The Declaration of Independence
As we observe this two hundred and twentieth anniversary of our nation's independence, it is altogether fitting that we spend a moment or two remembering the fifty-six courageous men who were willing to sign their names to this defiant manifesto listing many of their grievances against the king—therein and thereby "pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."
The venerated emigrants who came to the New World and sowed the seeds for a new nation—and their distinguished successors who laid the foundation of our civil liberty—have long ago gone to their graves; but the foresight and the accomplishments of both of these generations, their patience and suffering, the courage and patriotic zeal with which they asserted their rights and the wisdom they displayed in laying the groundwork for our government will be held in remembrance for generations to come.
Any great event in human history is likely to be unappreciated at the time of its occurrence; the contemporary aspect of a thing is often confused and indistinct, and only the passing of time will polish the brightness of the truly great. Indeed, many are never seen in the magnitude of their importance until long after the participants have gone to rest. Such is the case with this great document, which was the cornerstone of a future democratic nation.
Just for the record, let us note that the manuscript was not signed or adopted on July fourth. It was approved by the committee and reported to Congress, having been signed by the chairman and the secretary. On the second day of August, the document, having been engrossed and compared, was signed by the delegates. The declaration thus adopted—and which gave birth to a new empire—began as follows: "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them to another..."
It is important to recognize the fact that few, if any, of these daring men had in mind the creating of one new nation. They were visualizing thirteen "free and independent states," free and independent from the mother country and free from each other.
The two most powerful and prosperous colonies were Virginia and Massachusetts. One was a facsimile of the aristocratic system of England, and the other reflected a determined breakaway from the mother country. One was a slave state, the other free. Most of the delegates had little desire to combine with the other colonies—to be joined under one central government. A concerted movement in this direction was to come several years later when George Washington spearheaded an effort toward a federation.
It is assumed that each group of delegates, representing its state, had a designated chairman—and that his was the first signature to be ascribed. This is known to be the case with a few delegations and probably was that way with all.
At this time in history, there were less than three million people in the thirteen colonies—about the same as the city of Chicago in 1990. This brings to mind an interesting question: could we find a group of dedicated and resolute men today from the citizenry of that Illinois city of the stature and caliber of those who framed the Declaration of Independence?
Thomas Jefferson is generally credited with being the author of the famous document; true, it was in his handwriting, but many others contributed substantially to its contents. It resulted from a century of tyranny and oppression under the rule of a half-dozen British rulers, culminating with the despotism of George III. And most, if not all, of the men who inscribed their signatures had experienced personal indignity or financial loss from the British oppressor.
Fifty-seven men identified themselves as revolutionaries and enemies of the king when they added their names at the bottom of the famous statement of defiance. Three of them already were at the top of a list of the king's enemies and knew if they were captured, they would be transported to England and most certainly incarcerated. One of the fifty-seven, Henry Misner of New York, was not present at the signing, but he had voted in favor of its adoption.
Of the fifty-six signers, sixteen did not live to see the inauguration of George Washington, our first president, on March 4, 1789. Only twenty were still living at the turn of the century, and three were alive on the fiftieth anniversary of the completion and approval of the Declaration. Two of these, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both former presidents, died within an hour or two of each other on July 4, 1826. The last survivor was Charles Carroll of Maryland, who died in 1832, fifty-six years after he set his signature to the proclamation.
All fifty-six of these distinguished men have been gone for more than one hundred sixty years. Long may they live!
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