Events Leading to Independence

The Declaration of Independence is a remarkable document.  To better understand and appreciate what we celebrate each year on Independence Day, I would like to share some of the background leading up to the July 4, 1776 approval by the 2nd Continental Congress.

From the 1600’s to the middle 1700’s most citizens of the colonies considered themselves British subjects.  This was certainly true during the French and Indian war of 1757 to 1763.  British redcoats assisted by local militia (including George Washington) and American frontiersman together defeated the French and their Indian allies.

That 7-year war cost the British dearly because they were fighting the French around the world, not just in North America.  The French and Indian war was also called the “Great War for Empire”.  During this war in 1760, British George 2nd was succeeded by  22 year old George 3rd.  Due to a combination of geography and wisdom old George 2nd basically allowed the Americans to run their own affairs.  George 3rd,however, set out to establish his power and influence over the over the Americans.  When the war was over, the British Empire established the Sugar Act of 1764 to pay the costs of defending the colonies.


That imposed a duty on the American import of molasses, and had a devastating effect on the distilling industry of New England. To recover additional expenses, The British Parliament instituted the Stamp Act in 1765 which was a tax for the on legal papers such as licenses, newspapers, and advertisements. The inexperienced George the 3rd continued to ignore the growing unrest. This new tax was not approved by colonial America and became the subject of bitter protests.  A year later, the British Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but still needed revenue and resented the “ungrateful” colonies.  They passed the Declaratory Act asserting that from now on, ALL acts of the British Parliament are binding on ALL colonies including the 13 American states.

Thus began an evolving misunderstanding between the rights and responsibilities between Britain and the American Colonies.  These events began 10 to 15 years before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. The Revenue Act of 1767 was the next attempt to tax lead, glass, paper, and other manufactured goods including tea.  Once again the colonists viewed these taxes as capricious, arbitrary, and unfair.  There was talk of “taxation without representation”.  A group of Americans taunting the British with snowballs in 1770 resulted in the British firing upon unarmed civilians otherwise remembered as the Boston Massacre.  Three years later 50 men dressed as Indians would destroy 50,000 # of tea on the British ship Dartmouth in Boston Harbor. That brought about a reaction from the British parliament and the “Intolerables Acts” that required direct supervision of colonial assemblies and courts. It closed the port of Boston and required colonists accused of capital crimes to be tried in England while also increasing the quartering of British troops.

Growing Flame of Freedom

The reaction from the American colonies was the 1st Continental Congress meeting at Carpenters Hall in 1774 just a few blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA.  This first step petitioned the British government with a declaration of rights and grievances. Colonists reacted by ignoring unjust laws.  They set up their own taxes for assemblies, courts, and militias, George was most agitated by the Americans agreeing to meet the following year May 1775 for the 2nd Continental Congress at Independence Hall.

Some thought there was still a chance to resolve problems and remain British subjects with the right of representation.  King George III however, became irate.    “The New England Governments are in a state of rebellion” he fumed, “ blows must decide whether they are subject to this country or independent”

The 1st Continental Congress had urged an appeal to militia to fight any British incursions into the countryside.  An intricate network of spies including Paul Revere kept a close eye on most British operations.

Early in 1775, the British General, Thomas Gage, found himself in an impossible situation.  His letters to the ministry took on an gloomy tone.  His troops were mocked and harassed, and Gage knew the colonists were arming militia in the countryside. At one point, he requested 20,000 additional troops and asked that the Intolerables Acts be suspended.  Gage knew George 3rd’s patience was growing short and felt the pressure to strike a blow.   Gage planned to march to Concord, Mass. to seize some of the American militia stores.

The Revolutionary War Begins

Paul Revere alerted the militia of the British troop movements. “One if by land and two if by sea”.  It was by sea and on April 19, 1775, a gathering of militia were waiting in Lexington. After a brief skirmish, the disorganized Americans retreated, and the British continued on to Concord which became a very different story.  Thousands of well-armed American militiamen were waiting for the well-organized redcoats marching in formation.  These American “Minutemen” (as they would soon be called) with the cover of fences and trees and firing from tight formations stood up to the British regulars. The result was that the professional elite of the Royal Army broke formation and ran. Most minutemen had more accurate rifles than the British “Brown Bess” musket which was limited to about 50 yards, and outnumbered the British over 2 to 1.  British casualties were almost 300, triple that of the Americans.

As the British retreated to Boston, more “Minutemen” swarmed along the heels of the British inflicting more casualties.  Gen. Gage was hunkered down in Boston when the 2nd Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775.  The war had started without them, and many members of Congress felt as helpless as Gen. Gage.  Congress began steps to raise an army.  John Adams nominated George Washington to lead the Continental Army.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the world”

Independence Declared

As the war began, state assemblies were sending instructions with their delegates to the Continental Congress to formally ratify a document “declaring independence”.  June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia moved to dissolve all political connections with Britain.  A committee was formed consisting of Franklin, John Adams, Sherman, Livingston, and Jefferson.  The committee itself chose Jefferson to write the first draft.

On July 2, the delegates “voted” to declare independence.  But the original draft required several dozen revisions.  Jefferson worked quickly, and from July 2 to July 4 of 1776, Congress debated and edited the document Jefferson originally called “The Declaration of the Representatives of the United Sates of America in General Congress Assembled”.  The final version was approved and signed on July 4, 1776.   The original document with these revisions is located at the National Achieves in Washington D.C.

Although the Declaration of Independence is brief (1300 words), it is packed with history and philosophy. The authors capture the thinking of the age in Colonial America during the Revolutionary War.  Change any of these parameters and the Declaration would be a far different document. It was also NOT taken lightly.  It was an issue of life or death. The signers knew they faced charges of Treason if they lost the war with England.  They pledged their LIVES, FORTUNES, AND SACRED HONOR.

Much more of this history can be found by reading In There Own Words – Founding Fathers

By T.J. Stiles (PA State University)