Mr. Woods is a free-lance editor and author of numerous books and magazine articles.
It seems safe but it is hardly pleasing to say that few of the millions who jam the highways, beaches, lakes, amusement parks, picnic grounds, baseball diamonds, golf links, restaurants, and theaters this Fourth of July will give a thought to that which we celebrate and those whom we honor: that is, the Declaration of Independence, the courageous men who signed it, and the brave men and women of the first thirteen states who accepted, supported, and fought for its principles.
"The Day of Deliverance," John Adams called it in a letter to his wife, Abigail. "I am apt to believe," he wrote, "that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated . . . 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."
Although it is easy to understand and share Adams‘ enthusiasm, it should not be supposed that the drafting, endorsement, and signing of the Declaration was a gay and reckless proceeding.
Jefferson‘s great document owes its genesis to the revolutionary assembly of Virginia when, thirteen months after Concord and Lexington, it instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to propose independence. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented the resolution on June 7, but Congress postponed decision to July 1.
As General Howe’s fleet was being sighted off New York Harbor, the Second Continental Congress, meeting in the State House (later Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, began its momentous debate on Lee’s resolution and the supporting Declaration Thomas Jefferson had been requested to write. Jefferson’s great document was cut and amended in the course of a four-day debate by some forty-odd men of position and property from the thirteen colonies, while Washington’s rag, tag, and bobtail and outnumbered army in New York was being further endangered by additional redcoats from the newly anchored British fleet. Consequently, the natural tenseness of the drama being enacted in Philadelphia was heightened repeatedly by the arrival of couriers with messages from distressed colonial assemblies, and by unfailingly calm but desperate pleas from General Washington for more men and supplies.
When the delegates assembled on the morning of July 3, an anonymous note was found on the Speaker’s table: "Take care. A plot is framed for your destruction and all of you shall be destroyed." Several nervous delegates thought the cellars of the State House should be searched, especially since there were many loyalist sympathizers in Philadelphia. But most of the delegates agreed with Joseph Hewes of North Carolina when he urged the note be ignored, adding, "I’d as soon be blown to bits as proclaim to the world I was scared by a silly note."
The sense of urgency in the Congress became so great by the afternoon of July 4 that a final vote was taken—resulting in unanimous agreement that "we hold these truths to be self-evident" and that "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Delegate after delegate stood up and declared himself. (Four delegates, obliged to abstain from voting because they lacked instructions from their home assemblies, later in the month signed the document; four others refused to sign and resigned from Congress.)
When everyone had openly declared himself, each man signed the Declaration with full awareness that this step into a new dawn also placed him in the shadow of the gallows for treason to the British Crown. They knew, too, that their signatures could be brands that burned their homes, warrants that confiscated their farms, whips that lashed their wives and children into exile. But sign they did; some quietly, others boldly, a few with a jest, none with a whine or whimper.
White-haired Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island, whose hands trembled from a sickness, said as he scrawled his signature, "My hand may tremble but my heart does not!" Fifty-five members of the Continental Congress ultimately signed the Declaration as engrossed on parchment on August 2, 1776; later, seven who were absent signed, followed by the signature of six who became members of the Congress shortly after July 4.
Congress had resolved "to prevent traitors and spies from worming themselves amongst us, no person shall have a seat in Congress until he shall have signed the Declaration." The Declaration appeared for the first time in a newspaper, the Pennsylvania, Evening Post of Philadelphia, on Saturday, July 6, but created little or no excitement.
John Dunlap, printer to Congress, had been ordered to print as quickly as possible carefully-proofed copies of the Declaration. Couriers were held in readiness to gallop over the roads with copies for the new independent states. Congress had resolved that the Declaration should be read to public assemblies, citizens committees, councils, militia, and that copies be delivered "to the ministers of each parish, of every denomination, to be read as soon as divine service is ended, on the first Lord’s Day after they shall have received it," and that the clergymen should then give their copies to the clerk of the town council who was "required to record the same."
The first public celebration of the Declaration began in Philadelphia early on Monday, July 8, when a man was instructed to climb the State House tower to ring the bell—the Liberty Bell. The bells of other churches in the town quickly joined in, and all continued to ring the rest of that day and night. By noon, the yard back of the State House was packed with people come to hear the news.
Jefferson, Franklin, and Hancock were among those on the platform when the Sheriff of Philadelphia became the first one publicly to proclaim the Declaration. The King’s banners and arms were torn from all public places and dumped on the Commons for a bonfire. Later in the day, the Declaration was again read at the same spot, followed by volleys from the militia, cheers, speeches, toasts, fireworks, and illumination.
Samuel Adams, in his room at Philadelphia that day, picked up hundreds of letters written to him by patriots over the years—letters that would incriminate many of his friends if they fell into enemy hands—and he tore the letters into shreds and tossed the confetti into the street to add to the festivities.
Meanwhile, couriers on horseback were speeding copies of the Declaration to all the new states, some communities of which did not get the news until a month later. An express rider on his way to General Washington’s headquarters in New York, stopped at New Brunswick, New Jersey, early Tuesday morning. He was sent on his way with a fresh horse when he showed a copy of the Declaration.
The town council decided to read the document in front of the White Hall Tavern that same day "to overawe any disaffected Tories," and in the evening the document was proclaimed to the College of New Jersey, which was followed by volleys of musket fire and general celebration.
Bridgeton, Perth Amboy, and Dover, New Jersey, soon followed with their own celebrations—volleys, feasting, parades, and bonfires. At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 9, a hollow square was formed by a brigade of Washington‘s soldiers in New York. Washington sat on his horse within the square as an aide read the Declaration to the troops, within sight of the great British fleet in the harbor. At its conclusion soldiers and citizens proceeded to the Bowling Green and demolished a gilt equestrian statue of George III. The four thousand pounds of lead in it would make musket balls.
Wherever and whenever the news arrived, there were formal proclamations of the Declaration, usually followed by volleys of musket or cannon—thirteen was the magic number—then by parades, and often by thirteen toasts in rum or wine. Town and village officials were expected to swear to uphold the rights of the new nation, and all signs and symbols of the British crown were removed and destroyed. A Connecticut innkeeper was jailed for opposing the Declaration, and some of the newly born were named Independence, Washington, Adams, or Hancock. Yale University‘s future president, Ezra Stiles, noted in his diary that "the whole continent is all alive."
Militant Boston received the stirring news July 18 and had elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Worcester had joyously erupted four days earlier. One week after Boston‘s festivities, Williamsburg, Virginia, proclaimed the Declaration with readings in front of the Capitol, the Court House, and the Palace in the presence of such notables as George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Richard Henry Lee. Many toasts were drunk that evening in the famous Raleigh Tavern. The document was read to excited crowds at Halifax, North Carolina. Charleston, South Carolina, made the occasion both solemn and gay, helped by people from all parts of the state who had come to town for the event. Savannah had a solemn funeral procession which was ended with the burial of George III in effigy, a minister "committing his existence to the ground."
Many towns had Liberty Trees or Liberty Poles at which ceremonies were conducted. In Huntington, Long Island, they made an effigy of George III, lined it with gunpowder, wrapped it in the now repudiated flag, hung it on the Liberty Pole, ignited it, and howled with glee when George exploded with a bang.
One year later, Private Elijah Fisher, a member of George Washington’s guard when the Commander-in-Chief was with his army at New Brunswick, New Jersey, recorded in his diary: "We Selebrated the Independence of America, the howl army parraded….the artillery Discharged thirteen Cannon. we gave three Chears. At Night his excelency and the gentlemen and Ladys had a Bawl at Head Quarters with grate Pompe." Fifty years later, on July 4, 1826, only three signers of the Declaration of Independence survived: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. And at the close of that day only Carroll survived.
Jefferson died shortly after noon at his home at Monticello, Virginia, at the age of eighty-three. Adams died later that day at his farmhouse outside Braintree, Massachusetts, at the age of ninety-one, saying at the end, "Jefferson still survives." That morning when Adams was told it was the Fourth of July, he said, "It’s a great day—a good day."
EDITOR’S NOTE: For further reference to the men, the events, and the spirit of 1776, see the review by Edmund Opitz on page 63.
***Liberty 1776 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.