Independence Day has only been a federal holiday since 1941, but July 4th has been celebrated as our country’s birthday since the eighteenth century. Fittingly, the first celebration took place in Philadelphia, site of the Declaration of Independence and home of the Jack Miller Center, in 1776, mere days after the Declaration was signed. The celebration continued as an annual event in Philadelphia and soon became widespread in the new nation.
Celebratory activities have not changed much since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – like our forefathers, we read the Declaration aloud, hold parades, and shoot off fireworks. Here in Philadelphia, we symbolically tap the Liberty Bell thirteen times each year to remember the hard-won success of the original thirteen colonies.
In recognition of Independence Day, the Jack Miller Center presents the following collection of resources about the Declaration of Independence, its history and its political and theoretical legacy. A number of JMC fellows have written about this document’s importance and the ways in which it has contributed to our nation’s political identity.
Below is a collection of resources exploring the Declaration of Independence, its history, and its political and theoretical legacy. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
From JMC’s First Amendment Library:
When the tension between the colonists and the British crown came to a head with a violent confrontation between British soldiers and the Massachusetts militia in April of 1775, American leaders from the thirteen colonies convened a Continental Congress to organize an army to fight for their independence. In July of the following year, this Congress issued a declaration of the colonies’ independence from Great Britain. This declaration justified the colonies’ rebellion by stating “self-evident” “truths” about the purpose and foundation of government and by explaining how the British government had consistently failed to meet the standards of those truths. This articulation of a classical liberal conception of government, based on equality and natural rights, would serve as the moral foundation of the United States’ Constitution.
The original Constitution of the United States proposed for ratification by the Federal Convention of 1787 lacked any explicit reference to freedom of speech or of the press. According to the Federalist Framers of the Constitution, explicit provisions for such freedoms as speech and the press were unnecessary, since the Constitution granted only certain narrow powers to Congress. They argued that by including a Bill of Rights, which seemed to imply such a Bill was necessary, the Constitution might taken as implying that the Congress had more power than it did. Despite this argument, the absence of a Bill of Rights was incredibly unpopular and nearly cost it its ratification.
Only a month after the Constitution was printed and distributed, the first ratifying convention took place in Pennsylvania. The ratification process went relatively smoothly for a couple months after that, with five state conventions approving ratification with little difficulty. In January of 1788, however, the ratifying convention in Massachusetts devolved into a bitter and even violent deadlock, largely over the question of a bill of rights. Only by promising to introduce a Bill of Rights as amendments were the Federalist supporters of the Constitution able to break the deadlock and secure ratification in Massachusetts. Without this strategy, which was subsequently adopted in other states with Federalist minorities, the Constitution could not have been ratified. Despite the reservations of many of the Federalists, who had a commanding majority in the first Congress, James Madison recognized the necessity of keeping their promise and adding a Bill of Rights quickly in order to secure the legitimacy of the new government. He submitted a proposal for seventeen amendments based on the Virginia Declaration of rights early in 1789. This proposal went through four stages of rigorous debate and revision in the House and the Senate before being approved by Congress in September of 1789. Of the twelve articles in the approved amendments, ten were ratified as by the states over the course of the next two years, becoming what is now known as our Bill of Rights. The first of these ten included the provision that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Selected online resources on the Declaration of Independence:
What did the Founders mean by equality? Did they understand it differently than we do? Who among history’s great political thinkers influenced those who authored the Declaration? And how might the Founders shed light on our own concerns with equality today? We put these and other questions to the nation’s leading scholars of American political thought.
The What So Proudly We Hail online curriculum offers an ebook,“The Meaning of Independence Day,” that explores the ideas behind the American Founding and their significance for our present personal freedoms and national flourishing. The ebook contains over 50 selections, from colonial times to the present, chosen and arranged to illuminate a series of themes: declaring, securing, and maintaining independence; the promise of the new republic; seeking a more perfect union (with special attention to securing equal rights for African Americans and women); and celebrating the holiday and remembering its national promise. Each selection includes a brief introduction by the editors with guiding questions for discussion.
Explore the history of Independence Day and “sign” the Declaration yourself at the National Archives, the home of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
This interactive Declaration of Independence combines a high-resolution scan of the 1823 facsimile with a full-text transcription of the text, an annotated version of John Trumbull’s 1819 painting of the signing of the document, and an interactive map that plots the signers’ hometowns.
John Adams believed July 2 would be “the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” The National Archives provides insight into Adams’s dreams for our national holiday and why he believed that we would celebrate it on July 2.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on the Declaration of Independence, Independence Day, or their histories and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.