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Facts Submitted To A Candid World
A Few Thoughts On The Declaration Of Independence
July 4th is generally known as “Independence Day” in the United States. On this date in 1776, the Second Continental Congress approved the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, by which document thirteen of Great Britain’s colonies in North America asserted themselves “free and independent states” no longer subject to the British monarch.
Yet the July 4th date is neither the beginning nor the end of the Declaration's own history, but is instead one significant milestone somewhere near the midpoint of the process by which this historic document came to be in the form we have it today, ensconced in the National Archives along with the Constitution of the United States and other historic American documents.
As America celebrates this Fourth of July commemorating the Declaration of Independence, it is perhaps fitting to once again “let facts be submitted to a candid world”, and consider what the arc of history that produced the Declaration can teach us both about the Declaration and its relevance to our own times.
July 4th Is Not “Independence Day”
The vote to separate from Great Britain and seek independence was held on July 2. The July 4 vote was merely the ratification of the text of the Declaration itself.
The very next day, July 3rd, John Adams, delegate to the Continental Congress from Massachusetts (and later Vice-President and President of the nascent United States), remarked in a letter to his wife that July 2nd would soon become a national holiday, and that “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.”
Ironically, the July 2 vote itself was a paradoxical bit of agreement between the colonies and the British Crown. On August 23, 1775, King George III issued his “Proclamation Of Rebellion”, wherein the thirteen colonies were declared to be in rebellion against the Crown, and obliging all British subjects to render all possible assistance “in order to bring to condign punishment the authors, perpetrators, and abetters of such traitorous designs.” By that proclamation, the delegates to the Continental Congress were arguably already labeled as traitors to the Crown; the July 2 vote merely removed any remaining pretense that the colonies were not in a state of rebellion, but were instead intent on achieving independence from Great Britain.
How did July 4th come to be associated more strongly with American independence than July 2nd? The simplest explanation is found by looking at the engrossed copy of the Declaration itself—at the very top of the document is the date on which the document was ratified and made official: July 4, 1776. That is the date the final text was approved to be sent out throughout the 13 colonies, as well as to several capitals of Europe to help solicit assistance from Great Britain’s many rivals.
People have remembered the document, and forgotten the votes. Consequently, what Americans call “Independence Day” is actually a commemoration of what is most likely the world’s very first press release!
The Declaration Was Not Signed Until August
The decision by the Continental Congress to have an “engrossed” copy of the Declaration prepared was not actually made until July 19, 1776. It is this engrossed copy, signed by the original ratifiers of the document, that now sits in the National Archives.
The engrossed copy was ready at the end of July, and on August 2 there was a little “signing ceremony” in Philadelphia. Fifty of the delegates would sign the Declaration on that day, and another six (who by then were not in Philadelphia for various reasons) would sign later. It is that engrossed copy which is now preserved within the National Archives.
John Trumbull’s famous painting “Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776”, which hangs to this day in the Rotunda of the US Capitol, while endeavoring to capture the spirit of that summer, portrays a scene which almost certainly did not happen, and certainly did not happen on July 4, 1776. The committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence presented the initial draft to the Congress on June 28, four days before the independence vote and 6 days before the final text was ratified.
What About The Signers?
The Declaration of Independence, while largely attributed to Thomas Jefferson, was ultimately the work of the whole Congress, which substantially revised Jefferson’s initial draft and reduced it by roughly a fourth of its original length. The initial draft itself was the work of a Committee of Five (Jefferson, John Adams, Robert Livingston, Benjamin Franklin, and Roger Sherman). Thus all of the signers can be said to have left more than just their signature on the document.
These men were a fairly diverse group. While most were lawyers like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, others were merchants, shippers, and plantation owners. Several served in the colonial militias alongside the Continental Army opposing the British—William Whipple would command troops at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga. Four would actually be captured by the British and spend time as prisoners of war.
Given the edicts laid down in King George’s Proclamation of Rebellion, each of the signers was committing themselves wholly to the cause of independence. While none would die either as prisoners of the British or in combat, the struggle for independence left almost all of them poorer as a result; some, like New York delegate Francis Lewis, were financially ruined by the war.
These men were certainly not saints. Many were slaveowners. Thomas Jefferson is widely believed to have fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. John Adams was an unnatural politician who valued his own opinion above everyone else’s. Sam Adams, cousin to John Adams, was a failed businessman. Samuel Chase would later be the only Supreme Court justice ever impeached (for political bias).
Yet these imperfect men came together in Philadelphia intent upon building for themselves and their communities better government than what they had from Great Britain. For all their manifold failings and foibles, they made a pledge to each other of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to achieve that better government. Through that committment they gave us first the Declaration of Independence, then a free and sovereign United States, and ultimately the Constitution of The United States—perhaps the oldest written constitution still in effect today.
Most would go on to serve in various roles in both state and federal government, helping to shape through their experiences the government they risked the wrath of a superpower to call into being.
Not A Moment, But A Continuum Of Moments
The Declaration of Independence was not written in a day. War with Great Britain in pursuit of that independence would not be won in a day, nor even a year. Over 5 grueling years would pass from the Declaration of Independence to the surrender at Yorktown, and two more years after that for the Treaty of Paris to confer recognition by Great Britain on the fledgling United States. Not until June 21, 1788—nearly 12 years after the Declaration of Independence was ratified—would the Constitution of the United States be ratified by enough states to take effect as the new basis for government within the United States.
The Declaration of Independence was not solely the work of just one man, but the combined efforts of the entire Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson put together most of the initial draft, but it was Congressional debate that molded it into the shape we know it as today.
The Declaration of Independence was not an end unto itself, but rather a means to a much larger end. Through their collective energies and experiences, the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration authored not merely a meaningful justification for why the thirteen colonies should become the United States, but a rationale for the ideal that all government exists to serve the people, and not to subjugate them.
The Declaration of Independence is not merely an important moment in history, but is rather a continuum of such moments, one that began long before the text of the Declaration was committed to parchment, and one that continues to even today.
The challenge of establishing government sufficient for protecting every man’s inalienable rights—including “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”—is also the challenge of preserving that government, and correcting it when it goes astray. Our right to alter or abolish a government which has become destructive to the goal of preserving our liberty is also our responsibility to do precisely that when the situation warrants. The challenge put before the signers of the Declaration of Independence is the challenge put before every generation—how to have good government.
When the British Crown became inimical to their liberty, the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged all that they had to the task of repairing that situation. Complex men, conflicted men, they still found it within themselves to rise to the challenge, and so gave us not merely one historic document, but also a living enduring proof that government authority truly does flow from “We The People” and from nowhere else. By succeeding, they left future generations the challenge of either preserving that government, or altering and perhaps even abolishing it when defense of liberty demands.
Will this generation rise to that challenge? Will this generation accept the responsibility of correcting this government in order to preserve basic liberty?
The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the defense of their liberty. What will you pledge to the defense of yours?
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