Which brings us to the 4th of July, 1776.
“In later years the excessive summer heat of Philadelphia would frequently figure in accounts of Thursday, July 4th, 1776,” David McCullough writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, John Adams. “In fact, the day, like the one before, was pleasantly cool and comfortable.”
That morning, discussion of the Declaration continued until around eleven o’clock. The debate was closed at that point, and a vote was taken.
As on July 2nd, again, twelve colonies voted in the affirmative, with New York abstaining. Again, John Dickinson, leader of the opposition, was absent.
The Congress then directed that the document be printed. It would take another month for an official copy would be signed by the delegates. On July 4th, only the President of the Congress, John Hancock, and the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson, fixed their signatures to the document.
At which point it was official. The thirteen colonies had renounced allegiance to the King.
The birth of a new United States of America was proclaimed.
What happened next?
“Congress proceeded directly to other business,” David writes. “Indeed, to all appearances, nothing happened in Congress on July 4th, 1776. John Adams, who had responded with such depth of feeling to the events of July 2nd, recorded not a word of July 4th.”
“Of Jefferson’s day, it is known only that he took time off to shop for ladies’ gloves and a new thermometer that he purchased at John Sparhawk’s Bookshop for a handsome 3 pounds, 15 shillings,” David notes.
The following morning, July 5th, broadside editions were printed and made available.
On Saturday, July 6th, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed the full text of the Declaration on its front page.
2: “The great day of celebration came Monday, July 8th, at noon in the State House Yard, when the Declaration was read aloud before an exuberant crowd,” David writes. “With drums pounding, five battalions paraded through the city and ‘on the common, gave us the feu de joie [thirteen cannon blasts], notwithstanding the scarcity of powder,’ John Adams recorded.
“In the Supreme Court Room at the State House, as planned, a half dozen Philadelphians chosen for the honor,” David writes, “took the King’s Arms down from the wall and carried it off to be thrown on top of a huge fire and consumed in an instant, the blaze lighting the scene for blocks around.”
Bells rang throughout the day and into the night. Bonfires burned on street corners all around Philadelphia. Candles appeared in the windows of houses throughout the city.
“Fine starlight, pleasant evening,” John Adams’s friend Christopher Marshall wrote. “There were bonfires, ringing bells, with other great demonstrations of joy upon the the unanimity and agreement of the Declaration.”
On Tuesday 9th, in New York, “the Declaration was read aloud to George Washington’s assembled troops, and it was that night, at the foot of Broadway, that a roaring crowd pulled down the larger-than-life equestrian statue of George III.”
As the news spread, celebrations broke out across the colonies. Across North and South, in town after town, drums sounded, bonfires burned, prayers were said, and toasts were raised.
“When the news finally reached Savannah, Georgia in August,” David notes, “it set off a day-long celebration during which the Declaration was read four times in four different public places and the largest crowd in the history of the province gathered for a mock burial of King George III.”
On Friday, August 2nd, the delegates signed an elegantly engrossed version of The Declaration of Independence which had been printed on a single, giant sheet of parchment by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress.
“Nothing was reported of the historic event,” David notes. “As with everything transacted within Congress, secrecy prevailed. To judge by what was in the newspapers and the correspondence of the delegates, the signing never took place.
“The fact that a signed document now existed, as well as the names of the signatories, was kept secret for the time being,” he notes, “as all were acutely aware that by taking up the pen and writing their names, they had committed treason, a point of considerably greater immediacy now, with the British army so near at hand.”
3: Even the Congressional delegates who had fiercely opposed the Declaration “now, by word or deed, committed themselves to the ‘Glorious Revolution,'” David writes.
Opposition leader John Dickinson, “though ill and exhausted from the strain of the past weeks, departed at the head of the first troops to march out of the city to join in the defense of New Jersey, a scene that made a deep impression on many, including John Adams. ‘Mr. Dickinson’s alacrity and spirit,’ he told his wife, Abigail, “certainly becomes his character and sets a fine example.'”
In a letter to Abigail, he assured her he had not been overly “transported” by what had happened. He knew the “toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration.”
Still, it would be worth it.
“You will see in a few days,” he wrote, “a Declaration setting forth the causes, which have impelled us to this mighty revolution, and the reasons that will justify it in the sight of God and man.”
“That the hand of God was involved in the birth of the new nation he had no doubt,” David notes:
“It is the will of heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever,” John proclaimed. The people would have “unbounded power,” he wrote. And, as the people were quite as capable of corruption, he would surrender all his hopes and fears to an overruling providence, “in which unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe.”
Reflection and Action: For those of us living in the United States, take time this week to give thanks for the many great Americans who preceded us.