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A History of the Fourth of July, Independence Day

The fourth of July is declared as Independence Day for the United States of America and commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. At the time of the signing, the nation consisted of thirteen colonies under the rule of England's King George III. Prior to this historic event, the colonies experienced growing unrest due to the "taxation without representation" issue: The colonies were forced to pay taxes to England, but were given no voice in the English Parliament. Hoping to quell any rebellion, King George sent extra troops in 1774 to monitor the situation. At the same time, the thirteen colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to form the First Continental Congress. In April 1775, as the King's troops advanced on Concord, Massachusetts, Paul Revere sounded the alarm that "The British are coming, the British are coming" as he rode his horse through the late night streets. The battle of Concord and its "shot heard round the world" marked the unofficial beginning of the War of Independence. Within weeks, the colonies again sent delegates to the Second Continental Congress. For almost a year, the Congress attempted to resolve its differences with England, without formally declaring war. However, by June 1776, it became clear that their efforts were hopeless. Accordingly, the Congress formed a committee, headed by Thomas Jefferson and including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman, for the purpose of composing a formal declaration of independence. After changes in the draft, the Congress voted on July 4th to adopt the Declaration. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence "with a great flourish" to make the colonies' intent clear to King George.

On the following day, copies of the Declaration were distributed to the public. On July 6, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the first publication of the Declaration, and on July 8th, the Declaration had its first public reading in Philadelphia's Independence Square to cheering crowds and clanging church bells. Even the "Province Bell" in Independence Hall was rung to celebrate the Declaration. The bell was soon after aptly renamed to the "Liberty Bell."

The American flag has a special place in Independence Day celebrations. On January 1, 1776, the Grand Union flag was displayed on Prospect Hill. It had thirteen alternate red and white stripes and the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner (the canton). In May of that year, Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag, and on June 14, the Continental Congress adopted the following resolution: "Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." The stars represented the thirteen colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. As states were added, the number of stars grew to fifty.

On September 14, 1814, Francis Scott Key penned "The Star-Spangled Banner" in tribute of the American flag, inspired by the unforgettable sight of the American flag which hung from Fort McHenry while British troops bombarded it during the War of 1812. The song was originally titled "In Defense of Fort McHenry." The poem was set to the music of a popular English song, "To Anacreon in Heaven." Soon, the title changed to "The Star Spangled Banner," and in 1931, over a century after it was written, the U.S. Congress proclaimed it the national anthem.

Although the signing of the Declaration was not completed until August, the fourth of July has been accepted as the official anniversary of United States' independence from Great Britain. The first Independence Day celebration took place the following year, on July 4, 1777. By the early 1800s, the traditions of parades, public readings of the Declaration of Independence, picnics, and fireworks were established as the way to celebrate America's birthday. The fourth of July was declared a national holiday in 1941. Still, the Declaration of Independence holds a special place in America's history. In his account of the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The people met generally, with anxiety and alarm in their countenances, and the effect of the day thro' the whole colony was like a shock of electricity, arousing every man and placing him erect and solidly on his centre." Indeed, America's entrance into the world as a free nation was a tumultuous and exciting time.