Come all you brave soldiers, both valiant and free,
It’s for Independence we all now agree;
Let us gird on our swords, and prepare to defend,
Our liberty, property, ourselves and our friends.
–Jonathan Mitchell Sewall
July 2nd, 1776, the beginnings of the British fleet had arrived New York Harbor. Americans lined the piers of the city and were awed by the spectacle of the largest armada witnessed since Roman times and the countless ships’ masts choking the bay. Later that day, the British began landing their forces on Staten Island. It was an event that history has been overshadowed; for in a tight closed room and in stifling heat, men representing colonial America had changed this continent forever. At the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress voted to “dissolve the colonist’s connection” with England. The document recited the grievances and oppressions, for which Congress could not obtain redress; and proclaimed to the world the causes, which impelled them to a separation from the crown of Great Britain. It was unanimously adopted; New York having abstained. Two days later, July 4th , Congress endorsed the Declaration of Independence in its final and edited format. The content of the resolution was made known to the local press on July 6th.
The instrument was signed by John Hancock, Esq. as President, and by fifty-four others, delegates from the thirteen united colonies. It was not inscribed on parchment for another two weeks its endorsement and no signatures were affixed until August 2nd. The document was signed by John Hancock, Esq. as President, and by fifty-four others, delegates from the thirteen representing colonies. Those who signed the Declaration admitted an act of treason and the penalty was well known. Surgeon James Thatcher recorded an anecdote in his memoirs that occurred on the day of signing the Declaration; “Mr. Harrison, a delegate from Virginia, is a large portly man –Mr. Gerry, of Massachusetts, is slender and spare. A little time after the solemn transaction of signing the instrument, Mr. Harrison said smilingly to Mr. Gerry, ‘When the hanging scene comes to be exhibited, I shall have the advantage over you on account of my size. All will be over for me in a moment, but you will be kicking in the air half an hour after I am gone.’”
On July 6th, a Philadelphia printer, John Dunlap, began running off over five hundred broadsides. They were immediately distributed by fast riders throughout the colonies. George Washington received a letter from John Hancock at his headquarters at Number 1 Broadway, New York City, on the eighth. It included the complete text of the resolution. Hancock wrote: “That our affairs may take a more favorable turn, the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve the connection between Great Britain and the American colonies, and to declare them free and independent states; as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed to transmit to you, and to request you will have it proclaimed at the head of the army in the way you shall think most proper.”
The morning of July 9th, General Washington, supreme commander of the Continental Army, sent the Declaration to the New York Provincial Congress for ratification. That evening, at 6 PM, the brigades in the city were paraded onto the Commons, located at the north end of Broadway. At the appointed time, brigade adjuncts stood before their troops and read the Declaration aloud. The general orders that day read: “The general [Washington] hopes this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage… as knowing that now the peace and safety of his country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms; And that he is now in the service of a state possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest honors of a free country. Soldiers heard for the first time that the united colonies became the United States.’
For many, the move by Congress to dissolve all connections with England came as a shock. The most ardent supporters of the patriot cause never expected their protests would lead to such a drastic measure. Even after violence erupted, the word independence was rarely mentioned and only in private. As the conflict worsened, Americans gained their own sense of identity. They were bolstered by early military victories; Boston, Charlestown, and Montreal. More and more men of wealth, attracted to the idea of duty free trade and no taxation, pulled away from the crown. Colonists began talking publicly of forging their own nation. The thought of independence was not so farfetched. However, the very act of proclaiming such a move, when confronted with the reality, was courageous, undaunted, and perhaps foolish. Sir George Otto Trevelyan writes: When we reflect on the deranged condition of our army, the great deficiency of our resources, and the little prospect of foreign assistance, and at the same time contemplate the prodigious powers and resources of our enemy, we may view this measure of Congress as a prodigy. The history of the world cannot furnish an instance of fortitude and heroic magnanimity parallel to that displayed by the members, whose signatures are affixed to the Declaration of American Independence. Their venerated names will ornament the brightest pages of American history, and be transmitted to the latest generations.
On July 4th, John Adams wrote to his wife: “It [the Declaration] ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore.” Historian William Gordon wrote in 1801: “This day [July8] at twelve o’clock, the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed at the state-house in Philadelphia amidst the greatest acclamations.” It was the first time that any public heard the content of what would form the basis for their struggle for independence. It was delivered slowly and very “impressively” before a large crowd in the State House yard, from a platform which in peaceful times had been erected for the purpose of observing the planet Venus. After many ‘huzzahs’ and joyful outbursts, the royal coat of arms was taken down from the Court House and burned amidst the throng of spectators. Sir George Otto Trevelyan wrote:
“The readings nationwide triggered a rush of patriotic exuberance.” Samuel Adams recognized the resolution of Congress as if it were a decree promulgated from heaven. “The Declaration of Independence went straight to their hearts, because they found in it their own conceptions, put into words which few or none of them were capable of writing.”
Scenes of this nature were renewed in every colony as the posts carrying written copies fanned out from Philadelphia. In Massachusetts, the Declaration was read in all the churches and entered in its entirety in town records. Rhode Islanders greeted the news with deafening huzzas. Hardy mariners shouted “free trade with all the world”. As John Adams predicted, there were bonfires, illuminations with rockets, and crackers. Jubilation erupted in the form of formal balls to rowdy drunken displays in public houses (pubs or taverns). The South Carolina Assembly, among the last to receive the proclamation, accepted it with “unspeakable pleasure.” Even the ragged, fever-stricken garrisons guarding the northern passes along the Hudson River along the line of lakes to the Canadian border shouted joy upon the news. They now had a country to sicken and die for.
However, not all American expressed glee over the news that their fellow countrymen were breaking ties with the mother country. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania opposed the declaration and called it “a skiff made of paper.” As already mentioned, the New York delegation abstained during ratification. And in a country divided, to the point of civil war where armed legions of colonists supported both sides of the conflict, only one third of its population could be deemed patriots. Another third, those labeled Tories in support of the crown, despised the ‘dastardly parchment’. And a third of the populace was neutral. They wanted nothing to do with the turmoil brewing around them. They were quite content to let matters run their course while they tended their farms and businesses.
There was a great deal said and written about the script comprising the monumental work. Samuel Adams wrote that Jefferson had “poured the soul of the continent into his manifesto and therefore it produced a glorious effect and made the colonies all alive.”
However others would question Jefferson’s inspiration and ‘genius’ in penning the document.
The main charge against the Declaration has been that it lacked originality for its author was a plagiarist. Some believed at the time, including future historians such as Sir George Trevelyan and Charles Upham, that the document imitated the republican writings of many of the members of the Long Parliament; mid-seventeenth century Parliament established after the Bishop Wars and considered the genius of the advancement of liberty. Furthermore, Jefferson was accused of relying on excerpts from Locke, Milton, and Rousseau in drafting the final work. Also it has been pointed out that ideas and passages within the document were taken from some of Mrs. Aphra Behn’s comedies; seventeenth century playwright whose works are full with insight about the human condition. Jefferson took delight in reading her plays and quoted her works on many occasions.
John Adams said afterwards, when explaining the origins of the Declaration to a correspondent, that there was nothing new in Jefferson’s paper: “As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance is contained in the Declaration of Rights and the violation of those rights, [as] in the Journals of Congress in 1774. He later in life wrote to his dear friend, Timothy Pickering, in a letter dated August 6, 1822: “Indeed, the essence of it [the Declaration] is in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of the lucid intervals, and penned and polished by Samuel Adams.”
In New York, a city whose civilian Tory population doubled that of patriot, a well nourished and self confident army (prior to hardships that were to come) rejoiced at the news. According to Isaac Bangs, a soldier from Connecticut; “The whole choir of our officers, together with Colonel Baldwin and the chief of his officers, went to a Public House to testify our joy at the happy news of independence. We spent the afternoon merrily playing at Bowles for wine…” Knox wrote to his wife; “As we play our part [the army] posterity will bless or curse us.” Modern historian McCullough writes that the militiamen and civilians rushed down Broadway afterwards and destroyed every relic of British influence in their path, including royal arms painted on tavern signs. At Bowling Green, they mobbed a gilded equestrian statue of King George III, portrayed in Roman garb, that had been erected to celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act. The crowd pulled down George III and decapitated him, mounting the statue’s head on a spike outside a tavern. The four thousand pounds of lead was sent to Litchfield, Connecticut, where it was melted down to fill thousands of cartridge boxes with musket balls.
However not all those who stood in the ranks of the Continental army rejoiced at the words spoken by their adjunct. They were not perplexed when later Mr. Samuel Adams said that this whole thing must lead to either independence or slavery. There were those for whom the paradox of a new nation declaring her freedom while subjecting nearly a quarter of her country’s people to slavery was not lost. One of every six soldiers shouldering their muskets in the Commons that evening was black. Freemen, former slaves, and runaway bondsmen who placed their mark to fight in for the American cause. As the war progressed and the summer soldiers faded back to their farms, the Negro soldier stayed. At Valley Forge the number of black soldiers increased to nearly one out of every five. These men saw the irony of a nation that legalized slavery while declaring that all men were created equal with rights as that were no different than the next man. They saw the hypocrisy of the Declaration, yet they continued to fight, to starve, to freeze long nights without proper clothing or blankets, and to die… all for a cause that at war’s end would establish a new nation and what would become the most powerful slave state in the world. The following passage was found in a black freeman’s journal written in 1776 after the Declaration was read to the troops:
Freemen! If you pant for glory,
If you sigh to live in story,
If you burn with patriot zeal;
Seize this bright auspicious hour,
Chase those venal tools of power,
Whilst glory and virtue your bosoms inspire,
Corruption’s proud slaves shall with anguish retire.
With the penning of this document, the hopes and dreams of a new republic were shared by a nation. A nation comprised of Europeans, Asian, Africans, and indigenous people. A nation for whom its newly formed leaders would be given the opportunity to truly display the freedoms they so humbly affixed their names to. In this they failed. But in failure was laid the foundation for concepts in republicanism that in previous decades were bandied through the august halls of European councils by learned men and men of power. In America, these concepts were put into practice. Though imperfect, the Declaration of Independence was perfect in its intent; in its desire. Something was created. An idea, the foundation stones, was laid. It was then up to future generations to breathe life into words whose simplicity could not have been expressed more clearly. All men are created equal. And in that no paradox, no hatred, and no bigotry can stand the moral test of time.
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