The following post is by guest author Caroline Bennett. Normally our musical columnist, she has expanded into U.S. history for today’s essay.
In most towns in the United States of America, preparations for July 4 begin nearly a month in advance. People become extra patriotic, swathing their front porches with bunting, lining the sides of their driveways with mini-American flags, and stockpiling fireworks. Reenactments and parades take place across the country on July 4, and Americans travel to be with family and enjoy hotdogs and pies. Independence Day is one of the most popular holidays celebrated in the United States, marking the day a group of men from thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain, creating the foundation for the great nation that Americans know and love today. Considering how important Americans consider Independence Day, however, few realize that July 4, 1776, was not actually as important a day for American freedom as July 2 or even August 2, 1776. Many assume that the fading parchment exhibited in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. was written and signed on July 4, but in reality the process of declaring liberty from Great Britain spanned many years.
In the Course of Human Events
As American colonists became more and more restless under British rule in the 1770s, colonial leaders made the decision to coordinate the actions of the colonies by forming the Continental Congress (Thompson 190). The first Continental Congress convened briefly in the fall of 1774, and delegates from twelve colonies attended (Johnson 148). After the confrontation between colonists and British soldiers at Lexington and Concord, the second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia (Evans 229). A merchant from Massachusetts, John Hancock, presided over the Congress, and all thirteen colonies sent delegates. On July 7, 1775, the congress approved a declaration authorizing the use of force against England (190). Originally, Thomas Jefferson, a young Virginian lawyer, was to pen this declaration, but after his writing proved too inflammatory, John Dickinson, a solicitor from Pennsylvania, wrote a second draft (190). M. Stanton Evans, an American journalist and author, notes in his book The Theme Is Freedom that most American colonists were not eager to declare independence from Great Britain (229). Colonial leaders spent decades writing manifestos and demanding redress, and Dickinson’s declaration assured readers that the Continental Congress was not dissolving the union between the colonies and Great Britain (196).
To many delegates, separation from Great Britain was still an alien concept in 1775. Numerous congressional delegates feared the colonies would fall into chaos if they threw off the structure of British government (Johnson 154). John Adams, a Massachusetts lawyer, dismissed these fears and unofficially led a group of supporters of independence. Adams and his associates debated before Congress over the course of many months, attempting to convince the delegates that a separation from Great Britain was necessary (Evans 231). Indeed, it was nearly a year after Dickinson penned his declaration, in May 1776, that some of the Congressional delegates finally made motions to declare British power null and encourage the colonies to set up governments of their own (231).
Thomas Jefferson returned to Philadelphia on May 14, having been absent since the previous December (Evans 231). He arrived just in time. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee, on behalf of the Virginia Assembly, asked Congress to “adopt a declaration of independence, prepare articles of confederation, and solicit ‘the assistance of foreign powers’” (Rakove 74). John Adams seconded Lee’s motion, and the following day the delegates renewed the debates on independence (McCullough 118). The delegates in support of independence were increasing in number, but still the Congress could not agree to declare the colonies free from Great Britain. On June 10, the delegates opposed to severing ties with Great Britain requested that the final vote be delayed until July 1, so that the Congressional delegates could send for new instructions from their colonies (McCullough 119). Congress agreed to the delay but appointed a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration of the colonies’ independence in the event that Congress voted in favor of the measure (Johnson 154).
Right of the People
Thomas Jefferson was the youngest member of the committee and had spent the least amount of time in Congress. Nevertheless, the committee nominated him to write the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Whatever the reasons of the committee, Jefferson’s appointment was fortuitous. His rhetorical eloquence is powerful and serves as a testament to his education and extensive reading. Nevertheless, total credit for the Declaration of Independence should not go to Jefferson alone. He was a part of a committee and wrote what his associates agreed upon. The Declaration of Independence was to be a corporate statement, after all, and it essentially summed up all the debates that had taken place in Congress over the past two years (Evans 232-233). David McCullough, a historian and lecturer, records in John Adams that Jefferson later wrote
Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, [the Declaration of Independence] was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. (121)
Because the Declaration represented the opinions of many different men, colonies, and beliefs, it was naturally influenced by a variety of sources. The colonial leaders certainly found inspiration in the writings of philosopher John Locke, particularly in the concepts from his Second Treatise of Government (Rakove 78). Locke’s belief that people should throw off the authority of their king or government after suffering repeated violations of their rights reflected the influence of his heritage in the English common law, however. The English common law was grounded in the idea that political authority came ultimately from the people, and that kings and other magistrates were their agents (Evans 241).
With centuries of history backing him, Jefferson wrote out the list of abuses charged against George III. Many people have speculated why the Declaration was addressed only to the king instead of the British Parliament. M. Stanton Evans points out that American colonists had never pledged allegiance to Parliament, only to the king of England, and therefore the Continental Congress only needed to address its sovereign (234). The reason for writing a declaration was simple: to let George III and the entire world know why the thirteen colonies could in good conscience throw off British rule and establish their own government. Excluding the introduction and conclusion, the Declaration of Independence is a summary of George III’s violations of authority. The king had obstructed justice and rule of law, made it difficult for legislative bodies to meet, kept standing armies in the colonies during times of peace, held mock trials for his guilty subordinates, deprived many colonists of trial by jury—the list goes on and on (Thompson 204-205). These were not violations made only by George III, however; he had been king but sixteen years. The colonists were charging George III and his predecessors with failure in their duty to justly use the power their people had given them.
Once Jefferson finished writing his draft, he and the committee revised it. Impressed by Jefferson’s conciseness and clarity of thought, Franklin, Adams, Sherman, and Livingston made mostly minor changes (McCullough 121-122). The concepts the declaration presented were powerful and undeniable, and the committee did not alter them. Most of the changes made the document easier to read. For instance, the committee altered the wording of the famous second paragraph, replacing Jefferson’s phrase “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” with the simpler “we hold these truths to be self-evident” (121). The committee finished revising the draft of the Declaration of Independence after a few days, and by June 28, 1776, Jefferson and his associates were ready to present their Declaration of Independence to Congress (Rakove 74).
To Throw Off Such Government
The second Continental Congress reconvened on July 1, and the debates on Richard Henry Lee’s resolution to declare independence continued. John Dickinson said that severing ties with England was premature, but acknowledged that his was an unpopular opinion. Dickinson knew that in opposing independence, he was ruining his career, but he believed that “thinking as I do on the subject of debate, silence would be guilt” (McCullough 126). After Dickinson delivered his moving speech, Adams stood and “wished now as never in his life…that he had the fits of the ancient orators of Greece and Rome, for he was certain none of them ever had before him a question of greater importance” (126). Following Adams’ speech, other delegates took the floor, including John Witherspoon from New Jersey and Joseph Hewes from North Carolina. A preliminary vote followed the speeches. Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Delaware voted against declaring independence, and the New York delegates abstained from the vote because they lacked instructions from their legislature (128). Though nine colonies favored independence, Adams and his associates hoped for a show of solidarity, and thus the final vote was postponed until the next day in hopes of more colonies changing their votes.
On July 2, 1776, the two chairs reserved for the Pennsylvania delegates were empty. Delegates John Dickinson and Robert Morris could not in good conscience vote in favor of independence, but they also knew how important it was for Congress to speak with one voice, so they absented themselves from the proceedings (McCullough 129). When the final vote was taken, New York once again abstained from the vote, but South Carolina and Delaware changed sides. The colonies’ decision to declare independence was unanimous, at least in the sense that no colony stood opposed (129). Adams joyously wrote to his wife later that evening,
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 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 forever more. (McCullough 130)
Free and Independent States
Now that the Congress was agreed to declare the colonies free of British rule, the delegates began revising and approving the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson and the committee had written. Once again, many of the changes were minor, largely focused on making the writing less verbose and toning down some of Jefferson’s language. All in all, the Congress made more than eighty changes to Jefferson’s draft (McCullough 134). In the end, the concluding line of the declaration read, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” (Thompson 207).
The final sentence of the Declaration of Independence reveals the feelings of the Congressional delegates. Casting accusations at the king of England and declaring the thirteen colonies free of British control was no laughing matter, and the Congress knew full well it might face disbandment or punishment for treason (Armor). Nevertheless, twelve of the colonies ratified the Declaration of Independence on Thursday, July 4, 1776. The New York delegates initially abstained from the vote, but their legislature later approved the declaration, ultimately making the vote for the Declaration of Independence unanimous among the colonies (Armor). On July 5, printers began making copies of the momentous document, and the Congressional delegates sent copies to friends and to their legislatures. On July 8, the Declaration of Independence was read publicly in the State House Yard in Philadelphia, and the Liberty Bell was rung (Johnson 156).
The Declaration of Independence was not yet complete, however. A copy of the declaration was “elegantly engrossed on a single, giant sheet of parchment by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress” (McCullough 137). On Friday, August 2, most of the Congressional delegates convened to sign the Declaration of Independence. Once more, there was no fuss or ceremony, and the delegates simply stepped forward and fixed their signatures. John Hancock, as president of the Congress, made his signature in the middle of the document, using large, flowing strokes. A number of other important delegates were noticeably absent—Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Oliver Wolcott, Elbridge Gerry. They signed later. A new member of Congress from New Hampshire, Matthew Thornton, fixed his signature in November 1776, and Thomas McKean of Delaware signed in January 1777 (138). Approving the declaration had been seditious enough. Now the delegates were writing their names on it—undoubtedly a treasonous act. As a result, the signing of the document remained a secret for some time (Armor).
The legal process of severing ties with Great Britain was concluded after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but seven years would pass, and thousands of men would die, before the thirteen United States of America were truly independent. Nevertheless, Americans began celebrating their liberty and freedom just one year after the second Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1778, a few local celebrations took place (Armor). After the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Americans began more extensive celebrations. Despite Adams’ conviction that July 2 would be commemorated, July 4 inexplicably became the day that Americans chose to celebrate their independence. In 1873, Pennsylvania became the first state to officially recognize July 4 as Independence Day (Armor). Other states followed suit soon after, and eventually Independence Day became a federal holiday in the United States of America.
For most Americans, the Fourth of July is a holiday that takes place in the heat of summer, involves fireworks and parades, and celebrates American independence. Many believe that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, a day that ushered in celebrations and the ringing of the Liberty Bell. Declaring independence was not that simple, however. The truth is that numerous colonial leaders left their families and homes for months on end, argued with one another for years about the right course of action, and struggled with their personal doubts and fears. The Congressional delegates put their lives on the line by voting for independence, voting to approve the Declaration of Independence, and affixing their signatures to the same document. The delegates knew that what they were doing would go down in history, but they did not know whether they would be remembered as defeated traitors or as victorious American patriots. The delegates would probably not care what day Americans have chosen to celebrate independence. The second Continental Congress did not meet in Philadelphia in order to be remembered, but in order to give future generations of Americans a government that prized life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Armor, John. “‘Independence’ Day, Past and Present.” World & I 11.7 (1996): 72. History Reference Center. Web. 26 June 2016.
Evans, M. Stanton. The Theme Is Freedom. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1994. Print.
Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York, NY: Perennial-HarperCollins, 1997. Print.
McCullough, David. John Adams. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2001. Print.
Rakove, Jack N., and States United. The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration Of Independence. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 June 2016.
Thompson, Bruce, ed. The Revolutionary Period: 1750-1783. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Print.