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Being a week away from Independence Day, I was doing a little reflecting upon the history surrounding the Declaration of Independence. And I thought it would be of equal interest to many of my readers to be reminded of some often overlooked aspects of the Declaration’s production and legacy.
Several historical websites hold some fascinating facts about this national treasure, including the National Archives in Washington, D.C. In addition, History.com’s article, “9 Things You May Not Know about the Declaration of Independence” by Elizabeth Harrison, has some intriguing notes, too. Let me elaborate on some of those and convey a few others I’ve discovered.
1) Benjamin Franklin wrote the first declaration of independence
In April 1775, the American Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord. On July 5, 1775 – an entire year before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence – the Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, written by John Dickinson with the help of Thomas Jefferson, which appealed directly to King George III for reconciliation between the American colonies and Great Britain. Though Franklin signed the petition for the sake of consensus, he radically differed with it and said that stronger sentiments were necessary because the petition was destined to be rejected.
He was so appalled by British atrocities and exhausted of their rule that he planned the first articles of confederation and drafted a declaration of independence to be issued by none other than Gen. George Washington. So strong was the language of the draft that Thomas Jefferson wrote, while some members of Congress like himself “approved highly of it,” others would be “revolted at it.” Jefferson explained in his private commentary that “proposing it to congress as the subject for any vote whatever would startle many members.”
It seems Congress just wasn’t ready to throw down the gauntlet, yet. My, how things can change in a year!
2) Thomas Jefferson had problems with the adopted version of the Declaration of Independence – written primarily by him.
On June 11, 1776, the Second Continental Congress appointed a committee of five men (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson) to write a Declaration of Independence. The committee, in turn, appointed Thomas Jefferson to produce a first draft for their consideration, which he did by utilizing other documents such as his own draft of a Virginia constitution, the Virginia Declaration of Rights and state appeals for independence. The committee, and later Congress, made some revisions to Jefferson’s draft before formally adopting it on July 4, 1776. In the end, Jefferson was troubled by their revisions, especially Franklin and Adams’ removal of a diatribe blaming British King George III for the transatlantic slave trade.
Who knows? Maybe if that paragraph were left in the document, our founders might not be maligned as much for being pro-slavery.
3) The Declaration of Independence wasn’t signed on July 4, 1776.
On July 1, 1776, the Second Continental Congress began meeting in Philadelphia at what is now known as Independence Hall. They spent the next few days debating and revising the Committee of Five’s draft. After adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, they didn’t sign it for roughly another month because New York’s delegates weren’t authorized to vote in favor of independence until July 9, and it also took two additional weeks for the Declaration to actually be produced in its final printed form. Most delegates signed the official Declaration on Aug. 2, but at least six others didn’t sign it until later, and two more never signed it all (namely, John Dickinson and Robert R. Livingston).
4) The original Declaration of Independence wasn’t written on paper
As the National Archives explains, the original was “engrossed on parchment which is an animal skin specially treated with lime and stretched to create a strong, long-lasting writing support. The printed version is on paper and was read aloud from town squares throughout the colonies, so that those who could not read would receive the news about intended separation from England.”
(Next week in Part 2, I will give more little-known facts about the Declaration of Independence, including what happened when George Washington read a copy to the people in New York.)
(I wrote my New York Times best-seller, “Black Belt Patriotism,” to help educate and equip Americans who are not as familiar with our founders’ America. It not only gives a copy of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution in the back of it but also details throughout the book how our country would be better off in a host of ways if we turned back the clock to how they ran it.)