The Signers of the Declaration of Independence are often pictured as fifty-six men coming together in complete harmony to begin a new country. It is a picture that is both sad and laughable. It is sad because we fail to learn the truth of our nations founding and instead romanticize it so much that it become more of a fantasy than a reality. It is laughable because there has never been a decision made on any national scale where men unified behind a cause without compromise. What should be taught in our schools and learned by our students is that great sacrifice was made and great ideas were put to the test, but compromise had to happen in order to break from Britain. Independence, was not declared, but negotiated.
The Story of Independence
The 13 original colonies were the prize possession of the British empire. It had taken England close to two centuries to colonize and develop each of their colonies. Along the way they lost many good men and many settlers were forced to face some of the most difficult situations. In the end, the colonies became a testament of British strength and influence. Each colony had an economy that thrived and each colony had their own identity. The men of Massachusetts were passionate and pious merchants whose economy thrived on fishing and trade. The colonists in Pennsylvania were proud of their eclectic society and tolerance while the men of the southern colonies built large plantations of cotton and tobacco.
England was not alone in their quest for a global empire and would fight multiple wars in order to secure their investments. The most notable war was the Seven Years’ War in which Britain and France engaged in a world war that would end with a British victory in Quebec. The Seven Years’ War – known as the French and Indian War in the United States – would be the first war that the colonists would fight alongside their mother country. While the colonies would fight as an ally to the British it would set the stage for a break from England.
After the French and Indian War was over Britain found themselves in a large amount of debt. This debt was a great burden on its economy and its citizens and would require a tax on its colonies. These taxes would ignite the colonies.
The Stamp Act was passed in 1765 and a congress was called in order to discuss the act. It was during this congress that Patrick Henry stepped forward and delivered a stirring speech that ended with him saying the famous line, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death.” The Stamp Act gave birth to Benjamin Franklin, James Otis, Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Dickinson, other influential political figures that would begin to argue against British rule and go so far as to call it oppression. However, independence was only discussed in secret.
The Men of Massachusetts
The men of Massachusetts had formed an organization called “The Sons of Liberty.” This group was a radical grassroots movement for those that supported independence. It was led by Samuel Adams and John Hancock and was responsible for the Boston Tea Party. As a result Massachusetts would become the hotbed for revolt. In response to the actions of the Sons of Liberty, Great Britain passed a series of acts known as the Intolerable Acts and beefed up their defenses. The end result of these acts were the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Battle of Bunker Hill, and the formation of the Continental Army.
The success of the militia in Massachusetts did not translate into success in the Continental Congress. The New England Colonies were in favor of independence, however the Middle and Southern Colonies remained split. John Adams continued to press the case for independence and quickly made many friends and enemies. The Congress remained deadlocked and it would take something extraordinary to break it. That something came in the form of Richard Henry Lee.
The Cicero of Virginia
Richard Henry Lee has gained a reputation as an effective and talented public orator. He would take the floor and deliver the speech that would begin to sway congress in favor of independence. “Resolved,” Lee thundered, “ That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” It was the speech that changed the course of American history.
With Virginia firmly in support of independence the rest of the colonies began to fall in line. It was then decided that a committee should be formed to write a declaration of independence, in case that the delegates would vote in its favor. The committee was selected and the young man from Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, was chosen to write the document.
Writing of the Declaration of Independence
The Committee of Five consisted of Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts. Sherman and Franklin were considered the elder statesmen while Jefferson, Adams, and Livingston were still in their thirties.
The Declaration of Independence that Americans know today was not the first one that was written. The first document that was penned by Jefferson contained a much more sacerdotal tone and spoke of the emancipation of slaves. It would be Benjamin Franklin that stroke his pen through those words and phrases and suggested that “we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” be changed to “we hold these truths to be self evident.” The original was re-written and delivered to the Continental Congress.
All Men Are Created Equal…
When reading the phrase, “All Men are created equal” the elephant in the room is the issue of slavery.
There is no doubt that if Jefferson had pushed the issue of emancipation, then the American Revolution would never have happened. Men always protect their self-interest and the economy of the southern colonies were dependent on the institution of slavery. Slaves were viewed as property and treated as animals. They were bred and traded. Sold and families torn apart. They were not viewed as human beings that had rights. Although Thomas Jefferson said that he detested slavery he was a slaveowner. Slavery had all but vanished in New England and many of the New England delegates shared a dislike for its institution but they did not push the issue and slavery remained.
The Dominos Fall Into Place
With Virginia in support of independence it became clear that independence would soon be declared. The southern colonies quickly fell into place as did most of the middle colonies. John Dickinson and George Read were two of the more popular delegates that were against independence. Dickinson rose and gave a final speech to push for reconciliation with Britain, but it was refuted by Adams and fell on deaf ears. Independence was in the air.
Read and Dickinson went on to become ardent patriots of the cause. George Read signed the document although he voted against it.