With all the fireworks and festivals surrounding the Fourth of July, we have little time to ponder the significance of the day we’re celebrating.
It’s not likely many of us could name 10 signers of the Declaration of Independence and tell who they were and where they were from.
If we were asked, “What happened on July 4, 1776,” many of us would say, “Well, that’s when the Declaration of Independence was signed,” or “That’s the day we declared our independence from England” or “That’s the day the Revolutionary War began.” And we would be wrong.
When the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in the spring of 1776, the battles of Lexington and Concord already had been fought. For all intents and purposes, the war was on.
After nearly two months of discussion, on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee urged Congress to declare independence rather than try to reach an accord with Britain. On June 11, a committee was appointed to draft a declaration of independence. The next day, the committee asked Thomas Jefferson to write a “Rough draught” of the declaration, and the draft was read to Congress on June 28. From July 1 through 4, Congress debated its wording and made revisions.
On July 2, Congress declared independence. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, in a vote of 12-0 with the New York delegation abstaining, Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, which was signed with a flourish by John Hancock. It wasn’t until Aug. 2, 1776, a month after independence was declared, that delegates began signing the officially inscribed declaration.
Cooler heads did not prevail at the Second Continental Congress. The group originally met to demand their rights from the British king. By demanding freedom, they committed treason, which was punishable by death.
Today, we view the Founding Fathers through the tissue-wrapped veil of history as noble, genteel and reasonable. In truth, they were radicals who staked everything on their claim to liberty.
The National Archives has an interesting website that invites you to sign the Declaration of Independence. After you have chosen a script, typed in your name and hit “submit,” these words appear: “Are you sure you want to sign the Declaration of Independence? If you had been a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1776, you were a rebel and considered a traitor by the King. You knew that a reward had been posted for the capture of certain prominent rebel leaders and the largest British armada ever assembled was just outside New York harbor. Affixing your name to the document meant that you pledged your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor to the cause of freedom.”
How many of us, not knowing the outcome and with the odds stacked against us, would say yes?
Go to www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_sign.html to affix your signature.
Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.