Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – The Declaration of Independence

Nov 22, 2015 by


An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – The Declaration of Independence

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, we have already examined some of the events that led up to the Declaration of Independence- such as the Boston Tea Party. What was the final proverbial straw that led to the actual Declaration of Independence?

Contrary to what many people believe, the colonists who took up arms in the spring of 1775 against the British were not unanimous in their opinion regarding what their course of action actually represented. Some clearly felt from the beginning that the only logical goal to strive for was a complete break with the mother country, but many others hoped that the British might eventually give in to colonial demands to have their rights respected. It was during this period that the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought and a colonial campaign to drive the British out of Canada occurred.

As these events transpired, delegates to the Second Continental Congress debated whether to pursue independence or engage in negotiations aimed at bringing about a reconciliation. Two things then happened that tipped the scales in favor of the former.
First, the Congress received a reply to a request it had made to King George III to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution. In no uncertain terms, the king rejected this suggestion, choosing instead to brand as rebels the colonists who had taken up arms.

Second, an English immigrant named Thomas Paine wrote a treatise in January of 1776 in favor of the cause of independence. Titled Common Sense, this pamphlet soon began to win people over to the idea of making a complete break with Great Britain. Soon, colony after colony issued instructions to their representative in the Congress to support a statement on behalf of independence. Such a resolution was introduced on June 7, 1776, by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. This resolution was passed on July 2, 1776, and many including John Adams—thought that this date should be considered the date of American independence.

Rather than that date, however, it is July 4 that we Americans recognize as our birth date. This is because after Lee’s initial resolution was introduced, the Congress appointed five delegates to write a document that would state why the colonies were justified in taking such a momentous step. The Virginian Thomas Jefferson did the majority of the work on this document, and after Lee’s resolution passed on July 2, Jefferson submitted his work to the Congress for its consideration. This document was adopted by a resolution of Congress on July 4, 1776.

2) Now, when and where was it actually signed, and what was the climate like in that room at that time?

Considering the importance of the signing of the Declaration of Independence to our nation, it is surprising that there is no agreement about when the document was actually signed. Many assumed when they first read the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776 that all 56 signers of the document affixed their names to it on July 4, but in the years after the American Revolution this interpretation was increasingly challenged. As a result, there are a number of estimates regarding how many individuals signed the document on July 4. These variations range from a low of one to as high as 34. All agree, however, that at least 22 of the individuals who signed the Declaration of Independence clearly did not do so until much later than July 4.

3) Most Americans know that John Hancock was there, writing his name in a large and legible fashion- but who else was there, and who was minutes if you will at this event?

John Hancock, a prosperous merchant from Massachusetts, served as the president of the Second Continental Congress. He was given this position for a number of reasons. He had, for example, presided over numerous town meetings in Boston, and was acceptable to delegates on both sides of the question regarding independence. When the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, Hancock had the document sent to a publisher to be printed. When the printer produced copies to be made available to the public, he put two names at the bottom of the text. One was that of John Hancock, and the other was the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, Charles Thompson (who had taken the minutes for the meetings of the Congress).

These were typeset names, however, rather than signatures. We therefore don’t know whether Hancock actually signed the original copy of Declaration of Independence or not.

Subsequently, another copy of the document was prepared for the members of the Congress to sign, and that was version where Hancock’s famous signature appears. A commonly held view regarding the size of his signature is that he wrote it so large so that King George III would not need to put on his glasses to read Hancock’s name, but this story was first told years after the signing and is considered today to be of dubious validity. Still, it was a bold move on Hancock’s part, as it clearly identified him as being in favor of the cause of independence. Had Britain suppressed the rebellion, Hancock undoubtedly would have been hanged as a result of this stance.

4) What was the initial reaction among the 13 colonies, and what was King George’s reaction, and the reaction in England?

Four days after the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Congress, the document received its first public reading in Philadelphia.

Within weeks, it had been published in newspapers in all 13 states. While not everyone responded positively to independence from Great Britain (about 5% of the American population would leave the United States at the end of the Revolutionary War), it is obvious that many were very receptive to this development.

The most famous example of this enthusiasm came from New York City. After the Declaration of Independence arrived there, a large group gathered around a statue of King George III and pulled it down. They then used the metal to cast bullets for the American Army. For the British, the reaction was quite the opposite.

While some argued that the best course of action would be to give the colonies their independence, most felt that the colonies were betraying their heritage. Criticism by the British of the document itself usually focused on the seeming hypocrisy of many signees of the Declaration of Independence. Noting the phrase “all men are created equal,” they wondered how any of the signers could then in good conscience own slaves. Eventually, a number of the signers did indeed free their slaves, but others—notably Thomas Jefferson, who was the main author of the document—never did. This remains a problematic aspect of what is otherwise an extremely stirring American story.

5) Some events are laden, unfortunately with blood, but this event was a summary type of judgment against an oppressive governmental system and unjust tax system. How was this event received around the world?

If the volley fired by the Minutemen at the British on April 19, 1775 are known as “the shot heard ‘round the world,” the contents of the Declaration of Independence should be viewed as “the words heard ‘round the world.” The influence of the document is recognizable in France through its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Nation, for example, and many nations in Latin America quoted the document when they sought to break away from Spain. Ho Chi Minh used the Declaration of Independence as his inspiration when he announced his rebellion in 1945 against the French in Indochina, and as recently as 1965 Rhodesia modeled its declaration proclaiming its independence after the handiwork of the Second Continental Congress. It clearly was one of the most influential documents ever in World History.

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