Happy Independence Day! Do you know what Americans are celebrating on the Fourth of July? What happened in the summer of 1776? The answer is not as obvious as you might think.

The Constitution wasn’t promulgated until 1787 and the federal government it created did not begin functioning until 1789. The Revolution against British rule began on April 19, 1775, with the “shot heard ’round the world” in Lexington and Concord. The Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia in the summer of 1775. It did not issue a Declaration of Independence until the following year. By then, the war between the colonies and Great Britain had been raging for a year, and it would continue until the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. So what was the significance of July 4, 1776?

This was the date when the Continental Congress made official what had already been obvious–that the 13 colonies were not going to rejoin Britain unless militarily compelled to do so. There was still some hope among some colonialists that some kind of loose legal arrangement with London might be possible, similar to the kind later negotiated for Australia and Canada, whereby the American colonies would nominally recognize the sovereignty of King George III but not of his Parliament. The Declaration of Independence made clear that the colonies would now seek a clean break.

But the real significance of the Declaration lay not, as celebrants today suppose, in its establishment of American independence. It was more a hope of independence than the reality thereof. The issue would still have to be decided in battles to come. The Declaration of Independence should be seen, more than anything, as a potent weapon in the battle for independence. It was what we would today call a propaganda or information operation—and damn effective at that.

The very first sentence of the Declaration makes clear that it is seeking to sway individuals toward the rebels’ cause: “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

Only then comes the bombshell sentence that remains the most famous expression of the American faith: “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.”

This was designed to cast the colonialists’ cause not as a grubby dispute over levels of taxation but as an idealistic fight for freedom. This was a bit of a stretch given that Britain in the late 18th century was already one of the most liberal countries in the world with established democratic institutions both at home and abroad. The Founding Fathers, after all, had developed their ideas of self-government precisely because they were a mainstream product of the English political and educational system.

What the Declaration of Independence showed was that the rebels, far more than their Tory adversaries in Britain, had a proper appreciation of the power of “public opinion”—a word that first appeared in print, by a fateful coincidence, in the very year 1776 in the first volume of Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. They understood that to prevail against the British Empire– the superpower of its day–it was not enough to fight on the field of battle; it was necessary to fight in the realm of ideas as well to influence public opinion at home and abroad in favor of the pro-independence cause.

The most radical colonialists had been doing just that for years. Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren had started a Committee of Correspondence in Boston in 1772 to make their case, an example that was soon emulated across the colonies. Thomas Paine was another propagandist extraordinaire; the publication of his pamphlet Common Sense in early 1776 prepared the way for the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Franklin was yet another effective salesman for the Revolution—his political and propaganda work in France made it possible for the rebels to secure French help, which made all the difference.

The rebels were constantly engaging in what we would today call “spinning.” They managed to get their account of the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 to Britain, addressed to the “Inhabitants of Great Britain,” a full two weeks before the official British dispatches arrived, thus helping to mold public opinion in their favor.

Ultimately this line of operations proved decisive. The British Empire could have continued fighting after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. Lost armies could have been reconstituted from the vast resources of the empire. But it was not to be because Britain was a parliamentary democracy. On February 28, 1782, the House of Commons voted by a narrow margin to discontinue offensive operations. This forced the downfall of Lord North’s hardline Tory ministry and led to its replacement by Lord Rockingham’s more liberal Whigs, who were bent on concluding a peace treaty with their American cousins.

In a sense, February 28 should really be our Independence Day. But the propaganda coup of the Founding Fathers continues to resonate down through the centuries, turning July 4 into our national holy day (the origin of “holiday”).

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