On July 4, people all over the United States will take the day off work, grill up steaks and burgers in their backyards, set off fireworks, and generally party a lot. Independence Day is a celebration of American freedom. At the same time we must remember the many sacrifices that our brothers and sisters and forefathers have made so that we might arrive at this day. We also must remember that the fight for liberty is not only conducted by the armed forces. It is conducted every day by ordinary citizens like you and me.
Many of you have only the vaguest notions of why our forefathers chose to risk (and lose) their lives, declare their colonies “free and independent States,’ and fight a bloody war for nearly a decade to secure that freedom. A quick overview is in order. I cannot possibly cover everything that needs to be covered in a complete retelling, but I do want to give a quick outline of the major points which led up to the events of 1776, so that you have a better idea why it happened.
At the end of the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years’ War) most American colonists thought of themselves as loyal subjects to King George III. At about the same time George Grenville became prime minister. Britain had expended a lot of money on the war and at the time had over £130m in debt. (That was a LOT of money back then!) Grenville considered that since the war had primarily benefited America, that its costs should be recovered from America, and without thinking too hard about the consequences, began pushing through his own plan to do just that.
Grenville immediately sent additional soldiers over to North America, tightened customs controls, and began implementing new taxes, beginning with the Revenue Act of 1764, most commonly known as the Sugar Act. This act greatly expanded the Molasses Act of 1733, covering such diverse items as coffee, wines, tropical foods and silk in addition to sugar. The colonies almost immediately fell into a serious economic recession. Protests to this new act sprang up as well, not only due to the economic hardship, but because unlike prior taxes which were for trade regulation, the Sugar Act was intended specifically to raise revenue. It was during these protests that the phrase “No taxation without representation’ was first heard (though doubt exists as to whether this slogan ever existed).
Following shortly after was the Currency Act of 1764, which outlawed paper money in the colonies. Most hard money in the colonies at the time was foreign currency, rather than English pounds sterling, and paper money was used to smooth transactions. The Currency Act made a difficult money situation even worse, due to a severe shortage of hard currency, greatly increasing the severity of the recession.
Then came the Stamp Act of 1765. This act required the use of stamped (embossed) paper for various legal documents, diplomas, almanacs, calendars, newspapers, playing cards, with a schedule of duties to be paid for each stamp. Opposition was widespread and immediate. Out of this act came the Stamp Act riots in New York and the Stamp Act Congress, from which came the Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress, calling for the repeal of the Stamp Act. Go read this now and then come back. Also came the Sons of Liberty, who organized resistance — sometimes violent — to the Stamp Act, mainly in the form of nonimportation agreements (boycotts).
So began the alienation of the American colonies from Great Britain.
Parliament did indeed repeal the Stamp Act, mainly due to pressure from British businesses losing money on the boycotts, but also passed the Declaratory Act of 1766, which stated in part, that Parliament “had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.’
In 1767, Charles Townshend had much the same idea as Grenville before him: go get some money out of those American colonies. After all, they didn’t pay their fair share of the war. Thus came the Townshend Acts, which placed new duties on lead, glass, paint, paper and tea, dissolved the New York Assembly, and once again tightened up the customs service. Opposition to these acts was fierce but mostly nonviolent, taking the form of nonimportation agreements.
In 1768 the crown sent troops to occupy Boston, where they stood causing mayhem until the March 5, 1770 Boston Massacre. A confrontation between a local merchant and a sentry guarding the customs house escalated as additional troops arrived to confront a growing mob. At one point someone yelled “Fire’ and the redcoats opened fire on the mob, killing five and injuring six others. Shortly afterward all of the Townshend Acts taxes were repealed except the duty on tea.
People such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere were able to use incidents and confrontations between colonists and British troops such as this to ignite passions against the British Empire, but in 1770 the populace was not quite ready for their viewpoints. (It might be said that they never were quite ready, but that’s a debate for another forum.) But repeated incidents all over the colonies eventually would give Americans the idea that the British were openly hostile to them.
Continuing through 1773 Americans mostly continued to boycott tea due to the tax placed on it, even though it was a favorite drink. So the crown passed the Tea Act, which lowered the tax to 3p per pound of tea, but required that tea going to America be shipped on East India Company ships and marketed only by distributors chosen by the East India Company. Most of the ships, on arrival, assessed the situation, never unloaded and headed back to England. But in Boston, something else would happen. Governor Thomas Hutchinson‘s relatives were the local agents who would distribute the tea, and so he wanted it delivered. When the captain of the Dartmouth, (not the same Dartmouth which sank in 1721) one of the three ships carrying the tea, decided to return to England, he was not permitted to leave port. At that point, a group of men disguised as Indians boarded the ships, brought the cargo above deck, split it open and dumped tea into Boston Harbor. King George III was royally pissed, and the American public became even more divided.
In 1774 Parliament then introduced the Coercive Acts, known in America as the Intolerable Acts. These included the Administration of Justice Act, which colonists referred to as the Murder Act, which provided that British soldiers who were accused of crimes could not be tried in the colonies, instead being sent to English courts where they invariably were acquitted; the Massachusetts Government Act, which revoked the colony’s charter, severely limited town meetings and replaced most local elected officials with royal appointees; the Boston Port Act, which closed Boston’s seaport and demanded that the city reimburse the East India Company for its lost tea before the port would be reopened; an amendment to the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to provide living quarters to British soldiers in already occupied homes, where previously they could only quarter in unoccupied buildings; and the Quebec Act, which established government for the colony of Quebec, complete with Roman Catholicism as the official religion. Most colonists were Protestant, making the Quebec Act truly frightening; even though it didn’t directly affect them, it showed the King’s willingness to establish the Church of Rome in America.
After seeing what happened to Massachusetts, many more colonists were ready to accept more radical views, and the First Continental Congress convened in September of 1774. It intended to petition the British government for redress, and produced the Declaration of Rights and Grievances and a resolution to convene again the following year if the grievances had not been addressed. Again, go read it and then come back. It is striking that in each declaration to this point, the colonists appealed to their rights as English citizens to be treated equally with any person born in London. It should not surprise anyone familiar with British government, though, that the colonists were not treated equally.
In 1775 Parliament, upon reading that declaration, declared the American colonies in a state of rebellion, and passed the New England Restraining Act, restricting trade with the New England colonies, and eventually with all of the colonies. But too late: in Lexington the first shot had been fired, eight Americans were dead, and British troops moved on to Concord, where Americans, seeing smoke and thinking the British had set fire to the town, drove the British all the way back to Boston in a nearly complete rout.
So began the fighting in what would become the American Revolution (or the American War for Independence).
Shortly afterward the Second Continental Congress convened, initially looking to heal the breach in relations between the colonies and the crown. On July 6, 1775, the Congress published the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Go read it and then come back. It warned that if colonists’ grievances could not be redressed, then independence would be the likely result. The Congress remained in session for the next year, and finally in 1776, published the Declaration of Independence with which most are familiar, but if you haven’t read it in the last year, go and do so now, then come back.
The Second Continental Congress served as an ad-hoc interim government throughout and after the war, until the Constitution was established.
After eight years of bloody fighting in which many good men, women and children made the ultimate sacrifice to defend liberty from oppression, the Treaty of Paris in 1783 brought a formal end to the war. From the first casualties at Lexington and Concord, to the people who did not survive the winter at Valley Forge, to the final battles of the war, over 25,000 Americans gave their lives so that their families, neighbors, countrymen and descendants would not have to live under tyranny.
What I want you to remember this July 4 is that we must ensure that their sacrifice is not in vain. If tyranny anything like (or unlike) that which America endured ever rises here again, then we have failed at preserving the liberty which they left us, and every word, every action, every death, has been for nothing.
There are signs of tyranny rising all around us today, even from right here within our borders, and as Americans, we must once again resist any attempts to oppress us, especially since of late they come in the guise of “protecting us from terrorism.’ Do not for a moment think that “homeland security’ is more important than freedom. Indeed, we cannot have true security without the liberty our forefathers fought and died for. If we sacrifice liberty for a false promise of security, we would see the rise of the same sort of totalitarian police state that they endured and finally threw off in 1776, or some similar variant. Ben Franklin had the foresight to warn us against this: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’
You can help defend liberty here at home, even if you aren’t in the military.
I call on all Americans to remember why our brothers and sisters choose to join the military: to defend our liberty. It is disrespectful, dishonorable and demeaning to their service and their sacrifices to support anything here at home which undermines the liberty they and our forefathers fought and died to secure.
I call on all Americans to oppose any law, resolution, measure, regulation, ordinance, or decision made by any government official at any level which tends to restrict those liberties, rather than preserve or expand them, and to support any such law, resolution, measure, regulation, ordinance or decision which tends to preserve or expand our freedom.
I call on all Americans to look deeper than the unbalanced TV and the biased newspaper to find your information on what goes on in the country and in the world today. Without being well informed, you can’t make a good decision, and you can be easily misled. Those who would reduce you to oppression are counting on your being poorly informed or misinformed. Do not let that happen. Become informed and evaluate critically any information you receive, because there’s a whole lot of crap out there.
I call on all Americans to think critically about what your government officials say to you. Determine for yourself, using whatever information you can find, whether they are telling the truth, or lying, or simply ill-informed. Then make your own decisions on whether you want those officials serving in office.
I call on all Americans to elect to office only those people who are truly committed to preserving and defending the liberty our forefathers fought and died for, not those who simply pay them lip service and then enact oppressive laws which restrict your liberty further and provide no benefit to anyone but their lobbyists’ employers. America has had thousands of Tea Acts since, but where were the tea parties?
I call on all Americans to pass this message of liberty to everyone you can reach, anywhere in the world.