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August 13th, 2020

declarationELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times

 

The U.S. colonies had been working toward independence from England for quite some time and in the summer of 1776, clearer calls were being made to officially separate from the crown. 

In order to do that, a formal document was needed, and that eventually came in the form of what is now referred to as the Declaration of Independence. The journey for independence began even before the Revolutionary War, according to history.com. 

“Even after the initial battles in the Revolutionary War broke out, few colonists desired complete independence from Great Britain, and those who did – like John Adams – were considered radical. Things changed over the course of the next year, however, as Britain attempted to crush the rebels with all the force of its great army,” the history.com article noted. “In his message to Parliament in October 1775, King George III railed against the rebellious colonies and ordered the enlargement of the royal army and navy. News of his words reached America in January 1776, strengthening the radicals’ cause and leading many conservatives to abandon their hopes of reconciliation. That same month, the recent British immigrant Thomas Paine published ‘Common Sense,’ in which he argued that independence was a ‘natural right’ and the only possible course for the colonies; the pamphlet sold more than 150,000 copies in its first few weeks in publication.”

After several years of being ignored by the British Crown, it was in June 1776 in Philadelphia when things really began to change. 

“The clearest call for independence up to the summer of 1776 came in Philadelphia on June 7. On that date in session in the Pennsylvania State House, the Continental Congress heard Richard Henry Lee of Virginia read his resolution beginning: ‘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,’” an article from archives.gov noted. “The Lee Resolution was an expression of what was already beginning to happen throughout the colonies. When the Second Continental Congress, which was essentially the government of the United States from 1775 to 1788, first met in May 1775, King George III had not replied to the petition for redress of grievances that he had been sent by the First Continental Congress. The Congress gradually took on the responsibilities of a national government. In June 1775 the Congress established the Continental Army as well as a continental currency. By the end of July of that year, it created a post office for the ‘United Colonies.’ In August 1775 a royal proclamation declared that the King's American subjects were "engaged in open and avowed rebellion." Later that year, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act, which made all American vessels and cargoes forfeit to the Crown. And in May 1776 the Congress learned that the King had negotiated treaties with German states to hire mercenaries to fight in America. The weight of these actions combined to convince many Americans that the mother country was treating the colonies as a foreign entity. One by one, the Continental Congress continued to cut the colonies' ties to Britain. The Privateering Resolution, passed in March 1776, allowed the colonists ‘to fit out armed vessels to cruize [sic] on the enemies of these United Colonies.’ On April 6, 1776, American ports were opened to commerce with other nations, an action that severed the economic ties fostered by the Navigation Acts. A ‘Resolution for the Formation of Local Governments’ was passed on May 10, 1776.”

Ultimately, later that year, Thomas Jefferson was called on to write the official document (which consists of  along with a handful of others. The committee also included two New England men, John Adams of Massachusetts and Roger Sherman of Connecticut; two men from the Middle Colonies, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York; and  Jefferson , 

“On July 1, 1776, Congress reconvened. The following day, the Lee Resolution for independence was adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies, New York not voting. Immediately afterward, the Congress began to consider the Declaration. Adams and Franklin had made only a few changes before the committee submitted the document,” the archives.gov article noted. “The discussion in Congress resulted in some alterations and deletions, but the basic document remained Jefferson's. The process of revision continued through all of July 3 and into the late morning of July 4. The Declaration had been officially adopted.”

“As Jefferson drafted it, the Declaration of Independence was divided into five sections, including an introduction, a preamble, a body (divided into two sections) and a conclusion. In general terms, the introduction effectively stated that seeking independence from Britain had become ‘necessary’ for the colonies,” the history.com article noted. “While the body of the document outlined a list of grievances against the British crown, the preamble includes its most famous passage: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’”

And although Congress had adopted the Declaration submitted by the Committee of Five, the committee's task was not yet quite finished, 

“Congress had also directed that the committee supervise the printing of the adopted document. The first printed copies of the Declaration of Independence were turned out from the shop of John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress,” the archives.gov article noted. “After the Declaration had been adopted, the committee took to Dunlap the manuscript document, possibly Jefferson's ‘fair copy’ of his rough draft. On the morning of July 5, copies were dispatched by members of Congress to various assemblies, conventions, and committees of safety as well as to the commanders of Continental troops. Also on July 5, a copy of the printed version of the approved Declaration was inserted into the ‘rough journal’ of the Continental Congress for July 4. The text was followed by the words ‘Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, John Hancock, President. Attest. Charles Thomson, Secretary.’”

After that process, the archives.gov article noted, there was still more work to be done. 

“On July 9 the action of Congress was officially approved by the New York Convention. All 13 colonies had now signified their approval. On July 19, therefore, Congress was able to order that the Declaration be ‘fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress,’” the archives.gov article noted. “John Hancock, the President of the Congress, was the first to sign the sheet of parchment measuring 24¼ by 29¾ inches. He used a bold signature centered below the text. In accordance with prevailing custom, the other delegates began to sign at the right below the text, their signatures arranged according to the geographic location of the states they represented. New Hampshire, the northernmost state, began the list, and Georgia, the southernmost, ended it. Eventually 56 delegates signed, although all were not present on August 2. Among the later signers were Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, and Matthew Thornton, who found that he had no room to sign with the other New Hampshire delegates. A few delegates who voted for adoption of the Declaration on July 4 were never to sign in spite of the July 19 order of Congress that the engrossed document ‘be signed by every member of Congress.’ Nonsigners included John Dickinson, who clung to the idea of reconciliation with Britain, and Robert R. Livingston, one of the Committee of Five, who thought the Declaration was premature.”

The nearly 250-year-old document is currently housed at the National Archives in Washington D.C. and in its old age has had many homes. 

“The Declaration has had many homes, from humble lodgings and government offices to the interiors of safes and great public displays,” the archives.gov article noted. “It has been carried in wagons, ships, a Pullman sleeper, and an armored vehicle. In its latest home, it has been viewed with respect by millions of people, everyone of whom has had thereby a brief moment, a private moment, to reflect on the meaning of democracy. The nation to which the Declaration gave birth has had an immense impact on human history, and continues to do so. In telling the story of the parchment, it is appropriate to recall the words of poet and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. He described the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as ‘These fragile objects which bear so great a weight of meaning to our people.’ The story of the Declaration of Independence as a document can only be a part of the larger history, a history still unfolding, a weight of meaning constantly, challenged, strengthened, and redefined.”

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