Born on the 2nd of July

The following is an article from Uncle John's 24-Karat Gold Bathroom Reader.

Pop Quiz: When did America's Continental Congress pass the Declaration of Independence? No, not July 4th. When did they sign it? No, that wasn't July 4th, either. So what actually did happen on July 4th?

MYTHING IN ACTION

Most Americans believe that July 4, 1776, was the day that their nation began its road to independence from Great Britain. Well, not exactly. Think of the significant events from the American Revolution that you remember from history class: The Stamp Act? Eleven years earlier. The Boston Massacre? Six years earlier. The Boston Tea Party? Two years earlier. Paul Revere's ride, and the battles at Lexington and Concord? Fifteen months earlier. By the time Congress got around to its Declaration of Independence, the signers were less leaders than followers in proclaiming an obvious fact: that the American colonists were already fighting and dying for independence from England.

GO 4TH AND PROSPER

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare that the 13 American colonies were independent states and no longer part of the British Empire. The next day, John Adams predicted in a letter to his wife, Abigail,

The second day of July, 1776, 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.

He was mostly right about the celebration, but wrong by two days. After the vote, Congress spent the 3rd and 4th day of July fine-tuning and nitpicking the formal document that explained the reasons for declaring independence. Adams was also correct in that the vote was usually considered the significant event, and the post-vote follow-up was little more than paperwork. But for several after-the-fact reasons, that's not what happened.

Working from a first draft by a talented young wordsmith, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, the final document was meant to replace a shorter, more prosaic version written a few months earlier by Adams. Jefferson resented the fact that other people had edited his prose and removed about 25% of his writing, including a long passage critical of the slave trade. But two days after declaring independence, Congress finally voted to issue the document on July 4th.

Most of it was a laundry list of complaints about King George III: that he interfered with the colonists' elections, restricted immigration, controlled their trade, drafted their citizens into military service, levied taxes without their consent, controlled their bureaucrats and judges, sent armies to keep them in line, recruited mercenaries and Indians to help put down the rebellions, and neglected their concerns.

It was an outrage: Who died and made him king?

UNALIENABLE RIGHTS

Congress retained much of the vivid language Jefferson crafted. For example: "He has …sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance." But what probably gave the document its enduring popularity was Jefferson's attempt at infusing it with some nobility beyond mere whining. Congress wisely included much of his high-toned phrasing (some of which would later come to haunt slaveholders like Jefferson), including the most famous: "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 those are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

It wasn't that Jefferson and Congress had to go to a lot of trouble creating the bulk of the document. Jefferson himself admitted that the ideas and sentiments, although made eloquent, were not original. Some had been recycled from his earlier writings; some came from England's own Bill of Rights, which had been written to depose King James II; some had come from the many declarations of independence that had already been passed by individual towns, cities, and states before Congress acted.

Having finally come up with words to justify their act of rebellion against the king, Congress went about selling their decision to the less-than-unified countrymen, printing up a few hundred copies of the resolution and mailing them off to newspapers and state governments. The famous signatures weren't included, and there was a good reason: they hadn't been affixed to the document yet. In fact, the historic parchment version of the Declaration wouldn't even come into existence until sometime after July 19, when Congress voted that the official declaration should be "engrossed on parchment" and "signed by every member of Congress." According to records, that happened on August 2, with out-of-town stragglers adding their names over weeks and months after that. Of the roughly 50 people who voted for independence on July 2, only 42 were still in office on August 2 to sign the Declaration of Independence, so the eight new members signed, too, even though they hadn't voted for it.

The typeset version of the Declaration, the one without signatures, came back from the printer in time for public readings on July 8 in Philadelphia and Easton, Pennsylvania, and Trenton, New Jersey. Other cities and towns held similar events once their copies arrived. On July 9, General George Washington ordered that it be read to his troops, who had already been fighting the British for a year.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

The public readings and subsequent newspaper reprintings served their purpose:

* The Declaration stirred the population into a frenzy of anti-British sentiment. Riots broke out in some cities, with mobs attacking the trappings of British rule. (Of the many statues pulled down, an equestrian statue of King George in New York City ended up being melted into musket balls for the war effort.)

* It also helped solidify crucial financial support from the French, Spanish, and Dutch, who were happy to make things difficult for their longtime rivals, the British.

Its mission accomplished, the autographed document became largely forgotten, generating about as much enduring interest then as an autographed copy of last year's Congressional Record would today. Its few lines of flowery language about the unalienable rights of humans were later shrugged off as not germane when the Constitution was being written, 10 years later. Not even the French revolutionaries borrowed from it -they were more heavily influenced by the newly passed American Constitution.

A LONG CAMPAIGN

Ironically, it was only because of politics that the Declaration of Independence ascended from forgotten document to American icon. During the presidential campaign of 1796, Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson got into a public feud over who had contributed more to the founding of the United States. Jefferson laid claim to writing the Declaration of Independence; Adams retorted that he'd pushed the legislation through Congress and that Jefferson was just one member of the writing committee whose work needed a lot of editing. Jefferson lost the election, but eventually won the debate -the public began to see the nation's independence and the document that declared it as the same thing, and gave Jefferson overly generous credit for both.

Having been a contentious campaign issue, the Declaration was further pushed into the public's awareness during the War of 1812, when the United States and England fought once again. In 1817, seeing the public relations benefit of having people equate the act of drafting legislation with actual heroism, Congress commissioned John Trumbull to paint Declaration of Independence, the famous 12-by-18-foot portrayal of the drafting committee presenting the Declaration's first draft to the Continental Congress (not, as it is often assumed, stepping forward to sign the finished work).



AN ICON FOR ICONOCLASTS

As time passed and the Declaration of Independence moved into the symbolic realm of July 4th fireworks and parades, a funny thing happened: Some people actually read it again and found that parts of it were still relevant. Not the complaints about King George, but the parts that inspired dreams about "self-evident" truths that "all men are created equal," which raised questions: If all men are created equal, why should only wealthy landowners be allowed to vote? How was it that some people could be forced into enslavement? And if all men are created equal, then why not minorities and women as well? Anti-slavery activists proclaimed "the twin rocks of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence" as the basis for the abolition movement. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln, when deciding what to do about slavery, cited the Declaration's stance on equality as the way to interpret what the Constitution really meant, a view that was controversial in its time (and, in some ways, still is).

THE CULT OF THE SIGNERS

Sometime in the 1820s came what Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gary Wills would later call "the cult of the signers" -the idea that the politicians had engaged in a particularly brave action by signing the document. For the first time, the mostly obscure signers became the subjects of biographies, their images polished to a heroic sheen. It was a time of westward expansion, and the image of our forefathers joining together to pledge their lives and fortunes to the new nation gave America a sense of united purpose.



The stories of the signing had now completely overshadowed the earlier -and more significant- vote on the Declaration itself. In fact, a new view of the document completely obscured the memory that Americans had been fighting and dying for independence for a long time before. The July 2 date of the Declaration's passage and August 2 signing were both erroneously moved in collective memory to July 4, the day Congress finalized its language (and therefore the date written on the document), and stories that were almost too clever to be true started to emerge from the new signing date: John Hancock's announcement that he signed his name so large so that King George could read it without his spectacles (as if the king would ever have a chance to see the actual document; he read its text in memos and the London newspapers) and Hancock's setup ("Now we must all hang together"), followed by the gallows humor of the ever-quotable Benjamin Franklin: "Yes, we must all indeed hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately."

Meanwhile, America's Declaration of Independence started a whole new genre of political expression. From Albania to Vietnam, Ireland to Uzbekistan, scores of embattled revolutionaries issued their own declarations of independence, often cadging directly from the original. Jefferson would be proud.

(YouTube link)

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The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's 24-Karat Gold Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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