On this date in 1776, the Continental Congress voted unanimously to adopt a resolution made a month prior by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee that the colonies “are and of right ought to be, free and independent states.” They voted in republican manner by state delegation. The tally was 12-0, with the delegation from New York, still awaiting instructions from their legislature, abstaining.
In anticipation of the vote on Lee’s resolution, the Congress had selected five of their members from the most influential colonies to draft a document stating the reasons for secession from the British crown. The committee would consist of Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin; Massachusetts’ John Adams; Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson; Connecticut’s Roger Sherman; and New York’s Robert Livingston. The committee quickly selected Jefferson to pen the draft.
For two weeks in June, the 33-year-old Jefferson worked furiously on the draft resolution, relying on his classical education for the rationale of the revolutionary action he and his fellow delegates were contemplating. The seeds of revolution had been brewing for more than two years, but reached a breaking point when Britain’s king and parliament decided to hire 12,000 professional German-Hessian mercenaries to put down the rebellion and extinguish the fire of liberty. This was too much, even for moderates.
After Jefferson finished the draft, the committee sat down to edit his work and make it theirs. On July 1, the Congress held a preliminary vote on Lee’s resolution and voted 9-2 with one tie and one abstention to dissolve their allegiance to England. Overnight, Delaware’s Caesar Rodney arrived to break his state’s tie vote. History records that the vote on July 2 was unanimous.
Over the next two days, the 56 delegates debated the resolution and voted on changes. As he watched his work get carved up, Thomas Jefferson watched in silence, refusing to enter the debate over his words. Adams was the master orator which was not Jefferson’s long suit. Finally on July 4, the Continental Congress adopted the resolution which had been penned overnight by Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson. They called the resolution a Declaration of Independence. The Congress’ presiding officer John Hancock of Massachusetts boldly signed at the bottom of the original document.
The Declaration of Independence which I refer to as the nation’s “birth certificate” is an amazing document. It begins with a preamble; then enumerates 27 charges against the king and parliament as justification for secession; followed by the personal pledge of the signers.
In the second paragraph, there is this wonderful statement nearly intact from the way Jefferson wrote it. “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 the just powers from the consent of the governed.”
This is a remarkable concept, even for today, but positively revolutionary for the times. No other nation up to that point in human history, had suggested any such concept: everyone is equal (except for women and minorities; that would come later); our rights are a gift from God; our rights include life, freedom, and the pursuit of our dreams; and government serves the people. How simple; how elegant.
Most of the remaining 55 signers didn’t add their signatures to the document until August. During that one month interval, Secretary Thompson accomplished administrative duties associated with printing and distributing the declaration.
The signers paid dearly for their pledge. Their lives, families and property were persecuted by the British crown. Many did not live to see the liberty they had put in motion or the new nation they helped create. Among them were two future presidents, including the second, John Adams. He always felt until his dying day fifty years later that the true date of independence and cause for celebration was the second, not the fourth of July, when the Congress voted in favor of the original resolution.
Today, there are Americans who are inspired by the legacy of the men who created the Declaration of Independence. They are called the TEA (for taxed-enough-already) party but they aren’t really organized like a political party. Instead, it is a grassroots effort of many loosely formed organizations concerned about government that has become too big and too oppressive, similar to the complaints that Jefferson listed in the Declaration. They are electing representatives (including some representing Madison County) who share their views and vow to do their part to dissemble ‘big government.’ They’re considered such a threat to the ‘governing class’ in Washington that the Internal Revenue Service has targeted them for “special treatment.”
I think the Founding Fathers would see something very familiar with their 21st Century counterparts.