The Valdosta Daily Times
Later this week is the Fourth of July, the 237th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the day when America officially renounced King George III and England, claiming the United States of America was no longer subject to British rule. Simply put, July 4 became America’s birthday.
The making of the Declaration — its creation, its promises, and its ramifications — have been anything but simple. They are quite complex on numerous levels. A revolutionary manifesto to renounce a king has become an ideal of the American Dream. It promises that everyone has a chance, even though the Declaration was written by a man who still owned slaves at the time of his death 50 years later.
The Declaration is complicated, yet glorious, in its 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 June 1776, the American colonies were already at war with England. British lawmakers had imposed new taxes and laws on the Americans while denying the colonies representation in Parliament, leading to colonial cries of “taxation without representation.” The Boston Tea Party had occurred a few years earlier; Paul Revere had made his famous, mythical ride warning that the British were coming. The Continental Congress representing the 13 colonies had already formed and appointed Gen. George Washington as the commander of America’s army. Several battles had already been fought. Yet, the Continental Congress and America had not officially severed ties with England. The colonies were still subjects of the far-flung British Empire.
During the warming days of spring 1776, in Philadelphia, some Continental Congressmen still hoped to reconcile with England, believing that the American colonies could repatriate themselves within the British Empire. Meanwhile, several others pushed hard for an official break with England as Thomas Paine had insisted in his popular pamphlet, “Common Sense.”
Still, on June 7, 1776, when Richard Henry Lee of Virginia stood on the floor of Congress and announced that “all political connection between (the united colonies) and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved,” anti-independence and moderate members of the Continental Congress denounced him and the idea of independence. Lee’s statement and the subsequent attacks against him led to a raging debate between representatives for and against independence.
To calm the arguments, the Continental Congress agreed to table the discussion for three weeks, and “both sides agreed it might be a good idea to prepare a declaration of independence,” according to historian Thomas Fleming’s “Liberty: The American Revolution.”
A five-member committee was appointed to draft a declaration. On the committee were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman.
The story goes that John Adams felt he was too unpopular within the Continental Congress to write the Declaration. Livingston was an anti-independence man. Sherman had no apparent writing skills. Though Franklin was the world’s most famous American and a successful writer and publisher, he felt his son’s loyalty to the king would prejudice congressmen against any document he might write.
Which left Jefferson.
As a Southerner from Virginia and as a talented writer, Thomas Jefferson was the choice to pen the declaration. Adams later claimed to have urged Jefferson to accept the task.
What few people may realize is that Jefferson’s task was not a new concept in the spring of 1776. By the time Jefferson put pen to paper, several American declarations of independence had already been written. Jefferson’s beloved home of Virginia had already penned a declaration of independence, stating that Virginia considered itself free of English rule. The Virginia declaration led to Richard Henry Lee’s remarks on the floor of the Continental Congress.
In historian Pauline Maier’s book, “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence,” she devotes an entire chapter to “The Other Declaration of Independence,” writing that Americans in colonies (or, as they soon became, states) and localities adopted between April and July 1776 at least 90 declarations of independence. “Most have been forgotten under the influence of ‘the’ Declaration of Independence ...,” Maier writes.
Among these other declarations, several listed life, liberty and property as unalienable rights. Many contained other ideals which were later expressed in Jefferson’s more famous declaration. Published June 12, 1776, George Mason’s Virginia declaration stated, “All men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty.” As a knowledgeable representative of Virginia, Jefferson would have likely been aware of Virginia’s declaration as he wrote his.
Jefferson was also an adherent of the Age of Enlightenment when the philosophies of John Locke, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and other thinkers were common reading among America’s educated and privileged. Jefferson was an avid reader and many of Locke’s ideas and Enlightenment thoughts found their way into Jefferson’s declaration.
Though the Declaration’s most famous lines concern self-evident truths and pursuits, the majority of Jefferson’s document, as well as the lesser-known declarations, are dedicated to rejecting the authority of a king to subjugate a people.
“(Jefferson’s) Declaration of Independence set forth a philosophy of human rights that could be applied not only to Americans, but also to peoples everywhere,” writes Gordon S. Wood in his book, “The American Revolution: A History.” “It was essential in giving the American Revolution a universal appeal.”
But first independence had to be approved before the Declaration could be signed.
On July 1, 1776, with conditions hot and muggy and a storm brewing over Philadelphia, with news of British victories and American military failures ringing in the colonists’ ears, John Adams of Massachusetts argued for independence before his fellow congressmen. Expecting to destroy his political career, Adams stood firm for independence. Jefferson later wrote that Adams was “not graceful nor elegant nor remarkably fluent,” yet, he “spoke with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.”
As historian David McCullough describes it in his book, “John Adams,” Jefferson was the author of independence and Adams was the voice of independence. Though no transcript was kept of Adams’ speech, New Jersey Delegate Richard Stockton described Adams as “the Atlas” for independence … Adams “sustained the debate and by the force of his reasoning demonstrated not only the justice but the expediency of the measure.”
Still, after Adams’ rousing speech, by the end of July 1, only nine colonies voted for independence while New York abstained, Delaware was evenly divided, and Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against independence. They adjourned until the next day.
On July 2, 1776, 12 colonies voted for independence with only the New York delegates still abstaining while they waited further instructions from their state legislature. Though they would not officially vote, the New York delegates expressed their personal approval for independence.
John Adams felt triumphant enough to write his wife, Abigail. In this letter, he correctly predicted part of the spirit which would accompany Independence Day through the ages, though he got the date wrong.
Since approval of independence came on July 2, Adams wrote, “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
But first the Continental Congress wanted to make a few changes to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
After Jefferson wrote the Declaration on his lap desk in the second story of a house belonging to a German mason named Graff, he approached fellow committee member Benjamin Franklin.
“Will Dr. Franklin be so good to peruse (the Declaration) and suggest such alterations as his most enlarged view of the subject will dictate?”
“After decades as a writer and editor, Franklin knew good prose when he read it,” writes historian H.W. Brands in his book, “The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin.” “He treated Jefferson’s draft gently.”
So did Adams. Together, Franklin and Adams made few changes. Congress was another matter.
“Clause after sentence was struck, leaving Jefferson aghast,” Brands writes. Franklin offered consolation, telling the tale of how a hatmaker asked several people what they thought of the sign for his new business. The sign originally read, “John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money” with a drawing of a hat. By the time friends finished editing, the sign read “John Thompson” with the drawing of the hat. Franklin warned that writing a document for public editing will whittle away much of the author’s original intent.
By the time Congress finished, it had edited, revised or deleted approximately a third of Jefferson’s original draft, creating a “leaner, more hard-hitting document,” historian Thomas Fleming writes. “… But the Declaration remained Jefferson’s creation. As one historian summed it up, ‘(Jefferson’s) spirit brooded over it, giving light to the whole.’”
By July 4, 1776, Congress had completed its revisions of the Declaration, and it was time for the delegates to sign the document.
There is a great deal of myth behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For starters, not every delegate was present to sign the Declaration on July 4, 1776, and some historians argue that no one signed the document that day with the exception of John Hancock with his famous signature and his legendary remark that he wrote his name large so that King George III wouldn’t need his glasses to read it.
With Jefferson’s concluding words remaining intact, that each signer would “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” many delegates may have been reluctant to sign the Declaration and waited until August to give their signatures. As uncertain as that argument may be, it is commonly agreed that many of the delegates did not sign the Declaration until the fall months of 1776.
There is another tale about the signing which most historians mention but footnote as possible legend.
After Hancock wrote his signature, he reportedly remarked, “We must be unanimous, there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.”
“Yes,” Ben Franklin quipped, “we must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
In British eyes, the Declaration of Independence betrayed Britain and the king, and treason was punishable by death. One must remember that America was not a superpower in 1776, but a backwater series of colonies rising against Britain, the predominant world superpower of the late 18th century. Britain had the resources of an empire to back its will. The success of the American Revolution was not known when the Founders signed the Declaration, and the United States’ future was perilous in 1776.
Still, enthusiastic American crowds greeted the reading of the Declaration of Independence as copies of it spread throughout the colonies which had now become states. On July 8, 1776, it was read in the Philadelphia State House yard. On July 9, George Washington ordered it read to his troops in New York. Everywhere, the Declaration was greeted with Adams’ predictions of celebration as well as the destruction of most things smacking of the British monarchy.
And the Fourth of July became Independence Day.