The First Fourth of July
by Damon Huss
Today, we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, parades, banquets, and barbeques. It is a holiday, a day to take a break from school or work and our day-to-day life to commemorate the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Surely there were fireworks on that dramatic date in history, too.
The reality is that no fireworks went off on that day, and no signing ceremony was held until almost a month later. The real events of that day were indeed momentous and changed the course of history. But they were not as dramatic as we like to think. What really happened?
In the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, the heat grew throughout the day. The Second Continental Congress, made up of delegates from the 13 states (no longer colonies), debated whether to adopt the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, the original author of the declaration, kept careful notes of the temperatures in the room with his new thermometer. At 6 a.m., it was 68 degrees Fahrenheit. By1 p.m., it was 76 degrees. And at 9 p.m., it was still a very warm evening at 73½ degrees.
Unfortunately, not much else is known about what happened in the State House that day. Jefferson’s notes give few details about the debate, which was closed to the public. No one else seems to have taken notes, and even delegates’ private letters reveal nothing about what was said.
Jefferson noted that by the evening, the declaration was approved and that all the delegates signed it, except for John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. The only copies in existence from that day show John Hancock’s famous signature but no one else’s. The copy Jefferson refers to remains a mystery.
Citizens were waiting outside the State House to hear the decision of the Congress. Would it approve of the declaration? Approval meant independence. It also was treason against Britain, punishable by death and loss of all property.
Such a decision was a solemn affair. Only the bells of churches rang to bring the news to Philadelphia. A new day of independence had come, but many struggles had led to it and many battles would follow.
Resentment and Resistance
The conflict that led to the declaration and to revolution went back to 1763. In that year, Britain ended a war with France called the Seven Years’ War. In America, the war was known as the French and Indian War, and it had been fought on the frontiers of the British colonies. Although the British won the war, it had cost them many lives and much treasure.
To help pay the cost of the war, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765. This law required official stamps on all printed documents sold in the colonies. Americans would have to buy the stamps from British tax collectors. The stamps increased the cost of everything printed: newspapers, legal documents, pamphlets, and even playing cards.
Americans hated the Stamp Act. They considered themselves citizens of Britain and loyal subjects of King George III. They already paid taxes to their colonial legislatures. But they had no representatives in Parliament, and yet Parliament was trying to tax them. This taxation violated what they considered their rights as British citizens.
Many colonists openly resisted the stamp tax. Many adopted the slogan: “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” Crowds of colonists even hanged dummies of tax collectors from trees. In Massachusetts, rioters tore apart the office of the stamp tax collector. Benjamin Franklin was living in London then as the colonial agent for the Pennsylvania colony. He spoke to Parliament about repealing the Stamp Act. He told them that Americans were actually obedient subjects before 1763. They had needed little supervision:
“They were governed by [Great Britain] at the expense only of a little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread.”
All of that changed with the Stamp Act. When asked by a member of Parliament if Americans would pay future taxes similar to the stamp tax, Franklin answered, “They would not pay it.”
A Mounting Conflict
Eventually, the American colonies would no longer accept being “led by a thread.” Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but soon passed more new taxes on paper, glass, and tea. Many colonists boycotted British goods. In 1770, British soldiers in Boston fired their muskets on a crowd of angry protestors. Five colonists were killed. This event would be known as the Boston Massacre and led to the formation of the Sons of Liberty, a group of radicals opposed to British taxation.
Resistance continued. In 1773, radicals boarded ships carrying tea in Boston Harbor and dumped hundreds of chests of tea into the water. This incident was famously called the Boston Tea Party. In 1774, the First Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia. The delegates agreed to send a list of complaints to King George III. They also agreed to continue boycotting British goods and to form militias in their cities and towns.
On an April morning in 1775, the conflict turned into a war. British soldiers, also known as Redcoats for the color of their uniforms, marched on Lexington, Massachusetts. Waiting for them was a militia of about 100 Americans. It is not clear who fired the first shot, but the British officer in charge ordered his Redcoats to fire on the Americans, killing eight of them. Later that day, fighting continued at nearby Concord.
The Battle of Lexington and Concord turned even more Americans into Patriots, people who sided with the American colonies over the British government. But most Americans were still unwilling to openly defy British authority and declare the colonies’ independence. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a pamphlet urging independence, was published in January 1776. It helped tip the scales of opinion in the colonies toward founding a new nation.
In May 1776, influential men in Virginia got together and planned a path to independence. They resolved to have Virginia’s delegates introduce a resolution in the Continental Congress that was to meet in Philadelphia. The resolution was to “declare the United colonies free and independent states.” Would the other colonies go along?
On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia stood up and presented the Virginians’ bold resolution to break with Britain. It became known as the Lee Resolution.
Many, if not most, of the delegates present supported the Lee Resolution. Some delegates, however, had not been authorized by their colonial legislatures to vote for independence. Not all Americans were yet willing to take the bold step of breaking from Britain. Even Benjamin Franklin, who supported independence, had long hoped that there could be a way for the Americans to remain British citizens. Likewise, the decision makers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, among others, needed to be persuaded.
Congress also decided to draft a declaration explaining its decision. It appointed five men to take on that task: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson.
When the committee met, they appointed Jefferson and Adams to draft the declaration. Adams, however, insisted that Jefferson write the declaration. When Jefferson pressed him for a reason, Adams offered not one, but three reasons why Jefferson should write the declaration. “Reason first, you are a Virginian,” he said, “and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business.”
It is true Jefferson was from Virginia, but that was not enough to persuade Jefferson. He listened for what reasons would follow.
“Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular,” Adams continued, “You are very much otherwise.” Indeed, Jefferson’s writing talents and scientific interests had made him well-known among the delegates. To have the declaration accepted and approved, it might need to come from someone the delegates clearly respected.
“Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”
Jefferson gave in. He replied, “Well, if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.”
And indeed he did. Starting on June 11, Jefferson spent the better part of two weeks thinking and writing. He worked in seclusion and wrote several drafts. After a few small changes by Adams and Franklin, the Declaration of Independence was completed. It was written on a large piece of parchment paper.
The committee presented the parchment to the Second Continental Congress. On July 4, 1776, almost all of the delegates voted to adopt the declaration. By this time, all the delegates had been authorized to vote for independence, except for one: New York.
Congress did not call the document the Declaration of Independence, as we do today. Instead its title was A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States in General Congress Assembled. From this title, we can see that the 13 colonies were now states. Namely, they were the United States.
Spreading the Word
Overnight, the printer John Dunlap made many copies that were sent out to the 13 states. People of all walks of life gathered to hear public readings of the declaration. They heard the famous and profound words that “all men are created equal” and that everyone has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In New York, some listeners were so inspired, they tore down a statue of King George III. The revolutionary words were taking effect.
Nonetheless, some Americans opposed independence. They were called Loyalists or Tories. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania refused to ever sign the declaration. He said, “I had rather forfeit popularity forever, than vote away the blood and happiness of my countrymen.” Yet even Dickinson joined the Continental Army to fight the British.
Benjamin Franklin’s own son, William Franklin, was a Loyalist and governor of New Jersey in 1776. He and his father grew apart and never could reconcile this important difference between them. Another Loyalist governor, Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts, had been driven out of office and back to Britain in 1774. These tensions between Patriots and Loyalists would remain high throughout the years to come.
Finally, on July 9, the New York delegates added their vote in favor of the declaration. Independence was now a unanimous decision. The final parchment was prepared. Beginning with a ceremony on August 2, one by one the congressional delegates signed this parchment. John Hancock, still the president of the Congress, was again the first to sign. His large signature from this day is now a famous symbol of the American Revolution.
Why was his signature so large? Rumors spread that he commented, “There, I guess King George will be able to read that!” Perhaps he wrote big simply because there was so much space in which to write. Perhaps, however, he knew that signing was a bold—and treasonous—act and meant for the size of the signature to match his boldness. Whatever the reason, even today we sometimes refer to people’s signatures as their “John Hancock.”
The odds did not favor the Continental Army and the Patriots. About 2.5 million people lived in the 13 colonies in 1780, one-fifth of them were black slaves. Twenty percent of the people, or one in every five, were Loyalists. America’s population was small compared to Britain’s 11 million. The British army was also better trained and better equipped.
Of the American generals, the most famous was, of course, George Washington. Named commander in chief of the army, he suffered a setback in New York and barely escaped with his army in a daring nighttime evacuation. He rebounded with a surprise attack on the British in New Jersey. This attack was memorialized in a famous painting of Washington standing in a boat crossing the Delaware River.
Washington led the army through the severe winter of 1777–78 in Valley Forge. He won victories in battle. He also suffered defeats to the British army under General William Howe. Washington was an intrepid leader, but the advantages of the British threatened to be too strong.
The situation changed at the battle of Saratoga. In fall 1777, Patriots defeated the army of the British General John Burgoyne. Benjamin Franklin had been trying to persuade the French ambassador to arrange a supply of money and arms for the American cause. After Saratoga, he was able to persuade King Louis XVI to make a formal alliance with the United States and to support the cause of independence.
Finally, with French troops fighting alongside Americans at Yorktown in 1781, the Redcoats under Lord Cornwallis were defeated. Cornwallis surrendered to Washington, and the war was over. What had been pledged on parchment was now won. The victory cost Americans more than 25,000 military deaths and another 25,000 wounded.
During the war years, the original Declaration of Independence (the one signed in August 1776) had its own travels. For a time it was stored in Baltimore, Maryland. For nine months, it also found its way to York, Pennsylvania. In September 1777, when the fighting reached Philadelphia, the Redcoats took the city. Charles Thomson likely had the important parchment and spirited it away to a courthouse in York. When the British evacuated Philadelphia nine months later, the original parchment was returned safely to the Pennsylvania State House, where it remained.
This parchment, however, saw a lot of “wear and tear” over the decades following the American Revolution. As it was unrolled and rolled up again numerous times, and as it was exposed to sunlight, humidity, and different temperatures, it aged and deteriorated.
Fortunately, the declaration’s words do not depend on the condition of the original document. Those words are very much alive. They inspired not only the courageous Patriots who fought so hard against great odds, but also the movement for women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement here in the United States. Movements for democratic reform around the globe, too, have echoed the declaration’s words.
What began as resistance to an unfair tax imposed by a remote overseas government ended as a revolution that would alter the course of world history. It took determination and courage over the course of many years for the Patriots to do this. But it took something else, too. It took certain wisdom for them to seize a historical moment and know exactly what to do.
Remember the time John Adams knew that Jefferson was the best writer for the job. Adams’ insistence was wisdom in itself. Thanks to that insistence, Jefferson’s talents, Washington’s leadership, Franklin’s tactfulness, and to all the contributions and sacrifices of tens of thousands in the 13 colonies, the Patriots achieved American independence. Their victory and the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence have inspired people around the world.