Today is the day we celebrate the approval of the Declaration of Independence. The story is more interesting than we usually hear, however. Here’s a brief synopsis:
The last paragraph of the Declaration (which announces that the colonies are free and independent states) was adapted from a motion that had been brought by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia on June 7. Lee had been authorized by his state (which had been meeting in Williamsburg during the month of May to determine its relationship to Great Britain) to present the resolution. He made this motion:
“That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”
The motion was seconded by John Adams of Massachusetts and the debate began. The chief opposition came from the delegates of Pennsylvania, New York, and South Carolina, whose legislatures had not yet made up their minds regarding their future course. There was no doubt that the majority of the delegates favored independence but it was important to present to the world a united front, thus the delegates were willing to wait to achieve unanimity. For this reason the vote on the motion was postponed until July 1.
On July 1, the Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole to resume debate on Lee’s motion. At the end of the day, the vote to approve the motion was 9 to 4 (Pennsylvania and South Carolina opposed; Deleware, which only had two delegates present who disagreed with each other, and New York’s delegation who had still not received direction from their legislature). Again, the final decision was put off till the next day.
That evening, the South Carolinians decided to drop their opposition for the sake of unity. The majority of the delegates from Pennsylvania also decided to support the resolution which brought the number of colonies in favor of approval to 11. The Delaware delegation was stilled deadlocked, however, so a message was sent to the other delegate who had not been able to attend the convention, Caesar Rodney. The weather was so terrible the evening of July 1, no one thought Rodney would be able to get to Philadelphia. But Rodney rode all night through the storm, 80 miles, and arrived at the convention just in time to break the tie of the Delaware delegation and vote for independence. New York had still not received instructions, but in spite of this, it was decided to bring the motion to the floor for a vote. The motion passed 12-0 with New York abstaining (New York did finally vote in favor of independence on July 19). The vote of July 2 meant that the colonies were no longer colonies of Great Britain but free and independent states. There was now no turning back. (John Adams always believed that July 2 should be observed as Independence Day, since that was the day on which the colonies became “free and independent states”).
When the vote was announced, a solemn silence filled the room as the magnitude of what these men had done settled in. John Hancock broke the silence by remarking, “Gentlemen, the price on my head has just been doubled!” Samuel Adams then rose to speak: “We have this day restored the Sovereign, to Whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and . . . from the rising to the setting sun, may His Kingdom come.”
Congress ordered that the Declaration be authenticated and on July 4, President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson signed it. An order went forth to print the document and it was printed that night by printer John Dunlap. On July 5, Congress ordered copies of the document be sent to the various legislatures, assemblies, and conventions of the colonies. The Declaration was read publicly in Philadelphia on July 8 and in Boston on July 18. In the days following, it was published in newspapers throughout the land.
On July 19 when Congress received word of New York’s approval of independence, it resolved that the Declaration be engrossed on parchment with the title, “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” The copying was probably done by Timothy Matlack, who had served for a time as assistant of Secretary Charles Thomson.
The Declaration was then signed by all the delegates on August 2, 1776. The men who signed it knew full well what it meant to affix their signatures to this document. If the fight for independence failed, they would all be put to death for treason. This provoked John Hancock to observe, “We must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” Benjamin Franklin hearing this, replied, “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”
Legend has it that as the delegates lined up to sign, Benjamin Harrison, who was a rather large man, remarked to the slender Elbridge Gerry, “I shall have a great advantage over you Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland stepped up soon after this remark to affix his name to the document. After he signed, someone said, “Carroll, you will get off easily; there are so many Charles Carrolls in Maryland they will never know which one it is.” At this remark, Carroll walked back up to the table and seizing the pen again stooped and wrote under his name, “of Carrollton” so that there would be no mistaking his identity.