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William B. Bradshaw: Happy Birthday America

Birthdays are fun to celebrate, and this week the United States as a nation will be celebrating what is officially named U.S. Independence Day.

It was 238 years ago--July 4, 1776--that the Second Continental Congress, comprised of representatives from the thirteen North American British colonies, passed the Declaration of Independence, declaring that "these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do." (Quoted from last paragraph of the Declaration)

The Seven Years War (1756-63), or as it was referred to in the United States, the French and Indian War, was a major world conflict, plunging the British government deep into debt. When the War ended, the British Parliament enacted several measures pertaining to the English colonies in North America, with two primary objectives in mind: (1) to increase tax revenue from the colonies, and (2) to help reestablish British control over the thirteen colonial governments that had become increasingly independent while the Crown was distracted by the war.

Two of the acts were especially disturbing to the colonists: the Stamp Act of 1765 (required colonists to use stamps on all important law and business papers, pamphlets, and newspapers) and the Townshend Act of 1767 (named after Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend, imposed a series of duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea imported into the colonies).

Many influential colonists believed the Parliament had no right to impose any taxes on the colonists, viewing taxation as an abuse of Great Britain's constitutional relationship with the colonies, and tension between the colonists and the English Parliament increased. Recognizing this, the Parliament repealed the Stamp Act and all the Townshend duties except the duty on tea, which it retained in order to assert its right to tax the colonies. Tensions receded, but only temporarily. The main complaint of the colonists was "taxation without representation"--that is, being taxed by the British Parliament without having representation in the Parliament.

Little by little hostility between the colonists and Britain heated up, eventually resulting in the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773), when a group of colonists, many disguised as American Indians, boarded three ships docked in the Boston Harbor and threw their cargos of tea overboard--342 crates of tea, worth nearly $1 million in today's money. The reaction in London was swift and vehement.

In h 1774 the British Parliament enacted the Coercive Act, with the aim of punishing the Bostonians for what they did and reestablishing order in Massachusetts. Among other things, the act called for closing the Boston Harbor to trade until the owners of the tea were compensated, banning town meetings, increasing the authority of the royal governor, and giving British officers greater freedom to house troops in private dwellings. The colonists called it the Intolerable Act, and it was the "straw that broke the camel's back."

From 1774 to 1789, the Continental Congress served as the government of the thirteen American colonies. It was comprised of delegates from each individual colony, the delegates being chosen by the respective states. The colonies were referred to as "states" by the colonists. The Congress met numerous times and in different locations.

On September 5, 1774, delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia as the First Continental Congress to organize colonial resistance to the Coercive Acts. (Georgia did not send delegates.) After much discussion, the Congress issued a Declaration of Rights, affirming its loyalty to the British Crown, but disputing the British Parliament's right to tax the colonies. The Congress also called on the colonies to stop importing goods from the British Isles. And if Britain failed to redress the colonists' grievances, the Congress would reconvene on May 10, 1775. The First Continental Congress disbanded on October 26, 1774. The British government did not redress the grievances.

The Congress reconvened on May 10, 1775, as the Second Continental Congress, at Pennsylvania's State House in Philadelphia. The first shots of the Revolutionary War had already been fired a month earlier in Massachusetts, and most of the state delegations were leaning toward officially declaring independence from Great Britain. Leaders for the cause of independence, however, voiced caution in moving too quickly and wanted to make certain that they had sufficient congressional support before bringing the issue to the vote. But on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee from Virginia decided it was time to take action and introduced a motion in Congress to declare independence.

Some members remained skeptical, but scheduled a vote anyway for July 1, appointing a committee to draft a provisional declaration of independence to discuss should the proposal pass. The committee consisted of five men: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee turned to Thomas Jefferson to draft the formal declaration. The congress reconvened on July 1. On July 2 twelve of the thirteen colonies voted for Lee's resolution declaring independence (New York abstained from voting). The process of debating and revising Jefferson's declaration continued on July 3 and into the late morning of July 4. In the evening of July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress "unanimously" approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence.

(Sources of information are from personal knowledge; The United States: Experiment in Democracy, by Avery Craven and Walter Johnson, University of Chicago Press, 1950; The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, by Thomas A. Bailey of Stanford University, D.C. Heath and Company, 1956; The Reader's Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1991; Web site of Department of State, the Historian's Office; and Web site of the Heritage Foundation.)

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