Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Happy Independence Day ... July 2

I probably should have said that on June 7, but I forgot. Sorry.

Americans have come to embrace the 4th of July as "Independence Day", but that isn't quite historically correct. July 4, 1776 was the date the Continental Congress adopted the completed document of the Declaration of Independence. Independence was actually declared on July 2, the culmination of the Lee Resolution of June 7, 1776.

As representatives of the thirteen colonies, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress had no legal authority to vote personal opinion and were dependent on their elective body for instruction. For the Virginia delegates, this body was the Virginia Convention. After the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, had dissolved the House of Burgesses in 1774, the five Virginia Conventions served as a provisional revolutionary government until the establishment of the independent Commonwealth of Virginia in 1776.

Meeting in Williamsburg, the Virginia Convention on May 15, 1776 declared Virginia's independence from Britain and instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to declare independence.

These instructions having reached Philadelphia, on June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution calling for a declaration of independence, the formation of foreign alliances, and a confederation of the states. With the need for the other delegates to secure authority to vote for it, the vote was postponed until July 2, 1776. The resolution was approved on that date by twelve of the thirteen colonies, with New York abstaining until it had established a revolutionary government with the authority to approve independence.

On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote his wife Abigail:

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 Trumbull's Declaration of Independence, depicting the Committee of Five presenting the draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. The original painting hands in the US Capitol rotunda.
In the meantime, a Committee of Five was appointed to draft a statement making the case for independence. The committee consisted of:
  1. John Adams of Massachusetts,
  2. Roger Sherman of Connecticut,
  3. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania,
  4. Robert R. Livingston of New York,
  5. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia
Thomas Jefferson was chosen to compose a rough draft, which was then revised with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin before being submitted to the Committee of Five, who submitted it to Congress on June 28, where it was further edited. It was the wording of this document that was approved on July 4, 1776, not the actual independence of the thirteen colonies.

Draft of the Declaration of Independence
Source: http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/images/declarationdraft_large.jpg

For a transcription of the draft, see http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/rough.htm.
For the draft made by Congress, see http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/congress.htm.

The document was rushed to John Dunlap, the official printer of the Continental Congress, and copies began to be distributed on the morning of July 5.

The Dunlap Broadside distributed July 5, 1776

Once New York had approved the Declaration, Congress ordered on July 19 that the document be engrossed on parchment and signed by every member. It was this copy that was signed on August 2, 1776 by most of the delegates. As president, John Hancock was the first signer, using a large bold signature centered below the text. The rest of the delegates present then signed in order of geography, from north to south. Absent delegates, including Virginia's George Wythe, signed later. Despite the order that the Declaration be signed by all delegates, a few never signed.

1823 engraving of the Declaration of Independence showing signatures

For more information about the Declaration of Independence and its signers, go to http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/index.htm.

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