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Cover Story

Our look at the day, the declaration, the people and the promise of our American scripture


Odd as it may seem, the first published news about the Declaration of Independence and our glorious Fourth of July was the top “Twitter” post of 1776. In 13 words and 78 letters, the Pennsylvania Evening Post squeezed some late-breaking news onto its Page 4: “This day the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES.”

Perhaps even odder, this day was July 2, 1776.

Such oddities are rightfully overlooked as we celebrate the fireworks of the Declaration’s second paragraph: “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.”

And the concluding lines are more awe-inspiring than any finales of 2016’s fireworks — as the signers of the Declaration put their lives on the line: “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

So Happy Fourth of July, and here is a Cityview look at the day, the declaration, the people and the promise of our American scripture.

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Two guiding thoughts along the way: One is from historian Garry Wills and the other from philosopher Jacob Needleman.

Wills: “The Fourth includes celebration of some things that happened on different days and of other things that did not happen at all…Image 6-27-16 at 9.11 AMThe Declaration has been turned into something of a blank check for idealists of all sorts to fill in as they like. We had better stop signing it and begin reading it.”

Needleman: “…the founders of our country did not fight and die for the right to be selfish and self-involved, nor did they make holy cause of the childish impulse to…get just what we like or want whenever or however we want it. They did not risk so much just so that a man or woman could live and act independently of obligation to society.” [Like, as some Iowa legislators would have it, the God-given right of every Iowan to blow off a finger or worse with the July 4th explosive of his or her choice.]

The Day(s) of Declaration

Our Library of Congress provides this timeline:

  • June 7, 1776: Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presents a resolution urging the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, to declare independence.
  • June 11: In anticipation of the vote on Lee’s resolution, the Congress appoints Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston of New York to draft a declaration of independence.
  • June 12-27: Jefferson does the heavy lifting in preparing the draft.
  • June 28: The draft is reviewed by the committee and read in Congress.
  • July 1-4: Delegates debate and revise the Declaration. (Not noted by our Library is how Franklin calmed an anguished Jefferson by telling him funny stories as the Congress second-guessed Jefferson’s wording.)

Some confusion over the national holiday arose because the Continental Congress declared the colonies independent on July 2, 1776, and then adopted the Declaration of Independence two days later. (In time, Congress settled on July 4 as the day to celebrate.)

John Adams, who was to serve as the nation’s second president (1797-1801), wrote to wife Abigail on July 3 about the great happenings in Philadelphia. Henceforth, he wrote, July 2 should be celebrated with “Pomp and Parades, with Shows, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” While Adams was off on the date, he was ahead of his time with regard to the festivities — because big celebrations of the Fourth did not become routine until well into the 19th century, and even in 1817 Adams lamented the nation’s lack of curiosity about its history. But, after all, in the 1770s, there was a war of independence to win.

So Congress continued to work on the formal Declaration, until adopting it July 4. The charter was signed that day by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, its secretary. On the same day the text of the Declaration was published by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap — 25 of the so-called “Dunlap Broadsides” are known to exist today.

First with the “Tweet” of independence, the Pennsylvania Evening Post was also the first newspaper to publish the text of the Declaration, doing so on July 6.

But not until July 19 did Congress order an engrossed (or inscribed) copy of the Declaration of Independence on vellum or fine quality parchment — that’s the text with a flourish familiar to us today. The penmanship was by Timothy Matlack, Thomson’s assistant.

  • Aug. 2: Delegates begin to sign Matlack’s script of the Declaration. Not all of those who voted for independence or voted to adopt the Declaration wound up signing it; of the 56 who did sign, about a dozen did so after Aug. 2. The last, Thomas McKean of Delaware, is believed to have signed in 1781.

To cap the timeline, it’s worth noting that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, July 4, 1826. Adams’ last words were said to have been, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” unaware that Jefferson had died about five hours before.


The Declaration(s)

Given the document’s significance in U.S. history and in what is called our civic religion or democratic faith, analysis of the Declaration of Independence is warranted and unending. In “The Inventing of America,” Wills writes of three Declarations — the political one adopted by the Congress, the philosophical/scientific one drafted by Jefferson, and the symbolic one enshrined in the rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. For our Fourth of July, the focus is on the symbolic Declaration and on Jefferson.

Wills’ distinction makes sense because some scholars say the audience for the Declaration included France and other nations, who had to be convinced the colonies were independent and unified before supporting the Revolution.

The symbolism of the Declaration is what we celebrate today and John Adams may warrant thanks for that, as he recalled the work on it:

“…Jefferson proposed me to make the draft. I said, ‘I will not. You should do it.’ ”


“You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business…I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”

Because of his work in Congress, some historians said, Adams feared the review of the Declaration might be skewed by attitudes toward him, without proper attention to the draft.

For his part, Jefferson wrote in 1825 that he used no reference works as he worked on the draft. His effort was, “Not to find out new principles, or new arguments…but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent…(I)t was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”

Relying on reference works was unnecessary anyway, given Jefferson’s wide-ranging knowledge and talents and given his familiarity with English documents in which barons, and then Parliament, fought against the tyranny of their own monarchs. Principles of freedom found in England’s Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628) and the Bill (or Declaration) of Rights (1689) are re-stated in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. So Jefferson needed no reliance on “new principles, or new arguments.” And Thomas Paine, “the Poet of the Revolution,” had already made the point on unalienable rights in his pamphlet Common Sense and other writings.

While Jefferson may have fretted as his Declaration handiwork was revised by Congress, his biographer Dumas Malone and most others acknowledge the document was improved — perhaps most markedly by deleting one of the charges against King George III: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery…he is now exciting these very people to rise in arms against us…he urges them to commit crimes against the lives of another.” Some rationalize that accusation was in response to the “emancipation proclamation” issued by Virginia’s Royal Governor Lord Dunmore in late 1775 and particularly his urging slaves to take up arms against their masters. Historian Wills, who called this section “morally convoluted,” said deleting it spared the Declaration from ridicule, given how many in Congress were slaveholders.

Much of what we know about Jefferson is that his views are better reflected in his remorseful 1785 renunciation of slavery, a portion of which is inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial: “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”


The People

Some analysts argue that the closing lines of the Declaration — the pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” — applied to the individual colonies and not necessarily to the human signers. The logic is that the Declaration was adopted by the colonies, through their representatives, with each colony, regardless of population, having one vote to cast. Further, on the document, the signatures went to spaces allotted to each colony. But you have to wonder if those who signed regarded their action as “risk-free.”

One such signer was William Williams of Connecticut. An acquaintance quipped that he would escape any nasty fate because he had never signed or written anything against the British, so Williams told him: “Then you, sir, deserve to be hanged — for not having done your duty.”

Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, a successful merchant who had come to the colony from England, risked his fortune to support the Revolution. He was a leading fund-raiser for the cause of liberty but died in 1806 in obscure poverty at the age of 72. Support of the revolution and subsequent bad investments led to his serving three-and-a-half years in debtors’ prison — no cushy ambassadorial appointment for him.

The saga of the Lewis family could provide material for a public television prequel to “Downton Abbey”!

Shortly after Francis Lewis, who had come to New York from Wales, signed the Declaration, the family home in Queens, New York, was destroyed by cannon fire from a British battleship. His wife Elizabeth was taken captive and imprisoned. She was released in a prisoner exchange devised by General George Washington, but her health was ravaged by her time in prison and she died in 1779 at the age of 64.

To confound their woes, the Lewises’ only daughter, Ann, eloped with a dashing British naval officer and fled to England. One of Ann’s daughters married the archbishop of Canterbury, another the archbishop of Calcutta, and a third became the wife of Sir James Moncrief, Lord Advocate of Scotland — the equivalent of the U.S. Attorney General. The Lewises’ son Morgan served in the Revolutionary army and later became governor of New York. A great-grandson, Manning Livingston, was killed in the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War.

Three signers for South Carolina, Thomas Heyward Jr., Arthur Rutledge and Edward Middleton, were captured by the British during the siege of Charleston in 1780 and imprisoned in St. Augustine, Florida.

To the consternation of British guards, the three are said to have marked the fifth anniversary of the Declaration by singing from their cell bunks a verse Heyward had written to the tune of God Save the King:

“God save the Thirteen States!

Long live the United States!

God save our States!

Make us victorious,

Happy and glorious;

No tyrants over us;

God save our states!”

So even if the pledge regarding Lives, Fortunes and Honor technically applied to the colonies, the consequences were borne by the signers.

Fast-forward some 70 years, and you are in Rochester, New York, at a July 5, 1852, Declaration celebration where the orator is the former slave, Frederick Douglass.

If that surprises you, consider how Douglass must have felt. Indeed, here’s a dramatic line from his oration to the white folks of Rochester: “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”

A few lines from his oration suggest how his talk will outdo any speeches this July 4th:

“To the American slave…your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license…your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…”

The harshness of Douglass’ indictment of America condoning slavery cannot be over-stated.

Nevertheless, he also said:

“Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor on the cause of their country…With them justice and liberty were final; not slavery and oppression…They seized upon eternal principles, and set a glorious example in their defence…

“I do not despair of this country…I therefore leave off where I began, with hope.”

In his book “The American Soul,” philosopher Jacob Needleman devotes 40 pages to the Douglass oration and “Slavery and the Story of America.” He does so to make his point that one cannot truly love this nation unless also acknowledging its shortcomings and its nightmares and failures. And he makes the point, too, that people who find only fault with the nation are dishonest if they do not acknowledge its strengths and triumphs.


The Promise

In fact, Needleman echoes Douglass on hope by beginning “The American Soul” with: “America was once the hope of the world.” Perhaps in a July 4th oration or a political campaign, Needleman’s theme would be, “Let America bring hope again” instead of the strident, “Make America great again.”

He writes of needing to balance what he sees as “the two Americas,” one external, the other internal.

The external one is the more familiar, and certainly more prevalent in our political campaigns. The internal is pretty much absent from the political circuit. To paraphrase Needleman:

There is the democracy of external order and action, the government of people living in the material world, the political world of interest groups and promises of jobs…The government is such that there always will be movement toward establishing liberty and equality for the people. The process is often jagged, confused and imperfect…

But this degree of external democracy will not exist without the internal process of self-development in men and women. They cannot conduct their government without the development of their essential nature as human beings. This second America is not the democracy of personal interest, but the democracy of conscience.

Needleman observes:

“America was an idea! What other country can say that? …to be an American was an idea…A nation formed by philosophical ideals that have been thought through by human beings — it is the only nation in the world that is so constituted. America is not a tribal, ethnic or racial identity. It is a philosophical identity composed of ideas of freedom, liberty, independent conscience, self-reliance, hard work, justice.”

Those lines tie in well with what Thomas Jefferson said he was about in drafting the Declaration of Independence: “It was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit…”

As we mark this 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it’s worthwhile to consider the way Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone characterized various national shrines. He noted that Russia enshrined the corpses of Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, and China has the embalmed Mao Zedong’s in Tiananmen Square. While the U.S. has monuments to its leaders, we enshrine documents — testimony to being a nation of laws and not of men.

And therein lies the promise and challenge offered by Jefferson, James Madison and the other founding fathers — outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Each generation must address the promises and challenges in what Madison and Jefferson envisioned as a great experiment.

Something to think about this Fourth.

Happy Fourth of July. CV

Fourth facts


Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania are the only two persons to have signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation (1777, the first constitution) and the Constitution (1789). Sherman is the only one to have signed those three plus the Articles of Association (1774), a protest against the “Intolerable Acts” imposed upon the colonies after the Boston Tea Party.


Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, eight were immigrants — three from Ireland, two from England, two from Scotland and one from Wales.


Yes, Sam Adams, the leader of the Sons of Liberty and signer of the Declaration, did run a family brewery. The Samuel Adams beer sold today, however, was so named in 1985 by Jim Koch, a Boston brewer whose affection for Sam Adams outweighed family brewing history that began in St. Louis in the 1860s.


The annual Fourth of July celebration in Bristol, Rhode Island, which dates back to 1785, is said to be the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in the U.S.


The first state to make July 4th a state holiday was Massachusetts in 1781.


Congress did not establish the Fourth as a federal holiday until 1870.


While the Iowa statehood constitution of 1846 quoted from the Declaration of Independence, saying “All men are, by nature, free and equal, and have certain inalienable rights,” the Fourth was not recognized as a state holiday until 1971. The Iowa constitution was amended even later, in 1998, to say that both men “and women” enjoyed inalienable rights.


While the Declaration itself is priceless, a copy of one of the Declaration broadsides printed by John Dunlap the night of the first Fourth sold at auction in 2000 for $8.14 million to TV producer Norman Lear and associates.


John Dickinson, who had authored Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, a sound argument against British oppression, advocated  reconciliation, not revolution, and refused to vote for independence or sign the Declaration. But when war came he joined his fellow patriots as a brigadier general in the Pennsylvania militia.


Abigail Smith married John Adams in 1764. Despite the paucity of information about female leadership in the 18th century, you have to conclude that Abigail Adams was one of the most influential women in the days of Independence and in shaping her husband’s role in the nation’s formative years. CV


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