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Declaring Independence

Declaring Independence

J. Michael Sharman


      The state conventions of North Carolina, then Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Virginia asked their delegates to the Continental Congress to do what had once been unthinkable: declare their independence from the mother country, Great Britain.

      Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts on June 7, 1776 introduced a resolution for independence and for a confederation of the colonies, but the question of independence was postponed so that the delegates could have time to learn the sentiments of their constituents.

      In the meantime, a committee had been appointed to draft a document to declare independence, if that was to be the will of the people. The members were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, but it was Jefferson who wrote the draft, with Franklin and Adams suggesting revisions.

      On July 2nd, 1776 the resolution for Independence was adopted, with 12 of the 13 colonies voting for it, making July 2nd  the real Independence Day and prompting John Adams to write to his wife Abigail: "The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe 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."

      On July 4th, it was endorsed by the President, John Hancock, and made public. On July 19, the Declaration was ordered engrossed on parchment and this copy, the existing original Declaration, was signed by the members who were still present, and then signatures of the others were added later in the year. Some of the members who voted for the Declaration never did get around to signing it, and others who did not vote for it did sign.

      John Hancock's signature is famous for its boldness and he intended it to be so. "There," he said when he signed it, "I guess King George will be able to read that." That prompted Ben Franklin to wryly comment, "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." As one delegate watched the very wealthy Charles Carroll sign, he observed to another, "There go a few millions."

      Richard Stockton had signed it with his son-in-law, Dr. Rush, and it was only three months later that he was arrested. After his arrest  the British moved him from one sub-standard jail to another, leveled his house and seized his property. Stockton died in jail, broken and broke at age fifty.

      There were others whose homes were also destroyed by the British: William Ellery; Lewis Morris, Josiah Bartlett, George Clymer, Lymall Hall, John Hart, William Floyd, William Hooper, Francis Hopkinson, and Arthur Middleton.

      Two young lawyers George Walton and Thomas Hayward gave up the practice of law to fight for independence, were both shot, arrested and tossed in prison.  Arthur Middleton and Edward Rutledge were arrested at the same time as Thomas and served sentences in the same British prison.

      After Frank Lewis had signed the Declaration, the British came to his Long Island mansion and arrested his wife as a co-conspirator.  She was held in a cell with no bed and forced to sleep on the cold floor.  She was not a young woman and she took sick.  After a long while, the government released her but she continued to get worse and died shortly after getting out of jail.

      The signers had concluded their Declaration of Independence by saying, "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

      Some of the 56 men who signed that pledge indeed lost their lives, others their fortunes, but none, not one, lost his sacred Honor.