We note July 4 as the birthday of the Declaration of Independence. Actually, it was on July 2, 1776 that this resolution was adopted in the Continental Congress: “These United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be Free and Independent States…absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown.”
After review and some changes, the final version of the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress. Yet only two men actually signed it on the famed date, July 4, 1776. These were John Hancock, president of Congress, and Charles Thomson, secretary.
The Declaration was read publicly on July 8, 1776 in Philadelphia. Washington’s troops, then in New York, heard the document read on July 9.
Except for Hancock and Thomson, the remainder of the fifty-six signers added their signatures to the document on August 2, 1776. Great measures were taken to keep the identities of the signers a secret to prevent their arrest and even death at the hands of the British and the American Loyalists.
Life was not easy for those who pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” because they believed in freedom. Several of the signers were chased from farms and homes and had their property confiscated. Other signers, along with their spouses, were imprisoned. John Martin of Pennsylvania died from mental anguish when former friends shunned him. Francis Lewis’s wife died in prison.
Dr. Benjamin Rush, a medical doctor and social reformer and one of the signers wrote in a letter to fellow signer John Adams: “The 4th of July has been celebrated in Philadelphia in the manner I expected…Scarcely a word was said of the solitude and labors and fears and sorrows and sleepless nights of the men who projected, proposed, defended, and subscribed the Declaration of Independence. Do you recollect your memorable speech upon the day on which the vote was taken? Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants? The silence and the gloom of the morning were interrupted, I well recollect, only for a moment by Colonel (Benjamin) Harrison of Virginia who said to Mr. (Elbridge) Gerry at the table: ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.’ This speech procured a transient smile, but it was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted…Let us, my dear friend, console ourselves for the unsuccessful efforts of our lives to serve our fellow creatures by recollecting that we have aimed well.”*
We sometimes fail to relate the events of history to time lines in the history of our county and the state of Georgia. Union County was formed in 1832. America’s freedom had been declared only fifty-six years before. Westward expansion had sent aspiring men with a pioneering spirit to the American frontier to settle. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” meant freedom from cities that were becoming crowded to places where family farms could be carved from the wilderness. On new lands people could exercise their bent for independence and make their own niche in the annals of history. Many of us can trace our roots back to some of the citizens who were in Union County when it was formed. Our forebears, almost as much as the signers of the Declaration of Independence, were fired with the spirit of freedom and saw it available for the taking in lands opened up for settlement. Life was not easy. They faced the unknown and hard work. But then, is independence ever easy? Is freedom ever free?
On this 4th of July, it is a good time to remember and be thankful for our legacy of independence. Jefferson believed that given the right reasons, people could govern themselves and that educated citizens could and would safeguard democracy. These tenets are as important today as they were in 1776.
[*The letter of Dr. Benjamin Rush to John Adams is cited from David Colbert’s Eyewitness to America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), p. 84.]
c2004 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published July 1, 2004 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.