Enduring myths surround an enduring document

Martin D. Tullai

July 03, 1991|By Martin D. Tullai

WITHOUT doubt, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most enduring and influential documents of all time. Leaders extol it, foreigners are in awe of it and citizens are inspired by it.

Abraham Lincoln declared that he "never had a feeling, politically, that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in -- the Declaration of Independence."

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, called it "a landmark in human freedom."

But even the men most closely involved with this birth certificate of the United States of America would be surprised and amused by the myths and misunderstandings that surround it:

* When Richard Henry Lee of Virginia rose in the Second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, and proposed, "These united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states," fighting had already been going on for over a year. The first volley -- "the shot heard round the world" -- had been fired on April 19, 1775. Despite this, Englishmen in America continued to toast the health of King George III and were reluctant to move for independence.

* When a committee of five was appointed to produce a formal, written Declaration of Independence, two of those named, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman, never showed up. The remaining three, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, decided that Jefferson ought to write the draft. After all, this 33-year-old Virginia lawyer, while a poor speaker, was already a renowned writer with a "peculiar felicity of expression."

Jefferson worked on his draft between June 11 and June 28. The vTC committee members made some minor changes, but to Jefferson's dismay, the Congress cut it by a quarter. Altogether, 80 changes were made which altered the original paper before it was approved on July 4, 1776. (The most important of these was the excision of a passage indicting the slave trade.)

* The document was officially titled "The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America." But it wasn't unanimous, nor was it the pronouncement of a single nation. New York would not add its vote for independence until July 19. Also, at that time the "United States of America" consisted of 13 sovereign states. While they were united in their resolution to fight together for their independence, they were united in little else.

In reality, the document was not so much a declaration of independence as it was an explanation or justification of an act already accomplished. Or as contemporaries described it: "Mr. Jefferson's advertisement of Mr. Lee's resolution."

Congress, on July 2, 1776, already had declared itself free of Great Britain when it voted to approve Lee's motion of June 7.

On that date John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail: "The second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival . . . It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore."

* Legend to the contrary, the document was not signed on July 4. Only John Hancock, the president of the Congress, attached his signature on that day. Most of the signings took place on Aug. 2, 1776, and then continued sporadically until 1781.

* It has been said that when John Hancock affixed his signature to the declaration, he did so in an outsize script, declaring: "There! King George will be able to read that without his spectacles!" Sounds good, but there is no evidence that he made that defiant gesture. Actually, Hancock habitually wrote his name very large. On an ordinary personal letter in 1776, his signature measures 4 1/2 inches, scarcely smaller than that on the declaration. Only as he aged and his public stature diminished did his signature become normal size.

* Benjamin Franklin, although 70 years old, not only served on the committee, but is reputed to have dramatically noted on July 4: "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang

separately." But this first came to notice 50 years after his death. Since none of his contemporaries mentioned anything like this, Franklin probably didn't say it.

But one note about Franklin could be a bombshell. There is a claim floating around that Franklin, not Jefferson, wrote the Declaration of Independence! However, no Jefferson or Franklin scholars have given any credence to this theory.

* The last surviving signer of the declaration was Charles Carroll of Maryland, who died at 95 in 1832. He was the only signer to add his address. Supposedly, Carroll joked that there were other men in Maryland named Charles Carroll, so the Maryland delegate added, "of Carrollton." A nice story, but the Marylander had been signing "Charles Carroll of Carrollton" on his papers since 1756.

Despite the myths and misconceptions that surface from time to time about the Declaration of Independence, it remains a beacon of hope for all people. And although the parchment will ultimately turn to dust, it has achieved its own immortality. It is in the hearts and minds of the people that the declaration will endure.


Martin D. Tullai teaches history at St. Paul's School.


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