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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Independence took more than a day

This 1876 engraving by W.L. Ormsby shows a version of the painting “Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776,” by John Trumbull. Signing actually began Aug. 2, and the image of all the delegates standing around waiting to sign is a myth because some had gone home and signed later.  (Library of Congress)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What is Independence Day?

Like many nations, Americans celebrate a day when they became independent from another country or regime. We celebrate July 4, although that date marks something that was neither the beginning nor the end of the 13 colonies’ long road to independence from Great Britain.

It is the date on the top of the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress on that date in 1776. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson with some editing help from John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and a few others, the declaration gave reasons for breaking away from Great Britain because of what colonists regarded as acts of tyranny by King George III and Parliament.

But the declaration was just a milepost in a long journey from a loose association of separate British colonies to a new nation.

Here are some other days key to America’s independence:

Feb. 10, 1763

For more than a century, most residents of those colonies considered themselves British subjects with governors appointed by the king and some limited authority over local matters. Between 1756 and 1763, colonists fought with British troops in a war with France that started on American soil and spread to much of Europe. In the United States, that’s known as the French and Indian War, although in Europe it’s referred to as the Seven Years War.

The British eventually beat the French, who had to give up claims to much of their territory in North America. But the war was expensive, and one way the British wanted to help cover the costs was through taxes. They also wanted to restrict the colonists from moving beyond the Appalachians to settle in what was then considered Indian territory.

Colonists objected to the restrictions and to Parliament placing taxes on common items such as paper, paint and eventually tea, when they had no representation.

Dec. 16, 1773

Angry over the tax on tea, a group of Boston residents calling themselves the Sons of Liberty masqueraded as Native Americans, boarded ships in the harbor and threw more than 340 chests of tea belonging to the British East India Co. into the harbor.

In response, Parliament passed a series of laws to punish the colonies, including closing Boston Harbor until the tea was paid for; ending the Massachusetts constitution and free elections of town officials and creating martial law in that colony. They sent extra troops to Boston and required colonists to feed and house them. Rather than putting down the rebellion, it had the opposite effect. There were “tea dumping” events in three other colonies.

Sept. 5, 1774

Delegates from every colony except Georgia, which was in the middle of a war with Native American tribes, gathered in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress. By October, they had drafted a declaration calling for the repeal of the laws Parliament passed after the Tea Party, a boycott of British goods, and for the training of a colonial militia. It also said the colonies had a right to govern independently, although it didn’t call for independence from Great Britain.

April 19, 1775

British troops in Boston were ordered to go to Concord, Massachusetts, to capture leaders of the rebellion and the militia’s arsenal. Militia members, known as the minutemen, tried to block a bridge at nearby Lexington. The British commander ordered the colonists to leave; they didn’t. A shot was fired, although no one knows from which side. Both sides opened fire and eight colonists were killed.

The minutemen dispersed, but the call went out around the countryside and by the time the British reached Concord more than 100 members of the militia had gathered there. The British destroyed the arsenal but on the way back to Boston, minutemen marksmen firing from behind trees and stone walls had killed some 300 redcoats. It is considered the first battle of the American Revolution, after which colonists laid siege to Boston.

July 2, 1776

A Second Continental Congress was called to Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. It started with professing loyalty to Great Britain, but in June authorized a Continental Army and put George Washington in command. It issued what was called the Olive Branch Petition, asking King George III for help in resolving their differences, but the king rejected it.

Washington and the Continental Army came to Boston to assist with the siege, and with captured artillery forced the British to evacuate the city. The sentiment for independence grew, and in June a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress introduced a resolution of independence. The resolution that the colonies were “free and independent states” passed 12-0 on July 2, but the congress appointed a committee to draft the formal wording, which was the Declaration of Independence debated and approved two days later.

John Adams was so excited about the July 2 vote that he wrote his wife, Abigail, predicting that day would be celebrated for future generations as “the great anniversary festival.” But July 4 was on the top of the declaration, and its soaring rhetoric proclaiming rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was reprinted and circulated to the colonies.

Because of a painting by John Trumbull, many Americans believe the delegates gathered round and signed the declaration that day. But it had to be transcribed and written on parchment. Signing began Aug. 2, and the image of all the delegates standing around waiting to sign is a myth because some had gone home and signed later.

Oct. 17, 1777

The final battle of Saratoga, New York, when American forces led by General Horatio Gates defeated the British forces moving south from Canada into New York. The victory convinced the French that despite a string of losses, the colonists could beat the British, and sealed a key alliance for the new nation. Without the French, independence might never have been achieved.

Oct. 19, 1781

The Continental Army under George Washington, and its French allies that included the Marquis de Lafayette, marched from New York to Yorktown, Virginia, where a large contingent of British troops under the command of Gen. Charles Cornwallis was garrisoned. Cornwallis was hoping for supplies to be delivered by the British navy and had his troops dug in at Yorktown.

But the American and French forces began a siege, and the French fleet blocked the British ships from delivering the supplies. After the Americans and French breached the British redoubts, a British counterattack failed and Cornwallis’ troops faced the prospect of annihilating artillery fire from three sides.

The British negotiated terms and surrendered on Oct. 19. It was the last major battle of the war, although the last British troops wouldn’t leave New York until 1783.

Sept. 3, 1783

Another Treaty of Paris, some 20 years after the one that ended the French and Indian War, formally ending the American war was negotiated for more than a year and finally signed on this date. American negotiators included Franklin, John Jay and Adams. In it, Great Britain recognized American independence and ceded claims on most of its territory east of the Mississippi River, expanding the size of the new nation. The Continental Congress ratified it on Jan. 14, 1784.