 the Declaration was approved.
“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one
people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them
with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the
separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s
God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires
that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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. That to
secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving
their just powers from the consent of the governed….”
But, that was not the end of the matter. As its title implies, it was a declaration, not a statement of fact. The armies and militias of the colonies would have to fight another five years before they won their independence, and wait another two years for the Treaty of Paris of 1783 to fix the terms of separation between the new nation and the Mother Country.
Less than three months after the declaration of independence, Washington was driven out of New York and across New Jersey. Christmas, 1776 was a low ebb for the American troops. With one week to go before the enlistments of most of his troops, Washington crossed the Delaware River and routed the Hessian troops at Trenton.
The winter quarters at Valley Forge and Morristown, New Jersey were terrible. A major turning point in the war was the surrender of British General Burgoyne and his force of 5,000 to General Horatio Gates on October 17, 1777. It was not only a great strategic gain for the Americans because it kept the British from splitting the colonies, but it convinced France to enter the war on the side of the Americans.
Washington bided his time in White Plains, New York, waiting for an opening to mass his forces with those of the French. His opportunity came in the fall of 1781. After a campaign from South Carolina through North Carolina, General Cornwallis limped into Yorktown. Washington rushed south with a force of 8,000 men, half of whom were French regulars. The French fleet arrived at the end of August and landed another 3,000 troops.
There was no remedy from the sea for Cornwallis because the French fleet controlled the bay. On October 19, 1781 Cornwallis surrendered his entire force of 6,000 to Washington. At the time of the surrender, the American forces surrounding Cornwallis numbered 16,000. Of these, 7,000 were French, 5,500 were Continental Army, and 3,500 were Virginia Militia.
- Fred Wheeler