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Congress parties

On July 4 the United States stops work to celebrate its independence. Victoria Neumark reflects on how it all came about

On July 4, 1776, a group of fervent soon-to-be Americans signed a piece of paper on behalf of 13 soon-to-be ex-colonies of His Britannic Majesty.

The 56 representatives from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia met in a "Continental Congress" and declared that as they were now "Free and Independent States", they had "full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, the Declaration of Independence".

The Founding Fathers, as they became known, couched their declaration in language which has resounded across the centuries and which, in the words of John Hancock, Congress's president, "laid the Ground and Foundation" for an astonishing history.

It had, in fact, taken two days to write and revise and was to take weeks longer to distribute to the volunteer army which it had to inspire for a long, bloody conflict - though actually, according to the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.orgshorts20010914terror.htm) only 4,435 Americans (out of a population of 3.5 million) died in the War of Independence.

By 1783, though, the war was over, and in 1784, with the signature of the Treaty of Paris, the new nation of the United States of America took its place in world affairs. War hero George Washington became the Republic's first President and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, main architects of the Declaration, its second and third.

As copies of the Declaration spread through the states and were publicly read at town meetings, religious services, court days, or wherever else people assembled, Americans lit great bonfires, illuminated their windows with candles, fired guns, rang bells, tore down and destroyed the symbols of monarchy on public buildings, churches, or tavern signs, and fixed up on the walls of their homes broadside or newspaper copies of the Declaration of Independence.

Patriotic fervour remains largely undimmed from the 18th century, when a writer in the Virginia Gazette on July 18, 1777 wrote: "Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more. Amen and Amen."

While magnificent firework displays light up the skies, marching bands play patriotic songs and whole towns festoon their buildings with bunting and flags. Schools let out and parties kick in. Picnics and barbecues, a democratic form of entertaining eminently suitable for hot summer weather, are traditional, with roads to the coast and lakes packed with sweaty families and cooler boxes with sodas and beer. Music fills the air and the atmosphere is a mixture of carnival and solemnity.

It's all in keeping with Jefferson's stirring rhetoric: "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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Biographies of the founding fathers: www.colonialhall.combiography.asp Charters of freedom: www.nara.govexhallchartersconstitutionconfath.html

Independence day: www.usacitylink.comusa

History up to Vietnam: www.historyplace.com

All the presidents: www.whitehouse.govhistorypresidents

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