July 4, our Independence Day, marks the anniversary of 56 Americans founding a new country by writing and signing the Declaration of Independence.
Or does it?
Here are five interesting things you might not have known about the Declaration of Independence.
1. Though 56 men signed it, it was mostly drafted by five, with one of those five its primary author.
Okay, let’s unpack that. The 56 were members of the glorious Second Continental Congress, easily one of my three favorite congresses of all time. They were appointed by leaders of the 13 American colonies. The Congress had hurriedly assembled in May 1775, one month after the battles of Lexington and Concord inaugurated the American Revolutionary War but 14 months before the topic of today’s column. After declaring independence, the Congress continued to meet as the wartime coordinator of these newly united states.
For the first part of its existence — in the year or so before July, 1776 — Congress walked the narrowest of tightropes. It wished to reconcile with the British Empire, evidenced by the rejected Olive Branch Petition it sent King George III, but it also organized the war effort against His Majesty’s military. Then, after about a year of being spurned by the King and Parliament, Virginian Richard Henry Lee proposed to Congress the following resolution on June 7, 1776:
Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Congress knew the proposal was coming and anticipated a lengthy debate. Just in case it voted in favor of Lee’s resolution, Congress appointed a Committee of Five to draft a document that would explain the decision to declare independence — explain it to the colonies, to the Crown, to the world, and to posterity. The five men in the committee were:
- Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania
- John Adams, Massachusetts
- Roger Sherman, Connecticut
- Robert Livingston, New York
- Thomas Jefferson, Virginia
You may have heard of a few of them. Of the five, Jefferson was the greenest. In fact, the 33-year-old (incidentally, that’s one year younger than I am now, which makes me want to stop bothering with this whole writing thing) was a late addition to the Second Continental Congress. He had been a replacement for Congress’s initial president, Peyton Randolph, who returned to be Speaker of Virginia’s legislature, the historic House of Burgesses. Virginia needed an emergency stand-in at the Congress, and they chose the young but brilliant Jefferson. Replacing Randolph as president of the Congress was Massachusetts’s John Hancock, another colonist to whom Randolph ceded history; Hancock, as president, was the first to sign the Declaration — and not without flourish.
Recognizing that five men writing one document could get cumbersome, the committee looked to John Adams, among the most vocal colonists in liberty’s cause, to compose the first draft. He passed this responsibility to Jefferson, acknowledging his superior pen and, more importantly, his home colony of Virginia. (Not only was Virginia the biggest colony, but southern leaders — wealthy and Anglican — were less enthused about the revolution compared to the more liberal northern Congregationalists and Presbyterians. If a Virginian wrote the document of separation, such a choice would more likely garner southern support. Adams, for the same reason, also suggested Virginian George Washington to lead the Continental Army. These decisions to elevate Washington and Jefferson into the top tier of America’s pantheon cost Adams his own spot. I’m starting to think this parenthetical should have been a footnote, but I’m in too deep now.)
That’s how it fell to Jefferson, the last-minute replacement, to write most of America’s founding document. Though the Committee of Five and the broader Congress made edits, it’s mostly Jefferson’s words that declared our independence and thrust him forward into a dazzling and influential career.
2. But even Jefferson ripped off ideas from others, predominantly one man.
Of the remarkably brief document, it’s the second paragraph that sings most beautifully. (Text here.) After the first paragraph explains that an explanation is necessary, the second lays out three premises and one key conclusion.
- Premise 1: All men are created equal.
- Premise 2: All men are born with certain rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
- Premise 3: To protect these rights, we need a government.
- Conclusion: If the government doesn’t protect these rights, its citizens should be able to get a new one.
This boiled-down brilliance — outlining the role and purpose of government — has echoed across history ever since. Jefferson writes it like no one else could, but these ideas did not spawn from his head alone, nor the heads of his fellow committeemen. The ideas he used had been reverberating across the Atlantic for some time.
The American Revolution can be seen as the culmination of the Enlightenment, a European-born intellectual movement of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the ideas from these thinkers was the equality of all men and their natural rights. Men like John Locke, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about these ideas before Jefferson could hold a quill. Locke, for example, outlined a “social contract” between the government and the governed. It stipulated that people give up some of their freedoms in exchange for rights that the government must protect. In other words, the government restricts one’s natural abilities to kill, steal, or break any number of other laws in order to protect society at large. Importantly, the social contract also states the government must have boundaries — the inviolable rights of its citizens. Locke’s “Two Treatises on Government” believed these rights to be life, liberty, and property. Despite the swapping out of the third guarantee, the parallel to Jefferson’s wording is clear.
Locke went on to assert that if a government violated these rights, then the people had the right to rebel against their government and install a better one. Similarly, the Declaration notes that “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
Essentially, Jefferson and the Committee of Five were aided by a sixth man — the ghost of John Locke.
3. Forget everything you thought you knew about July 4.
Back to the Second Continental Congress. Lee started the independence debate on June 7, and the Committee of Five, just in case Congress voted for separation, began drafting an explanatory document. Four weeks later, Congress did indeed vote for independence. The date of the vote that separated America from the British Empire was July Second.
On the Third, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.” He thought it would be a day forever celebrated in their country’s hopefully long and glorious future. Adams wasn’t wrong about a lot (bias alert: he’s my favorite founding father), but boy, did he mess up his Independence Day prediction.
Or perhaps it is we who messed it up. Why did the Fourth become the tradition? After voting for independence, the Second Continental Congress debated the final wording on the document declaring it. It was on July Fourth that they released it to the public. Still, by then, the leaders of the new nation considered themselves independent for two days. Our bad.
4. That John Trumbull painting is mostly BS.
You’ve all seen it:
Painted 40 years later, the work understandably has some inaccuracies. Nevertheless, there’s a lot we can learn from John Trumbull’s 1817 work.
- Trumbull visited Independence Hall to accurately depict the room where the Second Continental Congress met.
- Also accurately, every member of the Second Continental Congress was a white male of enough means to dress like the establishment class they were.
- Who are the five men in the middle? You should know by now — it’s the Committee of Five! You can see Adams to our far left and Franklin to our far right.
- Of the five, the tall man in the middle actually presenting the Declaration is Jefferson, the document’s primary author.
- Seated is John Hancock, the president of the Second Continental Congress. He is about to affix the most famous signature in history. (Don’t worry about it, Peyton Randolph. Everyone these days knows your name as a a speaker of the hallowed House of Burgesses.)
- At first glance, many believe Jefferson’s foot is blocking Adams to his right (our left), which mirrors Jefferson blocking Adams from peak founding father greatness. It’s an attractive sentiment, especially since Jefferson defeated Adams in the young country’s most heated presidential election (1800). However, most disagree that this was Trumbull’s intent.
Admittedly, Trumbull conveyed some considerable educational material. That being said… the scene never happened. I don’t just mean that they didn’t pose for Trumbull, who painted the scene four decades later. I mean that these men were never in the same room at the same time, to say nothing of signing a document together. Instead, the signatures were piecemealed over time. Some of the depicted members of Congress weren’t even in Philadelphia in that first week of July. During the chaotic early developments of the Revolutionary War, delegates were frequently on the move, including coming in and out of Philadelphia. Historians think most of them hadn’t yet signed their name until August 2.
5. It is debatable whether the document created a new country.
And now back to the document itself:
- We know that the first paragraph explained why the document should be written.
- And the second paragraph ripped off John Locke.
- After that, Jefferson shifts into complaint mode and lists specific grievances against the Crown.
- In the penultimate paragraph, the document asserts that the colonies have been more than reasonable and repeatedly worked toward a peaceful reconciliation before getting rebuffed each time.
- Finally, in the document’s final paragraph, Jefferson gets around to actually declaring independence, incorporating Richard Henry Lee’s resolution (mind my bolded text):
. . . these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
Does that look like a unified country to you? Me neither.
It can be argued that from this moment until at least the U.S. Constitution went into effect a dozen years later (or perhaps as late as the end of the Civil War), the 13 colonies-turned-states were 13 different countries bound together in an alliance. The document’s language certainly implies that confederate status, and soon the alliance’s new governing document — the Articles of Confederation — is more explicit about it.
Lasting from 1781 until the enacting of the Constitution, the Articles pulled the 13 original states into a confederation with a national Congress, but that national Congress had almost no authority over the states, and there was no national executive or court system. Essentially, the states almost always operated independently with no intrusion from a capital. Instead, each state had their own legislatures, governors, judges, currencies, taxes, armies, and trading policies. It was an understandable decision after escaping from underneath an overbearing Crown micromanaging the colonies’ affairs. Why trade one distant capital in London for a less distant capital in Philadelphia? Local government for local decisions was the answer.
However, the system eventually proved to be an inefficient, toothless mess, and in 1787 the Constitutional Convention centralized and structured the government with which we’re now familiar. Perhaps it is only then that we can say a truly united country began, and the “United States of America” became a singular term instead of a plural one.
I’d wish you a happy Fourth of July, but now you know better. Let’s just stick with “Happy Independence Day!”
- Stamp Act Congress, New York City (1765) — The first time some of the colonies assembled to let the Crown know, “Knock it off, London.” It was also the first formalization of the complaint that the colonies should not be taxed without representation in Parliament. This congress is slept on historically.
- Second Continental Congress
- Congress of Vienna, Vienna, Austria (1815) — The only non-American congress on this list, Vienna was the first prominent trans-European gathering to establish and maintain peace after brutal war. In this case, the French Revolutionary Wars — and the Napoleonic Wars they spawned — had across two decades killed millions of Europeans and ravaged the continent. Though this congress rolled back some social and political progress of the period, it at least served as a harbinger of the later Paris Peace Conference, League of Nations, United Nations, and European Union.
- First Continental Congress, Philadelphia (1774) — Though technically the Second Continental Congress was the sequel to this one, this one wasn’t nearly as cool. It’s “The New Hope” to the Second Continental Congress’s “Empire Strikes Back,” if you know what I mean.
- Congress of the Confederation, assorted locations (1781-1789) — America’s first elected governing body. Considerably weak, but a necessary pivot on the way to the Constitution at decade’s end.
Last place: the current American Congress.
Roger Sherman is the most important founding father you’ve never heard of. Jefferson perhaps paid the best tribute, saying, “That is Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.” The same can be said of all us Nutmeggers.
Not only was Sherman on this Committee of Five, but he was one of the most important members of 1787’s Constitutional Convention. When considering how to reform the government, the delegates from the big states were at loggerheards with those from the little states on one major issue: in the legislative branch, would the size of each state’s representation be determined by population (meaning more heavily populated states would get more weight) or would each state have an equal say (meaning tiny Rhode Island would get the same number of Congressional votes as heavily populated Virginia)? To go in either direction would have cost enough dissenting states to strangle this union in its cradle.
It was Roger Sherman who brokered a deal: the Connecticut Compromise. Later known as the Great Compromise, it proposed a bicameral, or two-chamber, Congress. One chamber would represent all states equally (the Senate, which gives every state two seats), and one chamber allocated proportional representation (the House of Representatives, which ties representation to the state’s population). For any bill to become a law, it had to pass both chambers, meaning it earned support from little states and big states. It was a brilliant compromise that saved America.
Roger Sherman. The best thing to happen to Connecticut until women’s college basketball.
At the time, Randolph’s decision was understandable. Virginia’s House of Burgesses started all the way back in 1619 — one year before the slightly less historic Pilgrims hit land about 600 miles north, and two years before those Pilgrims had Thanksgiving dinner. It was the first legislature in America, and other colonies later modeled their own after it. Randolph considered leading the celebrated chamber as a more prestigious position than heading the probably doomed Second Continental Congress, so he returned home. Thus, Thomas Jefferson almost never became a delegate at the congress, meaning he almost didn’t write the Declaration of Independence, or end up as George Washington’s Secretary of State, or become the third President. The fragility of history.
Two of those men land in my Top 30, with Locke waaayyyy up there.
Remember, to most of the world at the time and today, a “state” is basically a synonym for “country.” Japan is a state. Israel is a state. France is a state. The American system is rare — a state with many states inside of it, each with their own governments and quirky laws. Our zaniness has its roots in the fertile revolutionary period.