Excerpted from constitutionfacts.com
So what did happen on July 4, 1776?
The Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. They’d been working on it for a couple of days after the draft was submitted on July 2nd, and finally agreed on all of the edits and changes.
July 4, 1776, became the date that was included on the Declaration of Independence and on the fancy handwritten copy that was signed in August (the copy now displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.). It’s also the date that was printed on the Dunlap Broadsides, the original printed copies of the Declaration that were circulated throughout the new nation. So when people thought of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 was the date they remembered.
The Declaration of Independence: What Does it Say?
The Declaration of Independence was designed for multiple audiences: the King, the colonists, and the world. It was also designed to multitask. Its goals were to rally the troops, win foreign allies, and to announce the creation of a new country. The introductory sentence states the Declaration’s main purpose, to explain the colonists’ right to revolution. In other words, “to declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Congress had to prove the legitimacy of its cause. It had just defied the most powerful nation on Earth. It needed to motivate foreign allies to join the fight.
These are the lines contemporary Americans know best: “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.” These stirring words were designed to convince Americans to put their lives on the line for the cause. Separation from the mother country threatened their sense of security, economic stability, and identity. The preamble sought to inspire and unite them through the vision of a better life.
List of Grievances
The list of 27 complaints against King George III constitute the proof of the right to rebellion. Congress cast “the causes which impel them to separation” in universal terms for an international audience. Join our fight, reads the subtext, and you join humankind’s fight against tyranny.
Resolution of Independence
The most important and dramatic statement comes near the end: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” It declares a complete break with Britain and its King and claims the powers of an independent country.
How Did it Happen? The Revolution Begins
In the early 1770s, more and more colonists became convinced that Parliament intended to take away their freedom. In fact, the Americans saw a pattern of increasing oppression and corruption happening all around the world. Parliament was determined to bring its unruly American subjects to heel. Britain began to prepare for war in early 1775. The first fighting broke out in April in Massachusetts. In August, the King declared the colonists “in a state of open and avowed rebellion.” For the first time, many colonists began to seriously consider cutting ties with Britain. The publication of Thomas Paine’s stirring pamphlet Common Sense in early 1776 lit a fire under this previously unthinkable idea. The movement for independence was now in full swing.
The colonists elected delegates to attend a Continental Congress that eventually became the governing body of the union during the Revolution. Its second meeting convened in Philadelphia in 1775. The delegates to Congress adopted strict rules of secrecy to protect the cause of American liberty and their own lives. In less than a year, most of the delegates abandoned hope of reconciliation with Britain. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” They appointed a Committee of Five to write an announcement explaining the reasons for independence. Thomas Jefferson, who chaired the committee and had established himself as a bold and talented political writer, wrote the first draft.
Writing the Declaration
On June 11, 1776, Jefferson holed up in his Philadelphia boarding house and began to write. He borrowed freely from existing documents like the Virginia Declaration of Rights and incorporated accepted ideals of the Enlightenment. Jefferson later explained that “he was not striving for originality of principal or sentiment.” Instead, he hoped his words served as an “expression of the American mind.” Less than three weeks after he’d begun, he presented his draft to Congress. He was not pleased when Congress “mangled” his composition by cutting and changing much of his carefully chosen wording. He was especially sorry they removed the part blaming King George III for the slave trade, although he knew the time wasn’t right to deal with the issue.
On July 2, 1776, Congress voted to declare independence. Two days later, it ratified the text of the Declaration. John Dunlap, official printer to Congress, worked through the night to set the Declaration in type and print approximately 200 copies. These copies, known as the Dunlap Broadsides, were sent to various committees, assemblies, and commanders of the Continental troops. The Dunlap Broadsides weren’t signed, but John Hancock’s name appears in large type at the bottom. One copy crossed the Atlantic, reaching King George III months later. The official British response scolded the “misguided Americans” and “their extravagant and inadmissable Claim of Independency”.
On July 19, once all 13 colonies had signified their approval of the Declaration of Independence, Congress ordered that it be “fairly engrossed on parchment.” (To “engross” is to write in a large, clear hand.) Timothy Matlack, an assistant to the Secretary of the Congress, was most likely the penman.
On August 2, the journal of the Continental Congress records that “The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed.” John Hancock, President of the Congress, signed first. The delegates then signed by state from north to south. Some signed after August 2. A few refused. George Washington was away with his troops. Ultimately, 56 delegates signed the Declaration.