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Image of painting of troops with guns in battle
Image of painting of troops with guns in battle
Painting of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (March 15, 1781) from Soldiers of the American Revolution by H. Charles McBarron.

For many, July Fourth weekend is synonymous with fireworks, cookouts, and packed beaches.

John Adams himself wrote that Independence Day should be celebrated with “pomp and parade” and “bonfires and illuminations.”  

But what’s often missing from our July Fourth celebrations are reflections and conversations about the history of American independence – the Continental Congress, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and the Revolutionary War. 

In the Q&A below, UNC Greensboro’s Dr. Greg O’Brien gives us a much-needed history lesson as we head into the holiday weekend. The professor of history recounts the birth of our nation, and shares stories that are often not told. 

What happened in the months leading up to July 4, 1776? 

July 4, 1776, was not the start or the end of the American Revolution. In fact, leading up to the summer of 1776, while the fighting with the British had already begun, the colonists had yet to declare independence as the goal of the war. The Continental Congress of 1775 had sent a petition to Britain saying they wanted to reform the relationship between Britain and the colonies. The king responded by saying that they were all rebels, and that they had to completely submit or they would be at war. So, eventually, there was no choice for the delegates but to declare independence or submit. 

Several of the colonies, particularly North Carolina and Virginia, instructed their delegates to put together a declaration of independence that the Continental Congress could vote on, and they eventually convinced nearly all of the other delegates to support independence. In June of 1776, the Continental Congress formed a committee to write the declaration. The first draft was primarily written by Thomas Jefferson, and then John Adams and Benjamin Franklin edited it. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress approved it. 

So why do we celebrate American Independence on July 4? 

John Adams famously wrote to his wife saying that July 2 would be remembered as the greatest day in our new nation’s history. The Declaration of Independence was approved on July 2, but they approved it knowing that they were going to make a few small changes. It took a couple of days to make those edits and print it. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence that we know was finished and printed. All of the delegates signed the document later that summer, in August. However, for several years, it was not at all apparent that the Americans, as they began to call themselves, would win. 

What was the role of African Americans during the Revolutionary War?

African Americans fought on both sides in the Revolutionary War, and slavery was a key issue. Virginia was by far the largest colony, and about 40% of the population was enslaved. The British issued a proclamation in 1775 declaring that all enslaved people in Virginia who joined the British would immediately be granted their freedom. Slave owners responded with anger and fear, and the remaining Virginia Loyalists became Patriots because they wanted to preserve slavery. We estimate that approximately 30,000 enslaved people in Virginia fled their owners and joined the British. In most cases, the British abandoned these people after the Battle of Yorktown. 

There were sizable free Black populations in New England, and so there were free Black men who fought alongside the Americans. There are accounts of enslaved people who performed service for the Patriot side, and gained their freedom as a result, but it’s a smaller number. 

What about American Indians? What was their role?

Most American Indian nations, if they got involved with the fighting, supported the British. The British were the primary European power throughout North America, and all American Indian groups, particularly east of the Mississippi, engaged in trade with British fur traders. 

Groups like the Cherokees and the Iroquois complained constantly that white settlers intruded onto their lands illegally. The British tried to prevent this, even well before the American Revolution, but the settlers ignored British rules. American Indians realized that many of those backcountry settlers intruding on their lands were pro-independence Patriots, and so they wanted to resist the Americans and prevent the U.S. from being formed. They realized that American independence would open the floodgates of settlers onto their lands, which is exactly what happened.

There were some American Indian groups that supported the American side, with the most famous nearby example being the Catawba Indians. In the aftermath of the Revolution, South Carolina carved out a specific reserved area for the Catawba people, in recognition of their service. Over time, of course, that was diminished, and they have a much smaller area of land today. 

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse took place just a few miles down the road from what is now UNCG’s campus. What was the significance of that battle? 

The Battle of Guilford Courthouse, militarily speaking, was a defeat for the Americans. However, it did inflict a lot of damage on Cornwallis’ troops, and it cut off some of his supply lines. There were subsequent battles in North Carolina, and by the time Cornwallis made it to Yorktown, his troops had been severely harmed. Ultimately, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, which ended the fighting, and in 1783, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war.

For many, July Fourth is about liberty and freedom. For others, it is a reminder of our country’s failures to live up to these ideals. How do we make sense of this tension? 

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech titled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He said that July Fourth is worthy of commemoration because the Declaration of Independence has great ideas and ideals, especially the notion that all men are created equal and have inherent rights. However, since millions of people remained enslaved in 1852, he said that the nation had not yet lived up to those ideals. I think that’s still accurate. The ideals are there, but they are often thwarted by other political and economic goals. It’s an ongoing process.

Interview by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications

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