Life moves fast, and we hardly ever have time to stop and reflect.
That’s what holidays provide: a chance to think about how far we’ve come (both as individuals and as a community), and to take stock of our place in history.
The Fourth of July is the pinnacle of American holidays. Amid all of the pomp and circumstance, the barbecues, and the fireworks, however, it can be easy to overlook the actual reason for celebration.
If you’re a recent immigrant to the United States, it’s especially important to know the story behind the holiday.
Why? Because America is a nation founded by immigrants. So on the Fourth of July, we celebrate people like you, along with the many generations of immigrants that came to American shores over the last two-hundred and forty-five years.
The Fight Behind the Fourth
Let’s rewind the clocks to the early 17th Century. If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton (or know the lyrics by heart), you’re well ahead of the game.
Before the United States became “one nation under God,” it comprised 13 colonies, largely disassociated colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America.
Each of these colonies was founded by the British Empire, the first of which was established in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. People from all walks of life left England and risked their lives to establish these early colonies.
Some were fueled by economic ambitions while others sought a religious safe haven.
By 1770, over two million people inhabited the colonies that spanned from New England to Georgia (and parts of Florida).
As the colonies expanded, so did international discontent. From 1754-1763, The French and Indian War saw the disparate British colonies fight to retain their land against French hostilities.
At the start of the war, Benjamin Franklin’s iconic “Join, or Die” cartoon depicted the thirteen colonies as severed parts of a snake. He hoped this visceral image would convince the colonies to band together and create a unified government replete with its own military, legislation, and taxation.
The colonies would indeed form an alliance, but the price of that alliance would cost far more than Franklin ever imagined.
On The Brink of War
The British army and their colonial constituents handily won the French and Indian War. As a result, the ever-expanding British Empire increased their military presence in North America, and with it, they added an increasingly long list of new taxes to recoup the money spent on the war.
To fuel its imperial ambitions, the British Empire saw the fledgling Americas as a reliable source of income.
These taxes were widely seen as an encroachment on the individual rights of the colonies, which had already established their own systems of government.
In other words, the American colonies were victims of an oppressive government.
The first significant British overstep came in 1765, when parliament voted to levy The Stamp Act on American colonists. Then, in 1767, the British voted to tax all goods sent from England to the colonists, including tea, glass, paint, and paper.
This enraged the colonists.
As tensions boiled, a series of rebellions erupted, including the Boston Massacre of 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Finally, the volcanic discord between the colonies and the Empire erupted in 1775 at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, where American militiamen and British soldiers fired upon each other for the first time.
Remembered as “the shot heard round the world,” this bloody skirmish resulted in the deaths of seventy-three British and forty-nine colonists.
To be clear, not all of the American colonists were bloodthirsty, and many strived to avoid war at all costs — though many delegates of the Continental Congress (the group that would ultimately pass the Declaration of Independence) believed war was inevitable.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in November of 1775, “There is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britain than I do. But, by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.”
Though there were multiple attempts to reconcile with the British Empire, King George rejected them all.
Thus began the Revolutionary War, which by July of the following year would see the birth of The Declaration of Independence.
What The Declaration Declared
The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence opens with the indelible lines:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
In addition to being a statement of freedom — and perhaps the most epic break-up letter ever written — the Declaration of Independence is ultimately a list of grievances.
Indeed, the document contains twenty-seven individual objections to the British Empire’s coercive rule over the colonies.
With deadly precision, the Declaration aims squarely at King George himself, claiming, “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”
The document was officially signed by representatives from all thirteen colonies and passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776.
Past, Present, & Future
History can be dense, but the story behind the Fourth of July resonates today. It’s more than a holiday; it’s an ideal that shines as brightly as the Statue of Liberty herself, on which Emma Lazarus’ promising poetry reads,
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
And yet, as we know, the hope for freedom can be easily extinguished. In recent months, the Declaration of Independence and its authors have come under intense scrutiny for falling short of their own ideals.
Both historical and modern injustices have cast their shadow over the assertion that “all men are created equal.”
The cry for freedom has echoed since 1776, and countless men and women have reminded the American people to live up to their civic duty.
Abraham Lincoln himself recognized that while the Declaration of Independence established values that might never be truly achieved, it still deserves our best efforts to sustain.
As Lincoln said in 1857, the maxim that “all men are created equal” should be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Ultimately, the Fourth of July is a day of renewal where Americans of all creeds stand united in the preservation and advancement of liberty and justice for all.
When the first colonists left England in the early 17th century, they were self-described “strangers in a strange land.” But by their sacrifices, they built a country that could hold the disparate views, desires, and lifestyles of the whole world and allow them all to prosper.
The American story is an immigrant story, and on July 4th, we are truly proud to celebrate it.
We’re dedicated to furthering your future and your freedom — at home and abroad.
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