Independence Day

Independence Day, the most important patriotic holiday in the U.S., celebrates the birth of the nation. In 1776, the 13 American colonies were in the midst of the Revolu­tionary War against Great Britain. On July 2, the Second Continental Congress (which had representatives from all 13 colonies) passed a resolution of independence. Two days later, this body adopted the Declaration of Independence-a documentthat de­clared the colonies free and independent. In taking these actions, these revolutionary leaders were risking their lives, and they knew it. If the colonies had lost the war, these leaders would probably all have been executed for Independence Day treason. Ben Franklin told the other members of the Continental Congress, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

The Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson, who later became the young nation's third president. The document listed the abuses that the colonists had suffered at the hands of Great Britain and its king, George III.Its most famous para­graph summed up ideals that are still held by Americans today:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Independence Day unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness-That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.

These words implied, among other things, that government should be the servant of the people, not the other way around.

After making a few changes on Jefferson's draft, on July 4, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress accepted the revised version. The document was quickly printed and announced to the public on July 8. The news of independence was greeted enthu­siastically by most colonists. The following day Independence Day, in New York City, an excited crowd pulled down a statue of King George III. Later, its lead was melted down to make bul­lets for the war.

On July 19, Congress ordered the Declaration of Independence written on parchment in special script. The members of the Continental Congress signed this fancy document. Today, this originalsigned copy is on display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Among the 56 signatures, one name stands out. It is the large, fancy signature of John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress. Today, his name is often used as a Independence Day synonym for the word signature. When asked to sign a legal document, Ameri­cans are sometimes told, "Put your John Hancock right here."

Since Independence Day is a summer holiday and a day off from work for almost everyone, many families enjoy picnics or beach outings. The occasion is also commem­orated by colorful and noisy fireworksdisplays, parades, and, in some communities, patriotic speeches. The flag is flown, and red, white, and blue ribbons are used for dec­oration at public ceremonies.

On the Fourth of July weekend of 1999, Americans heard good news. On the nation's birthday Independence Day, President Bill Clinton announced the rebirth of the national bird, the bald eagle. (No, this majestic bird isn't bald. The white feathers on its head just make it look that way.) Like the nation it represents, the bald eagle has survived good times and bad. At one time, about half a million of these huge birds flew in the skies of North America.

By 1963, bald eagles were close to extinction. Only 417 breeding pairs remained in the contiguous 48 states. Hunters, pesticides, power lines, and loss of habitat caused this decline. Then the Endangered Species Act led to protective meas Independence Day­ures. Today, the U.S.A. is home to about 6,000 pairs of these powerful birds, and they are being taken off the endangered species list. Americans are delighted. They laugh when they recall that Benjamin Franklin wanted the national bird to be the turkey. The high-flying bald eagle seems much more appropriate for a nation so proud of its power and independence.

Check your comprehension.

Why is the Fourth of July an important American holiday?

What happened on July 4, 1776?

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