by Neil C. Olsen.
I was born on August second. On that day there are no public events, no parades, no fireworks. I recently celebrated it with a picnic. Hence the featured image on this essay is that of a watermelon, painted on a paper plate by my nephew James, age 4, whose father hosted the picnic. It was given to me as a birthday gift. It might have been different. It could have been instead an image of the American flag, as that is the actual date the engrossed (scripted) copy of the Declaration of Independence was signed. July 4 was only the date the approved copy was delivered to the printer John Dunlap.
However, marble-matriarch History, an arbitrary, inconsistent, but absolute judge of everything past, has decided that we must celebrate the founding of America on the Fourth of July. Being “Born on the Fourth of July” is even a euphemism for extreme American patriotism. She has also decided that “The Signers” are demigods, while those delegates who didn’t sign are not even “founders” even if they wrote parts of it, debated it, and voted for it. Or fought in the war. She has made the Declaration of Independence a kind of American Scripture whose author was Thomas Jefferson, while those who opposed the signing at the time for patriotic reasons, yet stood aside so it might pass unanimously, belong in the dust bin of history as men who were clearly fearful Loyalists, elitists, conservatives, Tories, and even reactionaries. She also tells us and that certain European philosophers of the Enlightenment gave us our political philosophy since we Colonial American lived in an uneducated backwater to have ideas of our own. Presumably, clinging to our exceptionalism and religion, we have still yet to catch up with our enlightened European betters.
Actually, none of these is quite correct.
I love timelines. They provide a sense of order and linear fact that is often lost in prose. By putting them in the present tense you gain a “you are there” excitement, and something more like a mini drama than a dull recitation of dates and facts. By looking at the timeline we find that contrary to the normal “sealed, signed, and delivered” process, the Declaration was sealed (voted on), delivered, then signed. Here is how events unrolled in 1776, beginning with the image of the Lee Resolution courtesy of the Library of Congress.
June 7. The Continental Congress in Philadelphia receives Richard Henry Lee’s single sentence Resolution “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.”
June 11-12. Thomas Jefferson is elected chairman of a “Committee of Five” that also includes John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, to draft what is essentially a press release announcing that Lee’s Resolution has passed. The next day another much more important committee of thirteen men, one from each state, chaired by John Dickinson, is tasked with drafting the Articles of Confederation. Congress recesses for three weeks so that its members can consult with their home state assemblies on the important issue of separation.
June 12-27. Sometime during the recess, Jefferson writes a draft of the press release declaring independence. It is reviewed by the Committee of Five and heavily edited. Jefferson is unhappy with the changes.
June 28. A fair copy of the committee draft of The Declaration of Independence is presented to Congress for debate. Jefferson reads it to the Congress.
July 1. Congress reconvenes and debates the Lee Resolution.
July 2. Congress declares independence by passing the Lee Resolution. It then debates changes to the Declaration. It is again heavily edited. Jefferson is more unhappy with the changes.
July 3. Congress finishes its editing of the Declaration, but decides to publish the work the next morning. The final draft is only one third to one half Jefferson’s. That evening, John Adams writes to his wife Abigail:
“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
July 4. Congress adopts the Declaration and sends it to printer John Dunlap.
July 5. Dunlap’s printed copy, dated July 4, 1776, is dispatched to various assemblies, and to the Continental Army.
July 6. The Pennsylvania Evening Post prints the first newspaper edition.
July 8. The first public reading of the Declaration is given in Philadelphia.
July 9. Washington orders that the Declaration be read to his Army in New York.
July 12. Dickinson presents the Articles of Confederation to Congress.
July 19. Congress orders the Declaration engrossed on parchment.
August 2. The Declaration is signed by the 50 delegates present that day. Signers Charles Carroll, George Clymer, William Williams, were neither contributors, nor were present at the debate, but sign the Declaration. Delegates William Hooper, Oliver Wolcott, George Wythe, and Lewis Morris were all men who had contributed to the development of the Declaration; they missed the debate, but arrived at Congress in time to sign the document. Benjamin Rush, though not technically a delegate before July 4, contributed to the Declaration as a kind of lobbyist, working with Lee and Thomas Paine to push the delegates towards independence.
August 27. Debating delegate George Wythe returns to Congress and signs the Declaration in a space left for him by the Virginia delegation.
September 4. Debating delegates Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, and Oliver Wolcott return to Congress and sign the Declaration.
November 19. Matthew Thornton signs the Declaration on November 19, even though he didn’t even show up at Congress until September.
?1781. Thomas McKean signs the Declaration, sometime in 1781, which is fair enough, as McKean participated in the debate. He had left the Congress shortly after July 4 to join Washington’s doomed defense of New York City.
Six members, Hooper, Oliver , Wythe, Rush, Lewis Morris, and Robert Morris, (highlighted in green below) never debated the document they signed, but as they worked in the Congress before as delegates or lobbyists, they are in some sense “contributors” to the Declaration, so it is fair that they singed it – but then on this basis all 100 delegates who attended Congress before July 4, 1776 could have signed it. Three members, Livingston, Clinton, and Rogers, debated, but had to leave Congress before August 2, and so did not sign it. Four members, Caroll, Clymer, Williams and Thornton (highlighted in yellow below) achieved immortal fame without doing very much. Actually, I rather like Thornton coming late and insisting on signing the document; while we revere it today, most delegates at the time thought it a minor transient document; Thornton was prescient singing it, and in believing it important enough to squeeze his signature in.
Instead of celebrating independence on July 2, as John Adams expected, the date the Declaration was sent to the printer John Dunlap, and the date that appears on the printed copy, July 4, 1776, became the iconic date. Fair enough: it was sealed not by the vote but by the printing, and advertized using that copy date, not the distribution date of July 5.
For some not well understood reason, instead of venerating “the debaters”, the 50 delegates who debated and voted on Lee’s Resolution and the Declaration of Independence, history focuses on the somewhat arbitrary group of men who happened to be in Philadelphia on August 2nd, or who returned to and chose to sign it, and the pushy but happy Mathew Thornton. Some speculate that a nineteenth century passion for collecting the signatures for the 56 men who signed the Declaration led to their veneration.
For an understood reason – Jefferson’s brilliant self-promotion – Jefferson is known as the “author of the Declaration” even though he wrote only the first draft, and only one third of his words survived intact to grace the final draft. However, as the custom of the time was to give credit to the chairman in committees as they gave official credit to the commander in the field whoever stormed the breech, Jefferson may take the title fairly enough, just as John Dickinson may take committee credit for the Stamp Act Declaration even though William Samuel Johnson wrote the final draft after Dickinson left the Stamp Act Congress. And William Samuel Johnson himself should have credit for writing the U.S. Constitution, even though Gouvenor Morris hand-scripted its final copy. In reality, all three of these core documents of American History were the productions of active committees, and all the men who contributed to them should be celebrated.
Even the men who opposed separation on July 2, are worthy of more respect than History afforded them. While we have retrofit them as “conservatives”, they were not: Pennsylvania delegates John Dickinson, Thomas Willing, and Charles Humphreys didn’t want separation just then, but they stayed home on the day of the vote so the approval would appear unanimous. Dickinson crafted the Articles, presented it to Congress, then went off to fight in the war as a private in the militia.
And as for the philosophy behind the declaration, many European philosophers indeed contributed to its political ideas on the rights to “life, liberty, and property”, particularly the great English philosopher John Locke. However, “the pursuit of Happiness” came from a domestic moral philosophy promoted, by among others, signer, debater, Committee of Five member, and delegate Dr. Benjamin Franklin. It was shared by fellow committee members Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and some half of the debaters in congress in total (see my book Pursuing Happiness: The Organizational Culture of the Continental Congress for details).
I suppose, “Born on the second of August” does not have the same ring to it. The extra syllable messes up the lyric of songs. Nevertheless, if we celebrate “the signers”, should we not celebrate “the second” with something more official than watermelon? Though it is, when you think about it, a fine icon for “the pursuit of Happiness”; upside down is becomes almost a smile.
Note: The watermelon image was painted by James Olsen on August 2, 2013.
- Who Authored the Declaration of Independence?
- Two Shadows on the Floor