On April 18, 1775, British troops were sent to Lexington, Massachusetts, to seize weaponry held by the Colonial militia. The famous ride by Paul Revere alerted the citizens, and the British troops arrived to see 77 American minutemen waiting on the village green. The 'shot heard round the world' was fired, and with it, the fight for America's independence had begun.
A little over one year later, the Second Continental Congress convened to address the latest efforts in the war and decide how to proceed. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress approved a resolution for independence, and on July 4, 1776, the members of Congress approved the official document explaining their decision, The Declaration of Independence. With its publication, America legally became an independent nation.
However, The Declaration of Independence actually did very little for the cause of independence. Fighting between the American army and the British army would continue for over five more years, and the official treaty ending the war was not signed until September 3, 1783. With the Treaty of Paris, the British crown officially recognized the colonies as independent, and therefore, America's independence was secured. Why do we celebrate July 4 as Independence Day instead of other dates such as September 3?
Tradition could be one reason. Although July 4 would not become an official federal holiday until 1870, the date was celebrated as early as 1777, one year after the Declaration was adopted. With the revolution still being fought, the only date that we had to celebrate was July 4. Bristol, Rhode Island, celebrated July 4 in 1777, and it hosts the longest-running Independence Day celebration, having been held continuously since 1785. Since celebrations of Independence Day were taking place before the treaty was signed, it certainly is possible that the tradition of celebrating it on July 4 was well-established before the war ended.
Another possible reason could be found in the way that the revolution ended. The fighting in America died down following Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown in October 1781. Following this defeat, political support for the war in Britian faded and forced the pro-war Prime Minister to resign the following March. The peace party took control of Parliament and voted to end the war in April 1782. A preliminary agreement for peace was reached in November of 1782, but the official treaty was not signed until September 3, 1783. The US ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784, and Britain ratified it on April 9, 1784. This period of two and a half years likely downplayed the significance of the treaty in the eyes of the Americans.
However, there could be a more intentional reason this day is celebrated. Our founding fathers were very wise, and they left us clues in many of their decisions. Perhaps this was another calculated decision by wise men to celebrate not the victory in war that gained our independence, but the bravery of men to stand up for their rights. What we celebrate on July 4th is the day when our founders stated that Americans will take no more encroachment of their rights. While it may have seemed easy to sit in a room and sign a paper (especially as troops were fighting at that very moment), that signature was considered treason by the British, and they certainly knew that anyone who signed that paper would be put to death if captured.
In the celebration of July 4th, we have a reminder that independence and freedom are won by those who put their foot down and refuse to tolerate anything which would take it away. As we look around America today, this is a message we desperately need to remember. As an expanding government begins to encroach on the rights of American citizens, we need a new generation of brave men and women to stand up to our government and tell them that we have had enough loss of freedom in this nation. As we celebrate this day with fireworks, grills, and parades, may we also remember that it is our job to defend the freedom that America enjoys. As Ronald Reagan put it, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free." May America never experience the day when freedom is talked about, but not enjoyed.