History and Meaning of Independence Day

What is the origin of America’s Independence Day?
Why is Independence Day celebrated on the Fourth of July?
What does Independence Day mean to Americans today?

The answers to these questions about America’s Birthday are discussed in this article and illustrated with old images and vintage postcards.

Sections:



Summary of the Origin of Independence Day

America’s Independence Day, commonly referred to as the Fourth of July, is a national holiday in the United States of America commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is officially regarded as the “birthday” of the United States.

The Declaration of Independence was drafted in 1776 after the Thirteen British Colonies in America felt that they had suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations” including “taxation without representation.”

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American Colonial Grievances

“Reading the Riot Act”

Reading the Riot Act

There is an old saying in the Appalachian Mountains region of American that I heard my parents and grandparents say that actually comes from this time period of British military rule. If a child was misbehaving, the reprimanding parent would say something like, “If you don’t listen to me, I’ll read you the riot act.” Today it generally means “to reprimand sternly or seriously.”

The Riot Act was enacted by the British Parliament in 1714 and declared “Any group of more than twelve people to be unlawfully assembled, and thus have to disperse or face punitive action.” In the time of British military rule in America, this was enforced at times by firing squad. The rioters were lined up and shot! This is just one of many old phrases used in certain parts of American that we repeat, generation after generation, sometimes without knowing the roots of the saying.

“Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny!”

This phrase became popular in Boston by 1765 after nearly a hundred years of increasing taxes on the American Colonies. It is still repeated today as an important American value.

1660 — Tariffs levied on both imports and exports in the American Colonies.
1764 — Sugar Act & Currency Act applied taxes to both.
1765 — Stamp Act required all paper products (newspapers, letters, announcements, even playing cards) bear pre-paid tax stamps.
1767 — Townshend Act taxed paper, glass and tea.

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Declaration of Independence

In the summer of 1776, the leaders of the 13 colonies met together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the Second Continental Congress. This home-grown congress drafted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, announcing that the 13 colonies were at war with Great Britain.

This Declaration of Independence was a formal document explaining why the colonists voted to go to war with Britain. In it, the beginnings and basic tenants of the freedoms granted by the United States of American to all its citizens were initially outlined.

From the Declaration of Independence:

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, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Enhanced image of the Declaration of Independence

Signers of the Declaration of Independence:

Only one copy of the Declaration was ever signed by the delegates.

Signature of John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence.

John Hancock, signed he Declaration of Independence first because he served as President of the Second Constitutional Convention. His signature was so bold that the name John Hancock has become synonymous with “signature.”

The rest of the delegates signed according to the geography of the states. The order was north to south, so the delegates from New Hampshire (the northern most state) signed first and the delegates from Georgia signed last.

However, many people think that the Georgia delegates signed first because their state signature group is at the top left of the signature area. The reason for this is that the custom of signing documents was to sign on the right side. So the delegates started signing the document at the top right corner of the signature area and worked their way down columns and then left to new columns.

The Signatories of the Declaration of Independence, listed by state, are as follows:

President of Congress
John Hancock

New Hampshire
Josiah Bartlett
William Whipple
Mathew Thornton (out of order)

Massachusetts
John Hancock
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery

Connecticut
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott

New York
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris

New Jersey
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark

Pennsylvania
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross

Delaware
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean

Maryland
Samuel Chase
William Paca
Thomas Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Jefferson
Benjamin Harrison
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton

North Carolina
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn

South Carolina
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton

Georgia
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton

Current Condition of the Declaration of Independence

Unfortunately, the Declaration was treated rather harshly over its 230 year life and today is extremely faded. The lower half of the document is very faded and the signatures are nearly impossible to see with the naked eye.

In order to keep the Declaration safe during the Revolutionary War, it was kept with the Continental Congress, which traveled through the states avoiding the battles. At this time it was kept folded and may have been repeatedly opened and re-folded. This left fairly severe creases.

An attempt to preserve the Declaration of Independence in 1820 by copying it resulted in a great deal of further damage. The copying process was called a “Wet-Ink Transfer.” As the name suggests, the process involved making direct copies by wetting the original and essentially peeling some ink from it onto a copper transfer plate.

It was shortly after this that an engraver, Mr. Stone, spent three years making and extremely exact engraving from which all further copies could be made.

After the end of the Revolutionary War the Declaration of Independence stayed mostly at the capitol. Its only major move was after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when it was sent to Fort Knox for the remainder of WWII.

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What Happened to the Signers of the Declaration of Independence?

Have you ever wondered what happened to the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence?

  • Five signers were captured by the British as traitors,and tortured before they died.
  • Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.
  • Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured.
  • Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships of the Revolutionary War.

They signed and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

What kind of men were they?

Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners; men of means, well educated, but they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.

  • Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags.
  • Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.
  • Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery, Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.
  • At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr., noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.
  • Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months.
  • John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished.

So, take a few minutes while enjoying your 4th of July holiday and silently thank these patriots. It’s not much to ask for the price they paid.

Remember: freedom is never free!

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Independence Day Traditions

Fourth of July Celebration at the Washington Monument
Fourth of July Celebration in Washington D.C. as shown behind the Washington Monument

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What Does the Declaration of Independence Mean to us Today?

It is important for every citizen, whether newly arrived to America, or born of generations here, to understand the significance of the words in, and the entirety of, The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. For if we don’t understand what this country was built on and the reasons for these ideas and laws, we are in danger of losing the freedoms we take for granted.

Today, many Americans are holding “Tea Parties” across the United States. These Tea Parties are a peaceful way of protesting what many feel are exorbitant spending and taxation currently taking place in America. It seems a growing number of citizens feel that they too, today, are being taxed without representation as our Senators and Congressmen pass through spending bill after spending bill without even reading them, leaving our children and grandchildren a burden of paying high taxes to support this unchecked spending spree of the government.

The Tea Parties are a reference to the original Boston Tea Party held on December 16, 1773. Bostonians dressed as Indians, quietly rowed out to ships holding tea destined for Europe, and dumped the cargo into the Boston harbor. This was an act of defiance against the taxation on tea, a major product of the colonies to Britain and Europe.

The Tea Parties held since 2009 across America are peaceful demonstrations, as allowed by our constitution, protesting current spending bills and taxation changes. Today, in the U.S., we do NOT have a Riot Act, but rather have a freedom to peacefully congregate to proclaim ideas. This is one of the great things about our country, though all of us may not agree, we can agree to disagree peacefully.

The initial Constitution was drawn so that the States were the governing bodies and the Federal government handled such things as the States decided, for instance a federal military. Always since then, there has been a swing every generation or so back and forth from more central or federal power to smaller government and more power in the states. This seems to be an ongoing disagreement between peoples in this country. A good set of books to read on this subject are, America: The Last Best Hope (Volume I): From the Age of Discovery to a World at War and America: The Last Best Hope (Volume II): From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom) both by William J. Bennett. These are two of the best and most concise volumes on the history of the United States, discussed decade by decade, and the events that shaped our history. Another book, which is a #1 New York Times Best Seller, is Liberty and Tyranny by Mark A. Levin.

We the people of the United States need to get out and vote to ensure that our freedoms remain. Our elections are critical to determining whether our nation continues to be a free republic or becomes another kind of government. Please, I urge you to get out and vote in these upcoming elections!” ~ Marcella Parsons / Partner in ARose Books and Vintage American.

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“If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God,
then we will be a nation gone under.”

~ Ronald Reagan