Happy Birthday, America! Today, the United States of America is 238 years old. When we think back to the times of the Revolutionary War against Great Britain, all we know is what was written in the history books we all had to study while still in school. Some of us have taken the time to read more about it, but it still reads like what it basically is – history. We read about the Boston Massacre in March 1770, the battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts in April 1775. A month later, in June, the battle of Bunker Hill took place, although it actually happened on nearby Breed’s Hill…
But I don’t need to outline a complete history of the American Revolution. Suffice it to say hostilities had already broken out by the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. What had started out in previous years as basically a protest against the Crown because of the unfair taxation of goods without representation in the British Parliament had evolved into a general revolt against the sovereignty of the Crown. The colonies were in a full-fledged war by the time the Second Continental Congress met on June 11, 1776 and formed a committee to draft a document that would formally sever ties with Great Britain. That committee included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, among others. Jefferson was considered the most eloquent writer among them, and was given the task of drafting the document. Below is an early rough draft of what would shortly become the document we’re all familiar with:
Over the next month, 86 changes were made to the original draft, and on July 2, the Continental Congress met and gave a final vote in favor of complete independence from British rule. Two days later, on July 4, the Congress officially adopted the final version of the Declaration. John Hancock signed it that day; the others signed it on August 2.
Copies of the Declaration began to be distributed on July 5, and the following day, The Pennsylvania Evening Post was the first newspaper to print it. On July 8, there was a public reading in Philadelphia’s Independence Square, and what we now call the Liberty Bell was rung.
As a matter of interest, three presidents have died on Independence Day. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826 – the 50th anniversary of the Declaration. James Monroe died on July 4, 1831.
Independence Day was declared a holiday in 1870, and Congress declared it a paid holiday for federal employees in 1941, although some sources report this as having happened in 1938.
I mentioned at the start of this article that this all reads like the history it is, but it wasn’t history to those who lived it. It was current events. They didn’t know what was going to happen from day to day. They didn’t know if they were going to win this war or not. And although we can read the entire history of the American Revolution – even a long one – in a couple of days, to these men it took place over a period of years. The troubles were slow in building, and there were five long years that went by from the time the Boston Massacre happened until the battles at Lexington and Concord. There were six more years of all-out war until General Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown in October 1781. Not everything happened in an afternoon, as it does when we read it. There were undoubtedly long stretches of little or no news, and perhaps even boredom, but they were punctuated by times in which all hell seemed to break loose. It couldn’t have been an easy time to live through with the uncertainty of what was to happen. The British had the most efficient and best trained army in the world, and at times, the situation must have looked quite bleak to the colonists in general and the leaders of this movement for independence in particular.
By contrast, many politicians now worry too much over whether the things they do will help or hurt their chance of reelection, but the men who signed the Declaration didn’t care at all about getting elected to anything; they were more worried about swinging at the end of a rope if they were ever captured, like Nathan Hale did when he was executed by the British at the young age of 21.
We can’t go back and relive those times, nor would we want to. We can read about them, and I think it’s a good idea if we do just so we don’t forget what happened and the dangers those men placed themselves in to start our new nation. But instead, let’s all welcome the 4th of July – Independence Day, and let’s all enjoy a good cookout or barbecue with our family and friends. I always take a few minutes to read the Declaration each 4th of July so I stay familiar with it, but that’s just my tradition; it may not be yours. Just for a moment today, though, whatever you happen to be drinking, would you please raise your glass to not only the Founding Fathers, but to all who fought in the American Revolution to give us the fine nation we have now? If you will, I’ll join you and not only toast them, but you too. Especially you. Happy 4th, everyone!