On the Fourth of July, Americans celebrate the founding of the United States with parades, fireworks, and parties. However, the U.S. didn't actually achieve independence on that date. Instead, the date signifies when the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted, which caused the American Revolution to begin in earnest. The Declaration of Independence is one of the most famous documents in U.S. history and helped guide and shape the early years of the country. This is the true history and context of this influential document that helped create a country.
The communities that would eventually become the United States began as thirteen British colonies. At first, most colonists primarily considered themselves to be British citizens. However, as more and more people spent their entire lives in the colonies, they began to develop a more independent identity. Most still were happy to be British citizens, however.
In the latter half of the 18th century, a series of laws and taxes began to upset the colonists. American colonists were prevented from trading with foreign countries by the Navigation Act and instead had to send all of their goods to England. This limited their ability to develop a strong economy. Taxes were also being raised on luxury goods and essential items alike, and colonists were not allowed to expand westward, which angered many of them. Colonists began to organize protests and other measures to get the attention of the politicians in Great Britain, but they were largely unsuccessful. In 1774, colonists created the First Continental Congress to govern themselves.
Americans had been stockpiling weapons and raising militias for some time, but the war began in earnest in 1775. British forces attempted to capture some of those military supplies stored in Lexington and Concord. The colonists prevented this using force, and the fighting officially began. The war spread throughout all thirteen colonies, with a mix of local militias and the Continental Army fighting with British redcoats.
Not every colonist supported independence. Many had hoped for partial independence while still remaining loyal to Great Britain, while others were happy to remain fully controlled colonies. People who wished to remain part of Great Britain were called Loyalists and sometimes were harshly suppressed by the Continental Army and others who were in favor of independence.
True Loyalists were a fairly small part of the population, however. Most American colonists supported some form of independence. The popularity of this opinion was highlighted by Thomas Paine's pamphlet, Common Sense. Although he was a recent British immigrant himself, he made a strong argument for American independence. Common Sense sold around 150,000 copies in 1775, which was a nearly unheard of amount of sales at that time.
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In the summer of 1776, America was fully at war with Great Britain, and the leaders of the thirteen colonies began to set their sights on formalizing their new country. A committee of five men was appointed to draft a document that would establish the colonies' independence and guide the development of a new nation. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston were the five members of the committee, although Jefferson wrote most of the Declaration himself.
On July 3, the Second Continental Congress began considering the Declaration of Independence. There was a significant amount of debate and discussion about it, and some colonial leaders were still hesitant. However, in the early hours of July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. It began being published and distributed that same day.
The Declaration of Independence essentially laid out the colonists' argument for their independence. It includes a list of abuses of power and other grievances that the colonists said King George III had committed against them. It also borrowed some ideas from Thomas Paine's Common Sense when discussing the natural right of men to be free. The Declaration of Independence includes one of the founding phrases of the United States, which is that everyone has the right to "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness."
King George III wasn't going to let the colonies go so easily, however. He did not accept the Declaration and continued fighting for control of the American colonies. The Revolutionary War eventually became a global war, as the French joined on the side of the Americans and German mercenaries fought for Great Britain. The Native Americans who lived around the colonies also got involved. Most fought for Great Britain, as King George III had promised that British colonists would not expand further into their territories.
Eventually, the colonists won the war, which officially ended in 1783. They then set to work formally establishing the United States. The Declaration of Independence remained a guiding document in this process, with its ideas of freedom and natural rights playing a major role in the Constitution and other early documents. Today, 26 known copies of the original printing of the Declaration of Independence remain in existence, including copies in the National Archives and the Library of Congress.