July 4, 2014 will be America’s 238th Independence Day, the day Americans celebrate our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Here are nine things you should know about America’s founding document and the day set aside for its commemoration.
1. July 4, 1776 is the day that we celebrate Independence Day even though it wasn’t the day the Continental Congress decided to declare independence (they did that on July 2, 1776), the day we started the American Revolution (that had happened back in April 1775), the date on which the Declaration was delivered to Great Britain (that didn’t happen until November 1776), or the date it was signed (that was August 2, 1776).
2. The first Independence Day was celebrated on July 8, 1776 (although the Declaration was approved on July 4, 1776, it was not made public until July 8), but for the first two decades after the Declaration was written, people didn’t celebrate it much on any date. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, admired Jefferson and the Declaration. But the other party, the Federalists, thought the Declaration was too French and too anti-British, which went against their current policies.
3. After the War of 1812, the Federalist party began to come apart and the new parties of the 1820s and 1830s all considered themselves inheritors of Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans. Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate again, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top. Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday as part of a bill to officially recognize several holidays, including Christmas. Further legislation about national holidays, including July 4, was passed in 1938 and 1941.
4. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston comprised the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration. Jefferson, regarded as the strongest and most eloquent writer, wrote most of the document. After Jefferson wrote his first draft, the other members of the Declaration committee and the Continental Congress made 86 changes, including shortening the overall length by more than a fourth and removing language condemning the British promotion of the slave trade (which Jefferson had included even though he himself was a slave owner).
5. The signed copy of the Declaration is the official, but not the original, document. The approved Declaration was printed on July 5th and a copy was attached to the „rough journal of the Continental Congress for July 4th.” These printed copies, bearing only the names of John Hancock, President, and Charles Thomson, secretary, were distributed to state assemblies, conventions, committees of safety, and commanding officers of the Continental troops. On July 19th, Congress ordered that the Declaration be engrossed on parchment with a new title, „the unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America,” and „that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.” Engrossing is the process of copying an official document in a large hand.
6. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the only two presidents to sign the document, both died on the Fourth of July in 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration. Adam’s last words have been reported as „Thomas Jefferson survives.” He did not know that Jefferson had died only a few hours before. James Monroe, the last president who was a Founding Father, also died on July 4 in 1831. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President, was born on July 4, 1872, and, so far, is the only President to have been born on Independence Day.
7. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress at the time, was the first and only person to sign the Declaration on July 4, 1776 (he signed it in the presence of just one man, Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress). According to legend, the founding father signed his name bigger than everyone else’s because he wanted to make sure „fat old King George” could read it without his spectacles. But the truth is that Hancock had a large blank space and didn’t realize the other men would write their names smaller. Today, the term „John Hancock” has become synonymous with a person’s signature.
8. The 56 signers of the Declaration did not sign on July 4, 1776, nor were they in the same room at the same time on the original Independence Day. The official signing event took place on August 2, 1776 when 50 men signed the document. Several months passed before all 56 signatures were in place. The last man to sign, Thomas McKean, did so in January of 1777, seven months after the document was approved by Congress. Robert R. Livingston, one of the five original drafters, never signed it at all since he believed it was too soon to declare independence.
9. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which makes no reference to God, the Declaration has three references to a deity. The document also makes two references that tie natural law to God. (Although Thomas Jefferson was a Deist, as a young apprentice lawyer he had studied the work of Henry de Bracton, an English jurist and natural law proponent. Bracton has been referred to as the „father of common law” and is said to have „succeeded in formulating a truly Christian philosophy of law”).