“No Taxation without representation!” was the battle cry of the 13 Colonies, which were forced to pay taxes to England’s King George III despite having no representation in the British Parliament. As dissatisfaction grew, British troops were sent in to squash the early movement toward rebellion. Repeated attempts by the Colonists to resolve the crisis peacefully proved impossible.
On June 11th, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and formed a committee whose express purpose was drafting a document that would formally break the bonds with Great Britain. The committee included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson, who was considered the strongest and most eloquent writer, crafted the original draft document. A total of 86 changes were made to his draft and the Continental Congress officially adopted the final version on July 4th, 1776.
The following day, copies of the Declaration of Independence were distributed, and on July 6th, The Pennsylvania Evening Post became the first newspaper to print it.
On July 8, 1776, the first public reading of the Declaration was held in Philadelphia’s Independence Square to the ringing of bells and music. One year later, on July 4th, 1777, Philadelphia marked Independence Day by adjourning Congress and celebrating with bonfires and fireworks!
The custom eventually spread to other towns, both large and small, where the day was marked with processions, speeches, picnics, contests, games, military displays and fireworks. The tradition grew with the spirit of our nation.
In June of 1826, Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to Roger C. Weightman, declining an invitation to come to Washington, D.C. to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. It was the last letter that Jefferson, who was gravely ill, ever wrote. In it, he spoke of the Declaration:
“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 rights of man. …For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”
– Thomas Jefferson (June 24th, 1826; Monticello)
Congress officially established Independence Day as a holiday in 1870, and in 1938 as a paid holiday for federal employees. Today, communities across the nation mark this major midsummer holiday with parades, firework displays, picnics with performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.