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 today.
On the day that independence was approved in Congress, Abraham Clark informed Elias Dayton, the commander of the 3rd New Jersey Regiment, that the United States was embarking on a “Tempestuous Sea, (where) Life (is) very uncertain” and the “dangers (are) Scattered thick Around us.” He advised Dayton to “prepare for the Worst.”
One month later, Clark was having second thoughts about his decision to support independence, as he confided to Dayton in a subsequent letter.
“If we continued in the State we were in,” he explained, “it was evident we must Perish. If we declared Independence, we might be saved, (but) we could (still) perish.”
Instead of celebrating the event, Clark was experiencing great trepidation. “I assure you Sir I see, I feel the danger we are in, (and) I am far from exulting in our imaginary happiness.” There was not much hope for the colonists and “Nothing short of the Almighty Power of God can save us. ... whether to make us a Great empire, or to make our Ruin more compleat (sic), the issue can only determine.”
The bleak military situation even dampened the enthusiasm of John Adams, one of the strongest advocates for independence in Congress.
“If you imagine that I expect this declaration will ward off calamities from this country, you are much mistaken,” he told Samuel Chase, a fellow delegate from Maryland. “A bloody conflict we are destined to endure. This has been my opinion from the beginning.”
Adams knew that the British would not let America secede from the empire without a fight.
“You will remember my declared opinion was,” he told Chase, “at the first Congress, when we found that we could not agree upon an immediate non-exportation, that the contest would not be settled without bloodshed.”
However, the decision for independence had been made. The die was cast and there was no turning back. “The river is passed,” he informed the Maryland delegate, “and the bridge is cut away.”
Adams never let the euphoria associated with the event cloud the reality of tough days ahead. On July 3, the day after Congress adopted Lee’s Resolution and the day before the Declaration was approved, he found time for a letter to wife Abigail.
“You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not,” he wrote. “I am well aware of the blood, and toil, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states.”
Despite the gloomy prospects, Adams still managed to find something positive to embrace.
“I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory,” he hopefully wrote. “I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph in that day’s transaction, even though we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”
Congress’ issuance of the Declaration of Independence was a brave and bold act, but in England, it was perceived by an enraged king, his ministers, the vast majority of Parliament and most of the citizenry as nothing less than treason. The event, therefore, carried along with it the-possibility of a death sentence. In short, the 56 delegates in Philadelphia who affixed their name to the Declaration were condemning themselves to the gallows should their revolution fail.
An oft-told story relating a conversation between John Hancock and Benjamin Franklin during the signing of the Declaration highlighted the perils of treason. As they were about to put their name to the document, Hancock said, “We must be unanimous. There must not be any pulling different ways. We must all hang together.”
Hearing the comment, the ever witty Franklin quickly shot back, “Yes, we must indeed hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”
A less-known exchange took place between delegates Benjamin Harrison from Virginia and Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts. Harrison was a stocky, heavy-set man, while Gerry was thin and narrow-framed. Shortly after the signing, Harrison told Gerry, “When the hanging scene comes, I will have the advantage over you on account of my size. All will be over for me in a moment but you,” he warned the skinny Massachusetts delegate, “will be kicking in the air for half an hour after I am gone.”
Flushed with emotions ranging from excitement and jubilation to fear and trepidation, those who signed the Declaration knew that they were leading their newborn nation into troubled and unchartered waters. They risked their lives and fortunes on the idea of independence, which they hoped would usher their own nation, and also the world, into a new age of liberty and freedom.
The Declaration of Independence represented the christening of an idea called independence. For that reason, it was the epic moment in an event that stretched back into the spring of 1776.