We Hold These Truths
Mimi celebrates the Fourth of July like a Yankee Doodle Dandy.
If you happened to be an alien visiting this country from your spaceship, and if you happened to tune in to a TV set, you might think that July 4th was one of the greatest retail sales events in all history. To differentiate these sales from last week’s sales, the stores have given them catchy names like “Firecracker Sale.”
Call me old fashioned, but I still think the Fourth of July should mean a bit more than discounted prices on furniture and cleaning supplies—especially when we have troops engaged on foreign soil. I’m terribly afraid our youngest Americans are in danger of losing sight of what the Fourth of July is really all about. So--
On that date in 1776, those folk we lump together in a nameless mass called “The Founding Fathers” were finishing up a long process leading up to a declaration of war against England. It had not been easy. England was, after all, the Motherland—the parents and grandparents of the men meeting in Philadelphia had come from England. To them it was emotionally “home.” It’s not easy to fire your mother, and the process they had gone through was proof of that. A few people like John Adams and Richard Henry Lee had come with that in mind, but most were, at least, a bit ambivalent. Perhaps negotiation could still work. Perhaps England would relieve its colonies of some burdensome taxes and laws. Perhaps.
Finally, John Adams and Lee finagled the needed votes, and a resolution was ordered. Ben Franklin was on the committee, as was Adams, but it fell to the young Virginia delegate, Tom Jefferson, to write the basic document. Only a fragment of his final copy exists, but the “fair copy” (final handwritten copy) that was read in the Congress on June 28th exists. Between July 1-4, the Congress debated Jefferson’s words—changed a few, mitigated some stronger language—finally, it was done.
On in the morning of a bright, sunny, but cool Philadelphia day, the Congress voted and passed the Declaration. Then the 56 members of Congress stepped up to the desk and signed the document. The oldest signer was Franklin (70), the youngest Edward Rutledge (26); two future presidents signed: Jefferson and Adams. Delaware’s delegates signed first.
Here are their names and the colonies they represented. My guess is that most of us won’t recognize most of them, but they were there and they signed.
DELAWARE: George Reed, Thomas McKean, Caesar Rodney
PENNSYLVANIA: George Clymer, Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, James Smith, George Taylor, john Morton, George Ross, James Wilson
MASSACHUSETTS: John Adams, John Hancock, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Adams, Robert Treat Paine
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Josiah Bartlett, Matthew Thornton, William Whipple
RHODE ISLAND: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
NEW YORK: Lewis Morris, Francis Lewis, Philip Livingston, William Floyd
GEORGIA: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton
VIRGINIA: Richard Henry Lee, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, Benjamin Harrison, Henry Lee Carter, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Nelson, Jr., George Wythe
NORTH CAROLINA: William Hooper, John Penn, joseph Hewes
SOUTH CAROLINA: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Thomas Heyward, Jr.
NEW JERSEY: Abraham Clark, John Hart, Francis Hart, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon
CONNECTICUT: Samuel Huntington, Roger Sherman, Oliver Wolcott, William Williams
MARYLAND: Charles Carroll, Thomas Stone, Samuel Chase, William Paca
Putting their names on that piece of parchment meant several things: 1) War was now certain, 2) These colonies—about to become states in a new country—would be fighting for their lives and 3) Something politically new was emerging from that document, those men, and that hot room in Philadelphia. If the new country emerged intact from the coming war, it would be different from England, different from all of Europe, politically and emotionally and philosophically. The Declaration of Independence was not just saying that certain taxes and restrictions imposed upon the colonies were unfair; it was saying that men were born free and divinely designed to hold certain freedoms and rights. This new country was all about those freedoms, rights, and the responsibilities of each citizen to protect and uphold them.
Finally, those men signing that Declaration were drawing targets on their own backs as leaders of the revolution. They became in that instant, criminals against England unless and until their side won the war. And they lived with that until General Cornwallis conceded defeat at Yorktown. Here’s what they signed. In honor of the real July 4th—read this out loud like they did in Philadelphia (with the windows closed so no one outside could hear and report to the authorities). Within weeks it was being read all over—and it bears re-reading today—because it’s the document upon whose shoulders we all stand as Americas.
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776