America celebrates its 241st birthday on July 4, and communities across the nation will mark the occasion with fireworks, parades and other social gatherings.
The day is a good time to reflect on what the Declaration of Independence meant to early colonists, who were willing to lose everything they owned and risk their lives to be free from the oppression of British rule.
“Taxation without representation” was the battle cry in the 13 colonies, where citizens of the New World protested paying taxes to England’s King George III when they had no voice in policy decisions made by the British Parliament.
Another point of contention among colonists was that taxes collected by Britain were used to pay the salaries of governors and judges in North America so they would remain loyal to the king.
Although colonists attempted to persuade the king that changes in governance needed to be made, their outrage fell on deaf ears.
As dissatisfaction grew in the colonies, George sent extra troops to the New World to suppress the movement toward rebellion.
In turn, angry citizens mounted protests that escalated into acts of defiance, such as the Boston Tea Party staged by the Sons of Liberty on Dec. 16, 1773.
In that incident, demonstrators raided ships of the East India Company in the harbor of Boston, Mass., and dumped a cargo of tea into the water.
The British government responded harshly to the destructive act by passing new laws, referred to by colonists as the “Intolerable Acts,” that were designed to take away self-governance in Massachusetts and shut down Boston’s commerce.
Colonists convened the First Continental Congress on Sept. 5, 1774, to draft a petition that asked George to repeal the unjust laws.
The situation worsened when George failed to reply to the petition, and delegates then began to rally for independence.
The first military engagement of what would become the Revolutionary War was fought on April 19, 1775, in Middlesex County within the Massachusetts towns of Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Mentomy (now known as Arlington) and Cambridge.
The British government had declared Massachusetts to be in a full state of rebellion and Lt. Colonel Francis Smith and 700 Army regulars were given secret orders to capture and destroy military supplies stored by the militia at Concord.
However, Patriot leaders had received word weeks earlier that their supplies might be at risk and had moved most of them to other locations.
On the night before the battle, Paul Revere and other riders spread the word that British regulars were about to march into the countryside northwest of Boston.
The initial mode of the army's arrival was signaled from the Old North Church in Boston using lanterns to communicate "one if by land, two if by sea.”
In what was later referred to as the “shot heard round the world,” gunfire erupted between the British and militia as the sun was rising at Lexington on the morning of April 19. However, the militia was outnumbered and had to fall back. British regulars then proceeded to Concord and began searching for the contraband supplies.
At the North Bridge in Concord, about 400 militia men from across the countryside engaged 100 British regulars and casualties were inflicted on both sides.
As the British began their return march to Boston after unsuccessfully completing their search, more militia men arrived from neighboring towns. A fierce gun battle broke out between the militia and British. Reinforced with soldiers under Brigadier General Hugh Percy, the British made a tactical withdrawal into Charlestown, Mass.
The militia then blockaded the narrow land access to Charlestown and Boston in what was later referred to as the Siege of Boston.
British resupply and reinforcement activities were limited to what could be done by sea. After 11 months of the siege, the British abandoned Boston by sailing to Nova Scotia.
The Battle of Bunker Hill, a major conflict between both sides, took place on June 17, 1775, near Charlestown, Mass. About 1,200 British regulars repulsed an assault by colonial forces, but the British sustained a greater number of casualties.
The fight demonstrated that an inexperienced militia could stand up to well-trained army troops in combat.
Hostilities continued to increase between colonists and British troops.
On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia and formed a committee to draft a document that would formally sever their ties with Great Britain.
On that committee was Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.
Jefferson, who was considered an eloquent writer, authored a rough draft of the Declaration. He was tasked with writing an explanation for the colonists, and justification for the rest of the world, about why it had become necessary to break away from British rule.
Eighty-six changes were made to Jefferson’s final draft before the Continental Congress adopted it on July 4, 1776. It is widely accepted among historians that the 56 delegates did not officially begin signing the Declaration until Aug. 2, 1776. The text in the second paragraph of the Declaration states that, when people are subjected to a long train of abuses from a dictatorship, “it is their right, it is their duty” to change their government.
This duty was seen by Jefferson and other founders as higher than one’s own personal survival or selfish interests, even if it required the sacrifice of one’s own life or property.
For that reason, the Declaration concluded with these words: “We pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Congress kept the names of the signatories secret for several months to protect them from reprisal by the British.
The Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first newspaper in the colonies to print the Declaration after it was approved, and the document was also read in public squares throughout the colonies.
The Revolutionary War began almost immediately after the Declaration was adopted and historians estimate that between 3 and 10 percent of the 2.5 million colonists joined the fight.
Many of the men who signed the Declaration suffered great losses in the conflict, which lasted until 1783 and cost 25,000 American lives, with about that same number of militia injured.
On July 4, 1777, Congress adjourned with a celebration of the Declaration’s first birthday that included bonfires, bells and fireworks.
That custom eventually spread to other towns, both large and small, where the day was marked by a variety of celebratory activities.
Congress established Independence Day as a national holiday in 1870 and, in 1938, lawmakers reaffirmed it as a paid holiday for federal employees.
Today, communities across the U.S. mark July 4 with events that frequently include performances of “The Star Spangled Banner,” written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812.
The song was chosen as our national anthem by Congress on March 3, 1931.
The American Pyrotechnics Association estimates that more than 14,000 professional fireworks displays light up the skies across the U.S. every Fourth of July.
Upon his deathbed on July 4, 1829, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, Jefferson said of the document he had written: “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be…the signal of arousing men to burst the chains…and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.
“That form, which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the right of man.
“For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”