On the Shelf

By Paul Guffin

The Declaration of Independence: A Few Facts

It has become the accepted belief that we, in this country, celebrate July 4 (“Independence Day”) as the date on which the Declaration of Independence was signed. However, a research of history provides some slightly different facts. Here is a much abbreviated history of that document.

The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in May, 1775 (and lasted until 1781). This was a month after fighting between the colonies and Great Britain had begun at Lexington and Concord. On June 6, 1776, the Congress appointed a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration of independence from Great Britain. The committee was composed of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. They discussed a general outline that the document should follow, and decided that Thomas Jefferson would write the first draft.

The draft was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776, under the title, “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled”. Congress edited the document, shortening it by about a fourth of its original length. In doing so, they also removed Jefferson’s assertion that King George III had forced slavery onto the colonies, in order to moderate the document, and to appease the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, as well as northern delegates who represented merchants actively involved in the slave trade. Jefferson’s 168-word passage began, “He [King George] has waged cruel War against Nature itself, violating its most sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither”. It should be noted that, according to research, at least 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were slaveholders, themselves.

On July 1, 1776, the Congress voted on whether to declare independence from Great Britain. Each colony was allowed one vote (determined by vote within each colony’s delegation). Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against declaring independence; New York abstained; Delaware, with its two delegates split, cast no vote; and, the other nine colonies (Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, and Virginia) voted in favor of independence. The next day, July 2, Pennsylvania and South Carolina reversed their vote, Delaware (with its third delegate arriving and in favor) voted in favor of independence, and New York continued to abstain. Thus, the resolution of independence was adopted by a vote of twelve affirmative votes and one abstention and, thereby, the colonies formally severed their political ties with Great Britain. John Adams predicted that July 2 would become a great American holiday, thinking that the vote for independence would be commemorated. He didn’t foresee that people would instead celebrate Independence Day on the date when the announcement of that was finalized. For, it was on July 4, 1776, that the “final” wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved. However, it wasn’t until July 19, 1776, that the document received the approval of all thirteen colonies (New York finally voting in favor), and the now-official title was adopted: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America”.

And, far from the document being signed on July 4, 1776, the facts argue otherwise. The document was transposed on paper, adopted by Congress, and signed by John Hancock, President of Congress, on July 4. On August 2, 1776, a parchment paper copy was signed by more of the 56 final signers — many of whom were not present when the original Declaration was adopted on July 4. And, signer Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire, who was seated in Congress in November, 1776, requested and received the privilege of adding his signature, signing on November 4, 1776.

As to the content of the document, most of us today possibly know only one sentence — the second one: “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”. It would be instructive to at least read the rest of the document, which contains 27 grievances against the king, and asserts natural and legal rights, including the right of revolution. Additionally, it might be that the best way to celebrate the Declaration is to apply that best-known sentence as a moral standard toward which we, as a nation, would continually strive.

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