Making Sense Of The Fourth Of July
The DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE is not what Thomas Jefferson thought it was when he wrote it—and that is why we celebrate it
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
Even so, when the Committee of the Whole again took up Lee’s resolution, on July 1, only nine colonies voted in favor (the four New England states, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia). South Carolina and Pennsylvania opposed the proposition, Delaware’s two delegates split, and New York’s abstained because their twelve-month-old instructions precluded them from approving anything that impeded reconciliation with the mother country. Edward Rutledge now asked that Congress put off its decision until the next day, since he thought that the South Carolina delegation would then vote in favor “for the sake of unanimity.” When Congress took its final tally on July 2, the nine affirmative votes of the day before had grown to twelve: Not only South Carolina voted in favor, but so did Delaware—the arrival of Caesar Rodney broke the tie in that delegation’s vote—and Pennsylvania. Only New York held out. Then on July 9 it, too, allowed its delegates to add their approval to that of delegates from the other twelve colonies, lamenting still the “cruel necessity” that made independence “unavoidable.”
Once independence had been adopted, Congress again formed itself into a Committee of the Whole. It then spent the better part of two days editing the draft declaration submitted by its Committee of Five, rewriting or chopping off large sections of text. Finally, on July 4, Congress approved the revised Declaration and ordered it to be printed and sent to the several states and to the commanding officers of the Continental Army. By formally announcing and justifying the end of British rule, that document, as letters from Congress’s president, John Hancock, explained, laid “the Ground & Foundation” of American self-government. As a result, it had to be proclaimed not only before American troops in the hope that it would inspire them to fight more ardently for what was now the cause of both liberty and national independence but throughout the country, and “in such a Manner, that the People may be universally informed of it.”
Not until four days later did a committee of Congress— not Congress itself—get around to sending a copy of the Declaration to its emissary in Paris, Silas Deane, with orders to present it to the court of France and send copies to “the other Courts of Europe.” Unfortunately the original letter was lost, and the next failed to reach Deane until November, when news of American independence had circulated for months. To make matters worse, it arrived with only a brief note from the committee and in an envelope that lacked a seal, an unfortunately slipshod way, complained Deane, to announce the arrival of the United States among the powers of the earth to “old and powerful! states.” Despite the Declaration’s reference to the “opinions of mankind,” it was obviously meant first and foremost for a home audience.
As copies of the Declaration spread through the states and were publicly read at town meetings, religious services, court days, or wherever else people assembled, Americans marked the occasion with appropriate rituals. They lit great bonfires, “illuminated” their windows with candles, fired guns, rang bells, tore down and destroyed the symbols of monarchy on public buildings, churches, or tavern signs, and “fixed up” on the walls of their homes broadside or newspaper copies of the Declaration of Independence.
But what exactly were they celebrating? The news, not the vehicle that brought it; independence and the assumption of self-government, not the document that announced Congress’s decision to break with Britain. Considering how revered a position the Declaration of Independence later won in the minds and hearts of the people, Americans’ disregard for it in the first years of the new nation verges on the unbelievable. One colonial newspaper dismissed the Declaration’s extensive charges against the king as just another “recapitulation of injuries,” one, it seems, in a series, and not particularly remarkable compared with earlier “catalogues of grievances.” Citations of the Declaration were usually drawn from its final paragraph, which said that the united colonies “are and of Right ought to be Free and Independent states” and were “Absolved of all Allegiance to the British Crown” —words from the Lee resolution that Congress had inserted into the committee draft. Independence was new; the rest of the Declaration seemed all too familiar to Americans, a restatement of what they and their representatives had already said time and again.