Not all beliefs about the Declaration of Independence are true
Friday, July 04, 2014 12:13 AM
BY KIRK DOUGAL
John Trumbull’s painting “Declaration of Independence” (Image from wikipedia.org)
DHI Media Group Publisher
On Friday, America celebrates its 238th birthday. Or does it?
There are many myths about Independence Day, the Declaration of Independence and other items from the birth of the United States as a nation. Here are a few of those beliefs with explanations about what is really true.
1) Myth: America declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776.
Truth: The Continental Congress actually declared independence on July 2. This is backed up by an article in the Pennsylvania Evening Post from that night. The date is also supported by a letter John Adams wrote home to his wife, Abigail, where he declared that July 2, 1776 would be the most memorable day in American history. What happened on July 4 was the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the congress by the five members of the drafting committee: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman.
2) Myth: The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.
Truth: The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4 and signed only by the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock and the secretary, Charles Thomson. The original document was then sent down the street to the printing shop of John Dunlap where he made just under 200 copies. These copies then were dispensed for public readings. General George Washington read a copy to his troops on July 9 and another reading took place in front of Independence Hall on July 8. One copy was sent overseas and reached England on August 10. All of these copies only had Hancock’s and Thomson’s signatures.
On July 19, Congress ordered a special, handwritten copy be made so all the delegates could sign. Most of the members gathered together on August 2 to sign the document although a handful had to sign later because they were in their home states on business. Three delegates never signed the Declaration of Independence. John Dickinson (Pennsylvania) had voted against the document and wanted to find a resolution with Great Britain so he refused to sign. Thomas Lynch could not sign because he was deathly ill and back home. Oddly, Robert Livingston, one of the original members of the Committee of Five never signed because he was in New York at the time. Livingston’s contribution to the United States was not done, however. In 1801, under the direction of President Jefferson, Livingston, as the U.S. Minister to France, negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, more than doubling the size of the United States and leading to the westward expansion of the 19th century.
3) Myth: The famous painting by John Trumbull depicts the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Truth: Trumbull’s painting actually shows the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress by the Committee of Five. This famous painting now appears on the back of the $2 bill.
4) Myth: The Liberty Bell rang on July 4, 1776, to herald in a new era of independence.
Truth: Maybe, maybe not – no one knows for sure if the bell was struck on that day. What is known is that the bell was not known as the Liberty Bell for anything to do with the American Revolution. It was named by abolitionists as a symbol that slavery was wrong and needed to be stopped.
5) Myth: July 4 became known immediately as Independence Day.
Truth: Although the day was celebrated almost immediately in different fashions – Benjamin Franklin and John Adams held a party in Paris in 1778, Gen. George Washington gave his soldiers a double ration of rum in the same year and state legislators recognized it beginning in 1781 – it was not until 1791 that written proof can be found using the name.
At the signing of the document, Hancock tried to impress upon all the delegates the importance of all the Continental Congress staying together as a group in support. Benjamin Franklin, with his famous caustic wit, reportedly replied, “Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” The sentiment, though said in jest, accurately reflects the real chance all the delegates of the Continental Congress faced: to be arrested, tried, convicted and hanged for treason. Some of them were indeed arrested, some died penniless and others were killed for their participation.
When the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, fighting did not immediately break out between American and British forces. In fact, following the Boston Massacre in March of 1775, the Battles of Concord and Lexington took place in April and the Battle of Breed’s and Bunker Hills occurred in June. The British lost more men in the Battle of Bunker Hill, over 800 dead, over a year before the Continental Congress declared freedom, than in any other single battle in the American Revolution.