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Commentary: Part 1, A Declaration of Freedom

POSTED: July 1, 2012 12:30 a.m.

When Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence, he was already widely recognized as one of the most important figures of America’s revolution, largely due to his authorship of the Declaration of Independence.

By 1826, July Fourth celebrations had assumed a sacred, ritual place in the hearts of Americans, as had the ideals of freedom and liberty professed in the Declaration. Through the years since 1776, Jefferson kept the red mahogany desk on which he penned the Declaration tucked away at his home, Monticello, in Virginia.

Old and feeble in 1825, the aging revolutionary decided to give away his writing table, as a memento of America’s revolution, to James Coolidge, the husband of Jefferson’s granddaughter.

“If things acquire a superstitious value because of their connection with particular persons,” he wrote his granddaughter, informing her of the gift, “surely a connection with the great Charter of our Independence may give a value to what has been associated with that; and such was the idea of the enquirers after the room in which it was written.”

In describing his “writing box,” Jefferson believed that it claimed “no merit of particular beauty. It is plain, net, convenient and taking no more room on the writing table than a moderate quarto volume, it yet displays itself sufficiently for any writing.”

It was Jefferson’s hope that Mr. Coolidge would accept the gift, especially since its “imaginary value will increase with years.” Jefferson predicted that in the future, his wooden box would be “carried in the procession of our nation’s birthday, as the relics of the saints are in those of the Church.”

If Jefferson’s “box” was a relic, the document that came from it, the Declaration, was a sacred text preaching the sanctified doctrine of independence and liberty. Both Jefferson’s table and the Declaration of Independence were hallowed artifacts from a period in American history described by those who participated in it as an “event.”

In fact, the whole period of tumultuous debates about independence during the spring and summer of 1776 was one grand, ongoing event. The event’s focus was the maturing of the idea of independence. Its climaxing moment came July 4, when the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, formally adopted the Declaration. On that day, the United States bequeathed to the world one of the most profound statements of human rights and political liberty in history.

The event began early in 1776, when the question of independence was seriously considered by several prominent citizens and leaders in the 13 colonies. Later that spring, the Second Continental Congress took up the debate, which became an agitation for independence in May and June.

By June, independence fever was at a crescendo. Indeed, 1776 was already a year of independence before Congress finally proclaimed itself liberated from British rule. By the time of the Declaration, several colonies — including Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, among others — had already expressed their own freedom through petitions, declarations, political discourses and even newly crafted state constitutions.

Historian Pauline Maier, in her excellent study on the Declaration of Independence, identified at least 90 earlier declarations, forged together by state and local governments, mechanic workers, jurymen, militia units and other groups in the spring of 1776.

Independence, according to Massachusetts representative John Adams in a July 3 letter to his wife, Abigail, was the “great question.”

The fateful step toward independence was finally taken July 2, when Congress approved the Resolution put forth by Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia delegate.

When Congress accepted Lee’s Resolutions, the Declaration of Independence was still tabled, awaiting a vote. Lee’s Resolution, first introduced to the body of delegates on June 7, declared in three short sentences that the colonies were “free and independent states” and that their political relationship with Great Britain was “totally dissolved.”

It also called upon the colonies to immediately seek foreign alliances and to form a confederation as the basis of a new government.

Adams believed the Resolutions embraced the most important debate that had ever been held in America. Indeed, a “greater (question), perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men,” he reminded Abigail in his letter. Furthermore, the “resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony.”

Thus, Congress decided on independence as its course of action two days before the Declaration of Independence came up for a vote. Independence, at least in writing and thought, became a reality for Americans on July 2.

Congress’ endorsement of Lee’s Resolution on July 2, followed by its approval of the Declaration two days later (New York’s delegation temporarily abstained until it could get approval from the colony’s leaders), were the cumulative effects of mounting agitation for independence during the previous months.

In a letter to Archibald Bulloch, a Georgia delegate to Congress who opted to remain in his state and lead the revolution there, Adams pronounced the discussions about independence being held in Philadelphia as “the greatest debate of all” which “marked the beginning of a “new-born republic.” He hoped that “Heaven will prosper (it) and make it more glorious than any former republics have been!”

Not one to miss the symbolic meanings of great moments, Adams had a keen eye for pinpointing historical episodes that would later be passed down to posterity. Three years earlier, in 1773, the Boston resident and lawyer excitedly admitted in his diary that the “Tea Party” in his city was “the most Magnificent movement of all. ... I can’t but consider it as an Epocha in History.”

In similar language, he described to Abigail his predictions about Congress’ adoption of Lee’s Resolutions. “The second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorial Epocha, in the History of America,” he prophesized. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival.”

The event ought to be remembered, he confided to his wife, as the “Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” Generations would celebrate independence, he believed, “with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this Continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

The day Adams had in mind for the annual celebration of American independence — July 2 — was forgotten by later generations. When Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, Lee’s Resolutions quickly faded into the background.

 

Clay Ouzts is a professor of history at Gainesville State College in Oakwood


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