The Declaration of Independence

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence, announcing the colonies’ separation from Britain. One year later, on July 4, 1777, Philadelphia marked Independence Day by adjourning Congress and celebrating with bonfires, picnics and fireworks. However, the holiday only became standard across the country after the War of 1812, which was also fought against Britain.

Independence from Britain had been brewing ever since the end of the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763). The British imposed the first direct tax on the colonies in 1764 (the Stamp Act) and continued to impose new taxes over the years. Many were repealed in the face of protests and violence, although the British government left the tax on tea in place.


This tax was supposed to give the British East India Company a monopoly in the colonial tea market but was met with fierce resistance. After a group known as the Sons of Liberty threw over 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor, the British passed the Intolerable Acts, which dissolved the civil government and imposed martial law. This only generated further resistance, and war broke out in 1775.


By mid-June 1776, and with the war raging, a five-man committee was tasked with drafting a formal statement that justified the colonies’ break from Great Britain. Led by Thomas Jefferson, the committee consisted of John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin and Robert R Livingston, and Jefferson presented his draft to the Continental Congress on July 1. The next day, Congress voted in favor of independence and on July 4, they adopted the Declaration of Independence.


Jefferson was strongly influenced by the ideas of Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke – men of the Enlightenment who believed that the methods of inquiry of the Scientific Revolution could be applied to law, politics, economics, and religion. New ideas of governance emerged, including opposition to unlimited power, distribution of powers among separate branches of government, liberty and individual rights, equality among men, and free-market capitalism.


In January 1776, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, arguing that independence was a “natural right” and that the colonies had a unique opportunity to create a new sort of government where people were free and could rule themselves. The book sold 120,000 copies in its first three months and is still in print today. With these ideas ringing in his ears, Jefferson wrote the US Declaration of Independence – and created a document that has had more impact on the world than any other American text.


In 1788, France drafted its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the ideas of the Enlightenment and the US Declaration in mind. In 1791, Haiti (France’s most profitable colony) began demanding their own rights to liberty and equality. Enlightenment-educated leaders like Simón Bolívar led independence movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, and other countries came into being out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Today, more than half of the 192 countries represented in the United Nations have a founding document that can be called a Declaration of Independence.

The most well-known part of the US Declaration of Independence is the preamble, where Jefferson wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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.

These words laid the foundations for American ideals and values and continue to reverberate today. It has been instrumental in shaping the ongoing struggle for civil rights, gender equality, and the protection of individual liberties and is a unifying symbol that fosters a sense of national unity and pride among Americans. In 1870, Congress declared July 4 as a federal holiday, and the day became an occasion for family gatherings, picnics, and barbecues.

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