On July 4, the United States celebrates the 245th anniversary of its existence. It is a commemoration of the day in 1776 when representatives of the 13 British colonies signed the Declaration of Independence, a separation from Great Britain.
The decision to break ties with the English monarchy was years in the making, and ultimately stemmed from two seemingly unrelated but intertwined causes. The first was a long-term drive by the English Government to impose ever-tighter control over the colonists. Second was the imposition of taxes on the colonists as a means to discharge the huge debts of the English Crown, many of them accrued as a result of the 1754 French and Indian war: a continuation of England’s centuries-long, on-again, off-again war with France.
Beginning in 1764, the English Parliament began to impose taxes specifically intended to raise money from the colonials for the Crown, first on sugar, and then on an ever-growing list of goods including newspapers, glass, legal documents, paint, and tea. The imposition of each new tax was met with organized protest.
Eventually the taxes became punitive, the protests more violent, and government response increasingly more restrictive. The situation was particularly acrimonious in Boston. The final straw came in February 1775, when the British Parliament shut down Boston harbor. Boston began to prepare for war. Thus, although the American Revolutionary War did not officially begin until July 4, 1776, the first battle was fought just west of Boston on April 19, 1775.
In the Revolution’s aftermath, the leaders of the fledgling United States remembered the abuses of British rule. Governed by the liberal ideals of the Enlightenment, they turned the conventional relationship between the government and the governed on its head. The top-down government headed by a hereditary ruling class was replaced by the principle of elected national and state executives. Common citizens played increasingly important roles in local and state governance, and as more people gained the right to vote, political participation increased. Within a decade, this idea galvanized democratic and independence movements around the globe.
As Thomas Jefferson, later the third President of the United States, wrote in the Declaration of Independence to justify the American colonies’ decision to break away from Britain, “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”