Laura Dean Bennett
In the summer of 1776, the delegates of the Second Continental Congress had been meeting for some time at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia.
They were trying to agree on how to best frame their grievances and their final declaration of independence from the British crown.
John Adams deserves a lot of the credit for urging the Second Continental Congress to bring a final version of the declaration to a vote on July 2, 1776.
All 13 British colonies in America were named in the declaration.
They included Pennsylvania, Virginia, Georgia, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Delaware, South Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York.
It stated that the 13 colonies no longer considered themselves to be under the rule of Britain.
They were declaring themselves independent sovereign states.
This document created a new nation called the United States of America.
The committee was persuaded by John Adams to allow Thomas Jefferson, a delegate from Virginia, to create the original draft of the declaration.
Thomas Jefferson was just 33 years old when he wrote the declaration, but he was already a well-known and accomplished writer, having written the Virginia Constitution.
Jefferson stated that in writing the declaration, he “wished to place the facts before the world in terms so clear and direct as to command their assent.”
He received considerable help from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin in drafting the document which he called “an expression of the American mind.”
The final draft of the declaration of independence was presented to the congress by a committee of five members – Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman.
The Declaration of Independence is written on vellum parchment, which is made from sheepskin and written in iron gall ink.
The draft would be edited by the general membership of the Second Continental Congress, who made 86 changes to it before the document was approved with the final vote on July 4th.
It is said that Jefferson was unhappy with some of the edits which were made to his document, over his objections.
In particular, he had included language which condemned the British pro- motion of the slave trade, although he was a slave owner himself.
While the approval vote took place on the 4th of July, the actual signing did not take place until it was ratified on August 2, 1776 in Philadelphia.
Many copies of the July 4th document were made to be released around the colonies.
Unfortunately, the original copy of Declaration of Independence, thought at one time to be in the possession of Thomas Jefferson, was lost.
The declaration detailed principles upon which our nation’s democracy is built.
But nowhere in the document is the term “Declaration of Independence” used.
The document contained several sections – the Preamble, the Statement of Human Rights, the Charges against Human Rights, Charges against the King and Parliament, and the Statement of Separation and the Signatures.
John Adams believed that July 2nd, 1776 would be celebrated as our “Independence Day,” as the 2nd was when that vote for independence actually occurred.
Adams, on a letter to his wife, wrote:
“The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable day in the history of America.”
However, the 4th of July became the celebrated date instead.
On that day, 12 of the 13 delegations representing the 13 colonies approved the final text of the document.
It was published and read to the public across the American colonies on that same historic day in 1776, announcing the decision by all 13 colonies to announce their freedom from British Rule.
The New York delegation abstained from adopting the declaration at the July 4 meeting because they were awaiting instructions from the New York Provincial Congress.
The instruction to vote for independence did not arrive until after July 4, because the New York Provincial Congress had been required to evacuate New York on June 30th as British military forces approached.
On July 15, New York, having finally received their instructions from their Provincial Congress, voted to agree with the other 12 colonies in accepting the declaration.
The July 4th version of the Declaration was initially printed and distributed as an unsigned document, with only a printed note saying that it had been “signed by John Hancock,” the president of the Continental Congress.
Nearly 200 copies of the unsigned document, called the Dunlap Broadsides, were published and dispatched to all major communities across the colonies on July 4th, 1776.
There are now only 26 known copies of the valuable “Declaration Broadsides.”
Amazingly, one was found in 2009.
On July 19, the Declaration’s title was changed from “A Declaration of the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled” to “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.”
There are 56 signatures on the document, which included delegates from each of the 13 colonies.
As the president of the Continental Congress, John Hancock signed the original parchment copy on July 2nd – his signature was the first and is the largest signature.
Most of the signatures were not widely known by the public until 1777, for fear of reprisals by the Crown and colonial loyalists.
At age 70, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest to sign the Declaration and the youngest was Edward Rutledge, at age 26.
The signers knew what they were doing might cost them their lives.
By signing the document which would be delivered to the King of England, they knew that they were declaring themselves to be traitors to the crown.
They were putting their land, their fortunes, their families’ safety and their own lives on the line.
The British did target the Founding Fathers, capturing and executing some, confiscating, destroying or looting many of their homes and properties.
Some lived, but ended their lives as paupers, having lost their land, their businesses and their homes.
Many died fighting in the Revolutionary War. Many had sons who died fighting and many had wives and children who died as a result of the war.
The Preamble of the Declaration of Independence is the most famous part of the Declaration of Independence.
Many of us had to memorize it in school.
I suppose we have Thomas Jefferson to thank for much of the stirring language.
“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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”