I like to celebrate the fourth of July by reading the Declaration of Independence aloud. I like to focus on the words and really think about what led a group of people to take such an incredible step. For a small, struggling, disorganized group of colonies to sever ties with one of the most prominent world powers at the time is fascinating to consider.
Not unlike art or literature, history has documents and incidents that stand out—the rock stars, if you will, of the discipline. Yet, we can’t overshadow the ground work and influences that made these shining moments possible. The Declaration of Independence did not come out of nowhere, this was not a knee-jerk reaction to one event.
“Teacher’s Resources,” provided by Colonial Williamsburg says, “The Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament on March 22, 1765. The new tax was imposed on all American colonists and required them to pay a tax on every piece of printed paper they used. Ships’ papers, legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications and even playing cards were taxed. The money collected by the Stamp Act was to be used to help pay the costs of defending and protecting the American frontier near the Appalachian Mountains (10,000 troops were to be stationed on the American frontier for this purpose).”
Many people don’t know that we had riots in Wilmington in response to The Stamp Act. As a result, William Houston, the stamp distributor for The Crown in North Carolina, resigned from office. When the stamps arrived here, no one received them; therefore, goods could not leave the port.
“Not a Conquered People: Two Carolinas View Parliamentary Taxation” is a book to read and learn more about these events. The Stamp Act was repealed by Parliament on July 10, 1765.
In 1774 the First Continental Congress created the Continental Association, which was a boycott on British products imported to the colonies. (North Carolina’s signing representatives included two of the future signers of the Declaration of Independence, William Hooper and Joseph Hewes.) Again from Colonial Williamsburg’s “Teacher Resources,” a Williamsburg lady wrote to a London friend about Virginia’s day of protest; it appeared in an English newspaper:
“Never since my Residence in Virginia have I ever seen so large a Congregation as was this Day assembled to hear Divine Service. What will be the event God knows . . . We expect there will be a Stop put to Importation and Exportation, which may fall heavy on England, as she depends chiefly on her Trade. America has every thing within herself that is necessary and convenient . . . and can do much better without England than England can without her.”
It got England’s attention alright. The British responded by blocking access to the North Atlantic fishing area and passing legislation prohibiting the colonies from exporting goods to any other country, except Britain and the British Indies. Things, as they say, came to a head with the outbreak of the American Revolution. During the Continental Association, compliance was enforced by local authority and the tar-and-feather treatment was not far off. Steps were taken to prevent price gouging and to curb extravagance.
These two instances were instrumental in adopting and signing the Declaration of Independence in order to allow people to question control over their economic destiny. Colonies had historically existed to enrich the home country with natural resources (timber, tobacco, cotton, minerals, etc.), and to provide a market for goods and a location for prisoners. For a colony to insist that it would no longer play by the rules because the rules had become too onerous was to say, at the very least, surprising. I find it interesting that when you get right down to it, the first solution they saw was a local purchasing preference policy (actually, it was a total boycott, which is a much more drastic version of the principle). Instead of bleeding the colonies and the colonists dry, they decided that the best hope was to keep their money here.
Maybe this year while were are thinking about Independence Day, we can spend some time applying those principles: Visit the farmers’ markets for locally grown veggies or Pine Valley Market to buy local and regional meats for the grill. Wash it down with locally brewed beer (made at home or from Front Street Brewery). This year, when we think about Independence Day, let’s really party like it’s 1776!