3Qs: Celebrating America's independence

July 4, 2012 by Greg St. Martin

Wednesday marks the country’s annual cel­e­bra­tion of the adop­tion of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence on July 4, 1776. But there are many inter­esting his­tor­ical facts that sur­round that date and how the Declaration’s impact changed over time, according to William Fowler, Northeastern’s Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of His­tory. Northeastern University news office asked Fowler to explore these fas­ci­nating tales and explain how the Dec­la­ra­tion inspired sim­ilar doc­u­ments in other countries.

Most Americans celebrate the Fourth of July and are familiar with the Declaration of Independence. But what are some little-known historical facts about the holiday and the document that you find most interesting?

A few come to mind. First, July 4 is not Inde­pen­dence Day. Rather, it took place on July 2, 1776 when Con­gress approved the res­o­lu­tion offered by Richard Henry Lee of Vir­ginia. On July 3, John Adams wrote the fol­lowing to Abi­gail: “But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most mem­o­rable Epocha, in the His­tory of America.”

Then on July 4, Con­gress approved a Dec­la­ra­tion, orig­i­nally drafted by Thomas Jef­ferson, explaining what had been done on July 2. In fact, Jef­ferson kept a “Mem­o­randum Book” recording his daily activ­i­ties. On July 4, he recorded that he bought a ther­mometer, seven pair of women’s gloves and gave money to charity. He said nothing about the Declaration.

Another inter­esting note is that con­trary to the painting by John Trum­bull after the approval of the Dec­la­ra­tion, there was no grand signing cer­e­mony. As Pres­i­dent of the Con­gress, John Han­cock did sign the Dec­la­ra­tion on the 4th, as did the Sec­re­tary of the Con­gress Charles Thomson. Others signed over a period of sev­eral weeks.

Imme­di­ately after the vote on July 4, a Philadel­phia printer, John Dunlop, printed about 200 copies of the Dec­la­ra­tion to be dis­trib­uted to the states and to the army. The Dec­la­ra­tion was first read in Boston from the bal­cony of the Old State House, on the corner of State and Con­gress Streets, on July 18, 1776.

How has the Declaration's impact and meaning changed over time?

In the period after the Rev­o­lu­tion, the Dec­la­ra­tion was shunted aside. It was hard to rec­on­cile the lan­guage of the Dec­la­ra­tion in a nation that embraced slavery. Abraham Lin­coln revived rev­er­ence for the Dec­la­ra­tion when he declared at Get­tys­burg, on November 19, 1863: “Four score and seven years ago [1776] our fathers brought forth on this con­ti­nent, a new nation, con­ceived in lib­erty, and ded­i­cated to the propo­si­tion that all men are cre­ated equal.” Lincoln’s words enshrined the Dec­la­ra­tion as a state­ment of Amer­ican ideals.

In what way was the Declaration of Independence an unprecedented document, and what other documents has it since inspired?

Other nations have fol­lowed the Amer­ican example and echoed the Dec­la­ra­tion. Haiti was the first to do so in 1804. Since that time dozens of nations have fol­lowed, including sev­eral Latin Amer­ican republics as well as Texas when she declared inde­pen­dence from Mexico in 1836 and South Car­olina when the state seceded from the Union in 1860. In 1848, the Women’s Rights Con­ven­tion at Seneca Falls, N.Y., invoked Jefferson’s words in demanding rights for women. Per­haps the most ironic invo­ca­tion of Jefferson’s words came in the Republic of Vietnam. Written by Ho Chi Minh, in Hanoi, on Sep­tember 2, 1945, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, Demo­c­ratic Republic of Vietnam begins: “All men are cre­ated equal. They are endowed by their Cre­ator with cer­tain inalien­able rights, among these are Life, Lib­erty, and the pur­suit of happiness.”

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