On July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is exactly what it sounds like: an announcement to the world that the United States of America was declaring its independence from King George III and Great Britain. The declaration came more than a year (442 days to be exact) after shots were fired at Lexington, Massachusetts, considered the beginning of the first battle of the American Revolutionary War.
The Declaration 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. This was a big deal. The British had ruled the colonies since the early 17th century when Virginia Company became the Virginia Colony in 1624, the first of what we consider the original thirteen British colonies.
The US wasn’t the only part of the world – or even the only part of the Americas – subject to British colonization. The British had also taken over parts of Canada, the Caribbean, and South America. Their influence and wealth were vast, and their holdings were enormous.
But ruling the world gets expensive. Guarding colonies and occasionally invading new ones takes money and sometimes resulted in fights with other empires. That’s exactly what happened in the mid-18th century when Great Britain found itself battling a number of countries – but primarily France – in the Seven Years’ War. When the war ended in 1763, Great Britain retained much of its world dominance but the years of fighting came at a significant cost: the British government was nearly bankrupt.
The King 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 muffle the complaining. There was just one problem with this plan: the King underestimated exactly how loudly the colonists would react.
The first big post-war tax, the Stamp Act of 1765, required that materials which were printed and used in the colonies, like magazines and newspapers, be produced on stamped paper and embossed with a revenue stamp, confirming that a tax had been paid on the materials. The idea of the tax didn’t go over very well, and the Stamp Act was repealed the very next year.
The second attempt at raising revenue was a series of acts which came to be known as the Townshend Acts of 1767 (individually, they were the Revenue Act of 1767, the Indemnity Act, the Commissioners of Customs Act, the Vice Admiralty Court Act, and the New York Restraining Act). The idea behind the series of taxes, after the failure of the Stamp Act, was to try a system of indirect taxes since the colonists had reacted so strongly to the direct stamp tax. However, the result was no different. The colonists were not pleased with the new system which required them to pay taxes on imports of paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea. Three years after the taxes were imposed, they were partially repealed.
Not every tax under the Townshend Acts was repealed, which irritated the colonists. In 1773, the Tea Act was imposed – on top of the remaining Townshend Acts – which was the last straw for many colonists. Interestingly, the Tea Act did not impose any new taxes on the colonies, but it did keep in place the duty on tea imported to the colonies established by the Townshend Act. The purpose of the Tea Act was to give the East India Tea Company a trade advantage, more or less cutting out the ability of the colonists to do business on their terms. The colonists viewed this as another way they were being controlled. The colonists plotted to disrupt the trade and turned away British ships carrying tea headed for Philadelphia and New York. Boston, however, was different. The Governor wouldn’t allow the ships to be turned back, and the colonists would not allow the ships to unload. It was a stand-off. Eventually, colonists snuck onto the ships and dumped out the tea – what 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 happened on December 16, 1773, long before the shots at Lexington and before the Declaration of Independence. What it did do pretty quickly, however, was annoy the British Parliament. As far as the British were concerned, the Tea Party was more or less the equivalent of the Americans throwing a giant tantrum and destroying their stuff. As a result, the Brits attempted to punish the Americans via the Coercive Acts. With the Coercive Acts, 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.
Alarmed, the columnists convened the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia on September 5, 1774, to consider their next steps. Resistance against the British increased – that’s what led to those first shots in Massachusetts triggering the Revolutionary War. The Second Continental Congress convened about two years later in Philadelphia. On July 2, 1776, that Second Continental Congress voted to separate from Britain. Two days later, on July 4, the Declaration was formally adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies (the one holdout of the colonies, New York, approved it a couple of weeks later).
The Declaration of Independence is technically a letter to the King. When the Declaration was being drafted, the colonists felt that it was important that the exact reasons for their unhappiness were made clear. The largest section of the Declaration – after the lines that we all memorized in elementary school – is a list of grievances. Of course, included in the list were taxes:
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
The word “Consent” was important. Under the British Constitution, no British subjects could be taxed without the consent of their representatives in Parliament. But the colonies didn’t elect representatives to Parliament. They were, however, clearly being taxed. The colonists considered the constant imposition of taxes without a vote to be unconstitutional. It was, they felt, “taxation without representation.”
The idea that the colonists had such little control over their own lives didn’t just lead to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the accompanying vote, it set the United States down the road to real independence. The Revolutionary War would last for five more years: in 1783, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, the United States formally became an independent nation.
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