The American Revolution — its war for independence from Britain — began as a small skirmish between British troops and armed colonists on April 19, 1775.
The British had set out from Boston, Massachusetts, to seize weapons and ammunition that revolutionary colonists had collected in nearby villages. At Lexington, they met a group of Minutemen, who got that name because they were said be ready to fight in a minute. The Minutemen intended only a silent protest, and their leader told them not to shoot unless fired on first. The British ordered the Minutemen to disperse, and they complied. As they were withdrawing, someone fired a shot. The British troops attacked the Minutemen with guns and bayonets.
Fighting broke out at other places along the road as the British soldiers in their bright red uniforms made their way back to Boston. More than 250 “redcoats” were killed or wounded. The Americans lost 93 men.
Deadly clashes continued around Boston as colonial representatives hurried to Philadelphia to discuss the situation. A majority voted to go to war against Britain. They agreed to Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury in the administration of President George Washington. Hamilton advocated a strong federal government and the encouragement of industry, combine colonial militias into a continental army, and they appointed George Washington of Virginia as commander-in-chief.
At the same time, however, this Second Continental Congress adopted a peace resolution urging King George III to prevent further hostilities. The king rejected it and on August 23 declared that the American colonies were in rebellion. Calls for independence intensified in the coming months. Radical political theorist Thomas Paine helped crystallize the argument for separation. In a pamphlet called Common Sense, which sold 100,000 copies, he attacked the idea of a hereditary monarchy. Paine presented two alternatives for America: continued submission under a tyrannical king and outworn system of government, or liberty and happiness as a selfsufficient, independent republic.
The Second Continental Congress appointed a committee, headed by Thomas Jeff erson of Virginia, to prepare a document outlining the colonies’ grievances against the king and explaining their decision to break away. This Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. The 4th of July has since been celebrated as America’s Independence Day.
The Declaration of Independence not only announced the birth of a new nation. It also set forth a philosophy of human freedom that would become a dynamic force throughout the world. It drew upon French and British political ideas, especially those of John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government, reaffirming the belief that political rights are basic human rights, and are thus universal.
Declaring independence did not make Americans free. British forces routed continental troops in New York, from Long Island to New York City. They defeated the Americans at Brandywine, Pennsylvania, and occupied Philadelphia, forcing the Continental Congress to flee. American forces were victorious at Saratoga, New York, and at Trenton and Princeton in New Jersey.
Yet George Washington continually struggled to get the men and materials he desperately needed. Decisive help came in 1778, when France recognized the United States and signed a bilateral defense treaty.
The fighting that began at Lexington, Massachusetts, continued for eight years across a large portion of the continent. Battles were fought from Montreal, Canada, in the north to Savannah, Georgia, in the south. A huge British army
surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, yet the war dragged on with inconclusive results for another two years. A peace treaty was finally signed in Paris on April 15, 1783.
The Revolution had a significance far beyond North America. It attracted the attention of Europe’s political theorists and strengthened the concept of natural rights throughout the Western world. It attracted notables such as Thaddeus Kosciusko, Friedrich von Steuben, and the Marquis de Lafayette, who joined the revolution and hoped to transfer its liberal ideas to their own countries.
The Treaty of Paris acknowledged the independence, freedom, and sovereignty of the 13 former American colonies, now states. The task of knitting them together into a new nation lay ahead.
U.S. Independence Day a Civic and Social Event
The United States celebrates its Independence Day on July 4, a day of patriotic celebration and family events throughout the country. In the words of Founding Father John Adams, the holiday would be “the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance. … It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”
The Fourth of July holiday is a major civic occasion, with roots deep in the Anglo-American tradition of political freedom.
A SUMMER HOLIDAY
Each year crowds of visitors flock to the National Mall — the grassy expanse between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument — for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which always takes place on two weekends overlapping the Fourth of July holiday. This year’s festival celebrates Mexico, Asian-Pacific-American culture, and the work of Smithsonian researchers, curators and other specialists. In 2009, the festival’s international exhibits focused on the music of Latin America and the culture of Wales.
Throughout the United States, Fourth of July fireworks displays are popular, from the spectacular exhibition on the National Mall to more modest fireworks shows in city parks across the land. In New York City, Macy's department store sponsors what it bills as the nation’s largest July 4 fireworks display. In 2010, the 30-minute show will feature 40,000 shells launched from six barges afloat in the Hudson River. Macy’s estimates that more than 3 million will watch in person and that millions more will see it on television.
"The Fourth" is a family celebration. Picnics and barbeques are common. July is summer in the United States, and millions of Americans escape the heat at beaches and other vacation spots. Independence Day is not among the legal holidays fixed on a Monday or Friday, but many employees use vacation time to create an extended weekend.
Construction of important public works sometimes begins on July 4. The Erie Canal, Washington Monument and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (the nation's first) all broke ground on Independence Day. The date reflects a desire symbolically to stamp these projects as true civic improvements.
A CIVIC OCCASION
The Fourth of July is a time when elected officials and other public figures often give speeches extolling American traditions and values.
Independence Day has provided some of this nation's most stirring words of freedom. In 1788, Founding Father James Wilson addressed a Philadelphia gathering that was possibly the largest July 4 celebration in the young nation's history. He exhorted his fellow citizens to ratify the proposed Constitution. "A people, free and enlightened,” he said, “establishing and ratifying a system of government … A WHOLE PEOPLE exercising its first and greatest power -- performing an act of SOVEREIGNTY, ORIGINAL and UNLIMITED.”
On July 4, 1852, the black journalist and abolitionist Frederick Douglass decried the evils of slavery, still prevalent in the American South at that time, but identified forces "drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions in operation" that "must inevitably work The downfall of slavery."
Ninety years later, near the darkest moments of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reminded the nation that for the "weary, hungry, unequipped Army of the American Revolution … the Fourth of July was a tonic of hope and inspiration. So is it now…. The tough, grim men who fight for freedom in this dark hour take heart in its message -- the assurance of the right to liberty under God -- for all peoples and races and groups and nations, everywhere in the world.”
President Obama in his 2009 Fourth of July message celebrated “the indomitable spirit of the first American citizens.” He called on people to “remember how unlikely it was that our American experiment would succeed at all; that a small band of patriots would declare independence from a powerful empire; and that they would form, in the new world, what the old world had never known — a government of, by, and for the people.”
Across the nation, civic leaders of even the most humble station echo these words, and their audiences give thanks for the freedom and liberties that the founding generation won for all Americans.
Photos and videos
Photo Gallery : The Fourth of July: Celebrating U.S. Independence Day, America.gov
Video: Fourth of July Fireworks, IIP, June 2011
Video: I am America, IIP, 2010