Why do we celebrate the Fourth of July? Is it because Americans simply like to watch fireworks or are they celebrating something more meaningful? The Fourth of July or Independence Day is America’s birthday. America was “born” on July 4, 1776 when it announced to the world that it no longer wanted to be a part of Great Britain. Many colonists wanted to separate from Great Britain because they felt they were being denied their rights as British citizens. One of their biggest complaints was that they were being taxed without their consent. And when Great Britain refused to listen to their complaints, they yearned more and more for freedomand independence.
Why were freedom and independence so important to the colonists? Maybe you can relate their situation to something in your own life. Have you ever felt your parents were limiting your freedom and independence? Have you ever had to follow rules that you thought were really unfair? Well that’s sort of how many colonists felt when dealing with their mother country, Great Britain. The colonists had been running most of their own affairs from the time they first arrived in the New World. Each colony had its own legislature, or group of people who make laws. The colonists had begun to feel very grown up. Yet in 1763, Great Britain started making more rules and behaving like a very strict parent. The colonists resented this. But Great Britain thought it knew what was best for the colonists. The mother country had never stopped viewing them as little children. In 1775, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “We have an old mother that peevish (annoyed) has grown; She snubs (dismisses) us like children that scarce (rarely) walk alone; she forgets we’re grown up and have sense of our own.”
King George and his ministers refused to believe that the colonists were grown up and capable of ruling themselves. In a way, the King thought of himself as the colonists’ father. Even England's William Pitt, who was a friend of the colonists, wrote, "This is the mother country, they are the children; they must obey, and we set the rules." Part of the problem was that almost none of the English leaders had been to the colonies--or cared to go. King George himself had never even been on a boat!
The English colonists had begun settling the New World roughly 200 years before demanding independence from Great Britain. Over time, each colony had set up its own government and built everything up from scratch. Colonists weren't very united, however.
A good example of this was when the colonies couldn't agree on a united defense against the French during the French and Indian War. In general, colonists were usually only concerned about what was happening in their own colonies. In the days when travel was slow and difficult, roads were rough and muddy. There were few bridges over streams and rivers so, most colonists stayed close to home and didn't think too much about distant places. Why should a New Yorker be concerned about what was happening in Massachusetts? At this point, the farthest thing from the colonists' minds was starting a new country!
Did you know that in 1717, it took one month for a letter to get from Boston to Williamsburg, Virginia? In winter, it took two months!
While the colonists weren't devoted to each other, most did feel devoted to their mother country. After all, Britain's powerful army and navy protected the Americans from the Indians, the Spanish and the French. Also, Britain traded with the colonists and helped them become very prosperous. Incredibly, by the time of the American Revolution, the colonists were the most prosperous people in the world! It is not surprising then that American general George Washington toasted the health of King George III as late as 1776!
One other thing really pleased the colonists. It was their system of government. Like people in Britain, the colonists enjoyed representative government. A representative government is a government where people are elected to make laws. The colonists' lawmakers worked very hard to protect colonists' rights and help their fellow citizens. This was much better than in other countries where people had few rights and no say in government. No wonder the colonists took great pride in their representative system of government. And no wonder they took great pride in being a part of the British Empire.
Sadly, the relationship between the colonists and England took a turn for the worse several years before the colonists declared their independence. This happened for many reasons. You are about to discover why the colonists wanted their freedom and why they were willing to risk everything to obtain it.
CONFLICT WITH GREAT BRITAIN
French and Indian War
As you know, the colonists were loyal British subjects for many years. They even helped fight against the French during the French and Indian War. Fought between 1754-1763, the French and Indian War was a conflict between the French and the British over land in North America. The French and the British both wanted this land. So when the English colonists began to move onto lands in the Ohio Valley claimed by the French, the French became very upset. French colonists who had been making a living by trapping animals and trading with Indians now had to contend with British competitors. Even worse, the English colonists were destroying hunting grounds by clearing forests for farms.
A color sketch of a British grenadier soldier during the French and Indian War. His job was to throw grenades.
The French decided to build forts to protect themselves. However, this didn't stop the English colonists. Neither side was willing to compromise. So in 1754, the war began. At first things weren't going so well for Great Britain and her colonies. They were losing battle after battle. Things changed though when William Pitt became head of the British government. He sent Britain's finest generals to North America. At the same time, Britain also began pouring more money into the war to pay for additional military supplies and services. In the end, Great Britain won the war. They also gained control of Canada and all French lands east of the Mississippi River. Great Britain and the colonists fought side by side against the French. Who would have thought that just a few years later, they'd be fighting against each other?