Originally written on July 4, 2020. Updated 2023
One of the most significant dates in the calendar of the United States, on this day, July 4 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims the independence of the United States of America from Great Britain and its king.
The declaration, drafted by, among others, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, proclaimed that the (then) thirteen American colonies were no longer subject or subordinate to the monarch of Britain, King George III, and were now united, free, and independent states.
Since then, July 4 has been celebrated every year as Independence Day.
In a letter to his wife Abigail on the day before the historic vote in Congress, John Adams, who was later to serve as the second US President, described how he thought the event would be celebrated.
Considering it to be “the most memorable epoch in the history of America,” he said: “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
And so it proved to be.
The first major American opposition to British policy came in 1765 after Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a taxation measure to raise revenues for a standing British army in America. Under the banner of “no taxation without representation,” colonists convened the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765 to vocalize their opposition to the tax.
With its enactment in November, most colonists called for a boycott of British goods, and some organized attacks on the customhouses and homes of tax collectors. After months of protest in the colonies, Parliament voted to repeal the Stamp Act in March 1766.
In January 1776, Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” an influential political pamphlet that convincingly argued for American independence and sold more than 500,000 copies in a few months. In the spring of that year, support for independence swept the colonies, the Continental Congress called for states to form their own governments, and a five-man committee was assigned to draft a declaration.
The Declaration of Independence was largely the work of Virginian Thomas Jefferson.
The first section features the famous lines, “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.” The second part presents a long list of grievances that provided the rationale for rebellion.
Thus, on July 2, 1776, the Congress secretly voted for independence from Great Britain and, on July 4, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved, and the document was published.
The Revolutionary War would last for five more years. Yet to come were the Patriot triumphs at Saratoga, the bitter winter at Valley Forge, the intervention of the French, and the final victory at Yorktown in 1781. In 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris with Britain, the United States formally became a free and independent nation.
However, the term “Independence Day” was not used until 1791, then in 1870 it became an official unpaid holiday for federal employees, staying that way until 1941 when it became officially a paid holiday.
Interestingly, John Adams, the second President from 1797 to 1801 and Thomas Jefferson, the third President from 1801 to 1809, both died on July 4 in 1826.
Each was a signatory to the Declaration and both had wanted to live until the 50th anniversary. They managed to do it but Jefferson died aged 83 at 1pm on the day and 90-year-old Adams a few hours later. Five years after that, James Monroe, the fifth President, also died on July 4. He was 73.
James Madison was a Founding Father of the United States and the fourth President, serving in office from 1809 to 1817. He also nearly became an Independence Day victim: at the age of 85 he was struck down with a severe case of rheumatism. Barely able to move, he was said to have been in great pain and died on June 28, 1836 from congestive heart failure – just six days short of Independence Day.
Zachary Taylor, the twelfth President, who served for only 16 months from 1849 to 1850, is reputed also to have been an Independence Day victim: While out celebrating the event, he is said to have stopped to drink some iced milk to cool down and at the same time helped himself to a large bunch of cherries. By the time he returned to the White House the 65-year-old President was feeling ill with stomach pains and a few days later he was dead. The cause was given as “cholera morbus”, a severe form of gastroenteritis, allegedly brought on by the bad cherries, together with iced milk.
Moreover, John Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President, was born on July 4, 1872 and it was the only President to have an Independence Day birthday!