The Declaration of Independence

Congress debated independence for several days in June. Then it put off further debate until July 1. That day the first vote on independence took place. Nine colonies supported Lee's resolution; South Carolina, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York held back. A few hours later the South Carolina delegation made it known that they would not stand in the way of independence.

The Vote for Independence

On July 2, Caesar Rodney of Delaware arrived after an eighty-mile ride. His vote moved Delaware into the affirmative column. The abstention of Robert Morris and another colleague shifted the balance of the Pennsylvania delegation in favor of independence. When the votes were tallied, twelve colonies had voted for Lee's resolution. The New York delegation, lacking instructions from home, abstained from the vote. Five days later, they received permission to vote with the others, and the vote for independence became unanimous.

John Dickinson displayed nobility in defeat. Unwilling to sign the Declaration of Independence, he resigned from Congress. He joined the army as a common soldier. He was, as he wrote, still devoted to “the defense and happiness of those unkind Countrymen whom I cannot forbear to esteem as fellow Citizens amidst their Fury against me.”

Congress rejoiced in the founding of a new nation. A delighted John Adams wrote Abigail, “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 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, forevermore.” Adams was correct in believing that American independence would long be celebrated in the manner that he proposed. But July 2 would not be the day.

The widow of a soldier, Betsy Ross owned an upholstery business in Philadelphia when George Washington supposedly visited her and asked her to make the first United States flag in June 1776. Betsy Ross probably did not create Old Glory; the story was first told by one of her grandsons in the 1870s. However, Betsy Ross was a Patriot and she did sew flags and banners for the new nation.

Thomas Jefferson's Declaration

On June 11, following the initial debate on Lee's resolution, Congress selected Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson to serve as a committee charged with drafting a declaration justifying independence. The committee turned over the task of writing the document to the thirty-three-year-old Jefferson. When Jefferson protested that the work was better left to one of the more senior members, John Adams responded that Jefferson's prose style was ten times better than his own.

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in his room at a Philadelphia boarding house. His fellow committeemen made few alterations to his text. The first part of the Declaration was an eloquent distillation of the English and Enlightenment political thought that shaped the philosophies of America's founding generation. Drawing heavily on the ideas of John Locke and others, Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be selfevident: 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.” This conviction would become the dominant thread in American political discourse for centuries to come. As a consequence of these rights, Jefferson asserted that all government is dependent upon “the consent of the governed.” Thus, if a government tramples upon the rights of the governed, they have the right to overthrow it in favor of another. This had been forced upon the people of the American colonies.

In the second part of the Declaration, Jefferson listed the many abuses that had been inflicted on the colonies by the British government. He borrowed a rhetorical device from Thomas Paine, attributing all these wrongs to the King, rather than Parliament. This did an injustice to George III, but in Jefferson's defense, he was synthesizing the American grievances, not composing a history. The King had enthusiastically embraced the repression of the colonies and now symbolized British tyranny in America.

Jefferson's draft was presented to Congress on July 4. For the most part, the members of Congress made only minor changes. In a moment of ardor, Jefferson had called for “eternal separation from Britain.” This was amended to read that Americans would regard the British as “enemies in war, in peace friends.”

The major debate sparked by the declaration was Jefferson's denunciation of slavery, “this assemblage of horrors,” the introduction of which he blamed on the British monarchy. Slavery was already a sensitive issue, the contradiction of the institution with American ideals already manifest. In 1776, too many livelihoods were at stake in the south to easily accept Jefferson's condemnation. The passage on slavery was struck from the document that celebrated the equality of all men. Congress then approved the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, only John Hancock as the president of Congress and Charles Thomson as secretary signed the Declaration. The other members of Congress affixed their signatures later.

Why do we celebrate July 4 as Independence Day?

The publication of the Declaration of Independence erased the significance of the vote of July 2, and in the public mind firmly established July 4 as the birth date of the United States of America.

The Declaration of Independence was immediately printed and distributed across the country. It was read to George Washington's army in New York on July 9. Abigail Adams wrote her husband that the Declaration was proclaimed in Boston on July 19, and “every face appeared joyfull.” A nation had been born.

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