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The Fourth of July is the only US holiday that is better known by the date than the actual name: Independence Day. Most of our holidays get moved conveniently to the nearest Monday. But not Independence Day. It is always celebrated on July 4th.
We celebrate July 4th as the day the 13 colonies declared themselves to be free from British rule and to become free and independent States. The reality, however, is that by July 4, 1776, Independence was already done.
Let's look back at the summer of 1776 to get a better idea of what had happened when.
On March 17, 1776, the British Army was forced to evacuate Boston, leaving all 13 colonies without any military occupation. John Adams, a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress, had been fighting for a resolution on independence for months. There was great resistance. Many thought the public would not support full independence. Some members of Congress feared that signing such a document would single them out to be hanged as leaders of the treasonous revolt should Britain prevail.
Adams had annoyed most of the delegates by the summer, and did not want the resolution to be seen as his, or even from the Massachusetts delegation. He wanted a delegate from another State, preferably Virginia, to propose Independence, and lobbied them to make this happen.
Virginia Delegate Richard Henry Lee received approval from the Virginia Convention back in his home State to move for a resolution "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." Adams quickly seconded the motion. That resolution was read before Congress on June 7.
After some discussion, it was decided on June 11 that a committee of five members would work on a draft declaration. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston of New York made up the committee. Jefferson was the youngest and considered to be a fairly good writer. So he received the task of writing up a first draft. Congress then went into recess for several weeks while the Committee worked out the language.
Many years later, John Adams reminisced about circumstances of drafting the Declaration. You have to remember that by the time of this writing, Adams and Jefferson had been political rivals for many years and Adams had always seemed to resent how much credit Jefferson had received for his contribution to the Declaration. So Adams may have had cause to make himself sound more gracious and involved in the draft than he may have been:
"You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of the committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence? I answer: It was the Frankfort advice, to place Virginia at the head of everything. Mr. Richard Henry Lee might be gone to Virginia, to his sick family, for aught I know, but that was not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's appointment. There were three committees appointed at the same time, one for the Declaration of Independence, another for preparing articles of confederation, and another for preparing a treaty to be proposed to France. Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Confederation, and it was not thought convenient that the same person should be upon both. Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation - not even Samuel Adams was more so - that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draft, I suppose because we were the two first on the list.
The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, 'I will not,' 'You should do it.' 'Oh! no.' 'Why will you not? You ought to do it.' 'I will not.' 'Why?' 'Reasons enough.' 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.' 'Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.'
A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over. I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal, for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity, only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.
We reported it to the committee of five. It was read, and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticized anything. We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting, as he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of it, as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if anything in it was. I have long wondered that the original draft had not been published. I suppose the reason is the vehement philippic against Negro slavery.
As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams."
(John Adams, letter to Thomas Pickering, Aug. 6, 1822).
Notice that last paragraph where Adams adds a jab at Jefferson about how unoriginal the Declaration was. Many of Jefferson's opponents had criticized Jefferson's lack of originality and the fact that he borrowed heavily from other contemporary writings. Jefferson addresses this criticism by agreeing with it:
"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it 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."
(Thomas Jefferson, letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825)
On June 28, the Committee submitted the Declaration to Congress for review. Congress made quite a number of changes. One of the most famous, or infamous, was the removal of a section condemning the King for the Institution of Slavery:
"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."
Many have pointed to the removal of this paragraph as the height of hypocrisy. Authors drafting a document proclaiming the inalienable rights of man should not remove a passage condemning slavery. But the reality was that the King had never forced slavery on the colonists. The colonists had willingly participated. Condemning the King for making them have slaves just seemed a little too far fetched.
Finally, on July 2, 1776 the Lee Resolution was adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies (New York did not vote, not having approval from its State Convention). It was on this date the Congress agreed to Independence and committed to the break with Britain. The next day, John Adams excitedly wrote to his wife:
"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch 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 acts of 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 this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
(John Adams, Letter to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776).
Congress continued to make a few minor alterations and deletions on July 2, 3, and the morning of the 4th. Late in the morning of July 4, Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration. The Committee took the manuscript copy to John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress. Keep in mind that what went to the printer was still a draft copy. The final engrossed copy had not yet been made.
Mr. Dunlap apparently worked through the night making copies of the Declaration for distribution. On the morning of July 5, copies to various committees, assemblies, and to the commanders of the Continental troops.
On July 9, the one hold out, New York, finally approved the Declaration when the New York Convention finally voted for approval. Now all 13 Colonies/States were on board with Independence.
On July 19th, Congress ordered that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress." The one change here is that the word "unanimous" was inserted because New York's tardy approval finally meant that all 13 delegations approved the declaration. However, this does not mean every signal delegate approved it, only a majority of each Colonial delegation. In fact, Pennsylvania had to have two of its opposing delegates to abstain in order to get majority approval from the delegation.
There is some question as to who actually wrote the words on the parchment that we today consider the original Declaration of Independence. But based on handwriting analysis, most historians believe the draftsman was Timothy Matlack, of Pennsylvania. Matlack was at the time a clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, Charles Thomson.
With the engrossed version complete, it was presented to Congress for signing on August 2. Several members who had approved the Declaration were absent. George Wythe signed on August 27. On September 4, Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, and Oliver Wilcott signed. Matthew Thornton signed on November 19. Delaware Delegate Thomas McKean did not sign at all in 1776. It is not clear exactly when he got around to signing, but likely not until 1781. He had a good excuse for some delay. After voting for Independence McKean took up command of a militia to march off to defend New York against the British Invasion. But he was back in Congress by 1777. It is unclear why he did not get around to signing for another four years.
Two delegates, John Dickinson and Robert R. Livingston (who was on the committee to draft the document) never signed the Declaration at all. Another delegate, Robert Morris, who had opposed independence in debate signed anyway saying "I am not one of those politicians that run testy when my own plans are not adopted. I think it is the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead."
So the Declaration was not born on a single day. Even if we ignore the stragglers who signed late, it took nearly two months to go from the initial proposal by Richard Lee in early June to the presentation for signing in August. July 4 was a significant day since it was the day the language was finally approved. But even after that, a few words were tweaked a few weeks after that. Nobody signed on the 4th since there was no document to sign yet. But July 4 was the date eventually written a the top of the document, so that is the date we remember as Independence Day.
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