My son came downstairs this morning to wish me very happy on George Washington's birthday. He knows, of course, that's not today— Washington was born on February 22, and we celebrate on the third Monday of February—but the joke was still funny. Many people don't know why we celebrate on July 4, only that it has something to do with our break from Great Britain. Officially a federal holiday, July 4, 1776, marks the day that the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is exactly what it sounds like—an announcement that the United States of America was declaring independence from King George III and Great Britain. There are six copies still in existence, including the original rough draft with edits—you can see it up close in the Jefferson Papers at the National Library of Congress.

Interestingly, while Thomas Jefferson referred to the "thirteen united States of America" in the Declaration, the words "United Colonies" had generally been used as a descriptor before that time, including by Congress when it appointed Washington as Commander in Chief in June 1775.

LEXINGTON, MA - APRIL 17: Re-enactors of the Battle of Lexington dressed as British soldiers fire their weapons as they battle with the Lexington militia April 17, 2006 in Lexington, Massachusetts. The Battle of Lexington, which took place in 1775, was the first skirmish of the Revolutionary War. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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The printing of the declaration came more than a year (442 days) after shots were first fired at Lexington, Massachusetts in 1775, considered the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. And the Declaration of Independence did not mark the end of the Revolutionary War. It was quite the opposite—it signaled that the United States no longer wished to accept British rule.


The British had ruled the colonies since the early 17th century when the Virginia Company became the Virginia Colony in 1624, the first of the original thirteen British colonies. The United States wasn't the only part of the world—or even the only part of the Americas—subject to British colonization. The British had also exerted control over parts of Canada, the Caribbean, and South America.

But ruling the world gets expensive. Guarding colonies and occasionally invading new lands takes money. And not everyone agrees as to who owns which lands, so fighting occasionally breaks out. That's precisely what happened in the mid-18th century when Great Britain was battling several countries, primarily France, in the Seven Years' War. When the war ended in 1763, Great Britain could declare a win against France. Still, the years of fighting had come at a significant cost, as the British government was nearly bankrupt.

King George III needed to raise revenue and quickly. What better way than a series of taxes and tariffs? And who better to tax than subjects who were far enough away, like the American colonists, to stifle the complaining? There was just one problem with this plan: The King underestimated exactly how loudly the colonists would react.

Stamp Act

The first significant post-war tax imposed on the colonists was the Stamp Act of 1765. Stamps, as they apply to taxes, don't have anything to do with postage. Rather, stamps are an official confirmation of compliance with a certain rule or requirement. In this case, materials printed and used in the colonies, like magazines and newspapers, were required to be produced on stamped paper and embossed with a revenue stamp, showing that tax had been paid. Colonists, of course, didn't like the tax, and many refused to pay. Some tax collectors even quit their jobs rather than collect. As a result, the Stamp Act was repealed the following year.

Declaratory Act

It wasn't a good look for Britain—the colonists had asserted their authority and won. In response, Parliament immediately passed the Declaratory Act stating that it had the right to pass laws in the colonies "in all cases whatsoever."

Townshend Acts

Shortly afterward, there were additional attempts to raise revenue in the colonies through a series of acts called the Townshend Acts of 1767. The Townshend Acts were a little bit different than the Stamp Act since they were indirect taxes on imports. Since the colonists didn't directly bear the costs, King George III assumed they would be less offensive to the colonists. He was wrong.

The colonists weren't happy—a tax was a tax. They were spurred on by Philadelphia lawyer John Dickinson, who wrote a series of essays called " Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania ," arguing against taxation without representation. In the letters, he asked, "[W]hat signifies the repeal of the Stamp Act, if these colonies are to lose their other privileges, by not tamely surrendering that of taxation?" He later questioned whether the British had the right to impose any tax to raise revenue without consulting with the colonists, writing, "I answer, with a total denial of the power of parliament to lay upon these colonies any "tax" whatever."

Tea Act

The Townshend Acts were partially repealed in 1770. The partially repealed bit is important. In 1773, Parliament passed the Tea Act. It was the last straw for many colonists, even though it wasn't a new tax—it kept the tax on imported tea that wasn't repealed under the Townshend Act. But it did something more: it gave the East India Tea Company a trade advantage, cutting out the ability of the colonists to do business on their terms. Tax or not, the colonists viewed the Tea Act as another way they were being controlled.

The colonists figured that the best way to stand up to the Tea Act was to turn away ships carrying tea headed for the colonies. The colonists were able to do so in Philadelphia and New York but not in Boston. The Governor of Massachusetts wouldn't allow the ships to be turned back, and the colonists would not let the ships unload in the harbor. It was a stand-off. To end it, colonists snuck onto the ships and dumped out the tea—the event that you and I call the Boston Tea Party.

The Boston Tea Party did not immediately lead to the Declaration of Independence or the Revolutionary War, even though we like to link them as though they happened in quick succession. The Tea Party occurred on December 16, 1773, long before the shots at Lexington and the Declaration of Independence. What the Boston Tea Party did do quickly, however, was annoy Parliament. In response, the British attempted to punish the Americans through a series of laws called the Coercive Acts. Under the Coercive Acts, among other things, Boston Harbor was closed to merchant shipping, town meetings were banned, and the British commander of North American forces was appointed the governor of Massachusetts.

United States. American Revolution (1765-1783). First Continental Congress. September 22, 1774. Philadelphia. Manifest to request the merchants of the federal colonies, not to send to Great Britain any goods, for the preservation of the liberties of America. From the Minutes. Secretary Charles Thomson. Printed by W. and T. Bradford. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The colonists had enough. They convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, to consider their next steps. Resistance against the British increased, leading to those first shots in Massachusetts triggering the Revolutionary War.

Drafting Of The Declaration

The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia two years later. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to separate from Great Britain. Two days later, on July 4, 12 of the 13 colonies formally adopted the Declaration of Independence—the one holdout, New York, approved it on July 9.

On July 19, the document got a new title, "the unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America," and a new look after being "engrossed" on parchment. It was intended to be signed by every member of Congress, but a few opted out , including Dickinson, who hoped the colonies could reconcile with Britain.


The Declaration of Independence was drafted as a letter to the King. The most extensive section of the Declaration—after the lines we memorized in elementary school—is a list of grievances. Of course, taxes were included, notably "...[f]or imposing Taxes on us without our Consent."

'Signing the Declaration of Independence, 28th June 1776' - painting by John Trumbull, commissioned 1817. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

The word "Consent" was important. Under the British Constitution, British subjects could not be taxed without the consent of their representatives in Parliament. The colonies didn't elect representatives to Parliament, but they were being taxed. The colonists considered the constant imposition of taxes without a vote unconstitutional, just as Dickinson had written years earlier. It was famously "taxation without representation."


Initially, the British response was to chide the "misguided Americans" and "their extravagant and inadmissable Claim of Independency." But the declaration was more than just a document—it had set the United States down the road to independence.

In 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris , the United States formally became an independent nation. But the date that we most associate with our independence is when those in the Continental Congress were brave enough to officially declare it to the world—July 4, 1776.

Happy Independence Day!

By Kelly Phillips Erb, Forbes Staff

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