Advertisement

Zirpoli: The road to independence 

Today we celebrate Independence Day, the day in 1776 when the original 13 Colonies declared their independence from England. These Colonies included land that today we call Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia (which also included West Virginia at the time), New York, North Carolina and Rhode Island.

At the time, England controlled the Colonies and all the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. A declaration of independence from England was the culmination of several actions by individuals and individual colonies to free themselves from England and to fight for the right to govern themselves. While the initial issue was how the Colonies were taxed by England, the Colonies were also upset that they had no representation in Parliament, even as their population and revenue to England increased. Thus, the famous complaint of “taxation without representation.”

Advertisement

During the summer of 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in what we now call Independence Hall. This Congress consisted of 56 delegates, three to nine representatives from each of the 13 colonies. (The First Continental Congress met in 1774.) Interestingly, while some colonies sent their delegation to Philadelphia with the authorization to vote for independence, many did not. In fact, those who advocated for total independence from England were considered radicals.

The first known draft of a declaration of independence, titled “Resolution of Independence,” was written by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and presented to the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776. It reads, in part: “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right 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.”

The delegates could not come to an agreement on Lee’s resolution, however. Instead, on June 11, a committee of five from Massachusetts (John Adams), Connecticut (Roger Sherman), Pennsylvania (Benjamin Franklin), New York (Robert Livingston), and Virginia (Thomas Jefferson) was tasked to write a document that the delegates could approve. Thomas Jefferson was asked to serve as the committee’s primary writer, but only after others, including Lee and Adams, declined.

Jefferson employed statements within the document that he had used in previous writings, such as in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution. He is credited with writing “all men are created equal and have the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Historians credit the work of John Locke’s “Enlightenment” ideals with influencing Jefferson’s beliefs on the role of government and his writings. These ideals, considered liberal and radical at the time, included the belief that all men and women are entitled to certain basic rights, that a government’s legitimacy comes from the people, and that the primary purpose of government is to protect the rights of its citizens. Jefferson made the case that England’s King George III had trampled on these basic rights. Battles with British troops during the early days of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and 1776 reinforced Jefferson’s case.

The final paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states: “We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these states, reject and renounce the allegiance and subjection to the kinds of Great Britain and all others who may hereafter claim by, through, or under them; we utterly dissolve and break off all political connection which may have heretofore subsisted between us and the people or parliament of Great Britain; and finally we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states, and that as free and independent states they shall hereafter have [full] power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”

The Continental Congress voted for independence on July 2 and the final draft of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4. The document may be viewed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Massachusetts became the first state to make July 4 a state holiday in 1781. The U.S. Congress recognized the federal holiday in 1870 and approved a paid holiday for federal employees in 1941.

Coincidentally, both Adams and Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

Advertisement
Advertisement