By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Declaration of Independence, Part 2: 'Duty we owe ourselves and posterity'
0807Clay Ouzts
Clay Ouzts

Clay Ouzts is a professor of history at Gainesville State College in Oakwood. His an essay on the history of the Declaration of Independence, the reaction to it in the Colonies and elsewhere and its effect on the nation’s strive for independence runs through Wednesday, July 4.

Sunday: Part 1, a Declaration of Freedom

Coming Tuesday: Part 3

Coming Wednesday: Part 4

On July 6, two days after the Declaration of Independence was adopted and sent to the printer, John Hancock, a Massachusetts delegate and president of the Congress, wrote a cover letter to accompany the document when it was sent to the various colonies.

One of the copies was sent General George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army stationed in New York City. The Congress, read the cover letter, had been debating on the greatest question that could ever “come before them, or any other assembly of men.” That body had acted upon “a duty we owe ourselves and posterity,” trusting “the event (italics mine) to that Being who controls both causes and events, to bring about his own determination.”

Hancock informed his recipients that “the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve all connections between Great Britain and the American colonies, and to declare them free and independent States.”

At the end of Hancock’s cover letter to Washington, he relayed Congress’ desire that the general “will have it proclaimed at the head of the army, in the way you shall think most proper.”

Accordingly, Washington addressed his troops July 9, even as the first waves of an invasion fleet under the command of Gen. Sir William Howe passed Sandy Hook, entered New York Bay and unloaded thousands of British and Hessian soldiers unopposed on Staten Island, across the Hudson River from the city.

“The several brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their respective parades at 6 o’clock,” he ordered his officers, “when the declaration of Congress, showing the grounds and reasons of this measure, is to be read with an audible voice.”

The Declaration, Washington hoped, would encourage his fatigued and outnumbered army, since “this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his country depends (under God) solely on the success of our arms; and that he is now in the service of a state, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and advance him to the highest honors of a free country.”

Washington’s men were surely energized by the proclamation. When the reading was finished, the soldiers broke out in “three huzzas,” remembered one eyewitness.

“Everyone,” he recalled, “seemed highly pleased that we were separated from a king who has endeavor(ed) to enslave his once loyal subjects. God grant us success in this our new character.”

The signers were keenly aware that their actions would profoundly impact the future, not only in the colonies, but also throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The “event’s” Magna Charta, the Declaration, ushered humanity into a new era of rights, liberties and freedom.

Richard Henry Lee believed that the friends of liberty around the world were joining America in the celebration of its newfound independence.

“The union that has accompanied the declaration will gladden the heart of every true friend to human liberty,” he wrote in a letter to Samuel Adams, a Massachusetts delegate and cousin to John, in late July.

Looking to the future, after a victorious war, he saw a joyful America, where the blessings of liberty were secure. He cautioned, however, that the country’s happiness would continue only as long as America was virtuous. “When we cease to be virtuous,” he noted, then “we shall not deserve to be happy.”