Category Archives: History of the Declaration of Independence

Drafting the Declaration of Independence

cropped-trumbull-large2.jpgThe Web site PortRevolt, which is dedicated to displaying art related to the American Revolution, has a brief history of the origins of the Declaration of Independence. It is readable and accurate, well worth the time for a Web visit that will combine history with the chance to view some of the most significant art associated with the Founding Period or portraying that period. As I wrote in an earlier post, PortRevolt is a valuable resource on the Web because of its emphasis on iconography, the systematic study and interpretation of paintings, drawings, and other portrayals of people and events to understand the past.


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Was John Hancock’s Signature Too Big?

0903declaraWhen John Hancock put his John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence he certainly wrote it large enough for all to see. In fact, Hancock’s grandiose signature is the stuff of figures of speech and insurance company jingles. But what’s the real reason behind the gigantic scrawl?

Ben Blatt, tongue firmly planted in his cheek, offers an explanation why in a recent Slate article.  It’s all about the number of men who originally signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration on July 4, 1776, instead of August 2, 1776. (Yes, this gets confusing, but the article does a good job of straightening out the whole “when was it signed” issue.)

In 1986, Wilfred Ritz, then a recently retired professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, published a paper titled “The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776” in the journal Law and History Review. In it, he quotes numerous letters and journal entries written by members of the congress as evidence that some but not all members did actually sign on July 4.

So, Blatt argues, the size of the signature is about the space available.

If the historical consensus that approximately 51 men signed the Declaration on Aug. 2 is wrong, and Wilfred Ritz is right that the engrossed copy was actually first signed on July 4, and he’s right that it was signed that day by 34 men, and we accept that Hancock assumed only the 34 men present on the fourth would ever sign the document, then John Hancock’s signature was of a perfectly reasonable size. You might even congratulate him on signing at precisely the right size to accommodate all of his colleagues. Good show, John!

I guess size does matter — it certainly did to John Hancock.



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The Violence of Colonial Slave Codes

slaveryBaylor University history professor Thomas Kidd writes about the violent and cruel laws used in Anglo-British colonial America to control slaves’ behavior. The brief article is particularly interesting because he describes how in 1710 one evangelical Christian congregation’s response to a particularly brutal form of punishment was decidedly mixed. According to Kidd, Christians looking for condemnations of slavery in the Bible were disappointed by what little support for opposition they found there, but they did find support for the anti-slavery position based on the cruelty of the institution.


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Wildly Inaccurate, But Fun: “No More Kings”

0903declaraOK, so George III didn’t really sit on bags of gold. Furthermore, it began as a fight about the rights of Englishmen, not the right to create an American nation. But “Schoolhouse Rock” is so much fun. Enjoy a blast from the past: “No More Kings.”  Have a glorious Fourth of July

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Talk about the Spirit of the Founding Fathers

If it were later in the day, I’d describe the following as a palate cleanser to chase away the bad taste of contemporary politics. But, I am posting this before noon, so suffice it to say most of us don’t know that the Father of Our Country was one of the leading distillers in the United States. Washington’s business venture as a whiskey distiller was a success, too. He made up to 11,000 gallons of rye whiskey annually and sold nearly every drop. Turns out he was a savvy businessman — a nice economic contrast when we recall that fellow Virginian and founder Thomas Jefferson struggled with debt his entire adult life. However, don’t try to buy this booze on the Internet. Apparently, it is for sale only at Mount Vernon.

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February 18, 2014 · 6:02 am

Yorktown and the End of the American Revolution

Cornwallis surrenderThe United States is the only nation to defeat the British Empire in war for the purpose of securing its independence.  Six years of battle that killed or wounded more than 25,000 Americans came to an end after the combined forces of the Continental Army and the French defeated Gen. Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown, leading to the British forces’ surrender on this date in 1781.

John Ferling explains the profound significance of this event in an excerpt from one his books posted at Command Posts, the military history blog.

Today, we look at the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence as reasons enough for the existence of the United States. However, the thought of the British abandoning one of the wealthiest parts of their empire simply because of the political sentiments of the American colonists is not supported by history. The British in the 18th century did not relinquish their hold on Scotland, Ireland, or India for similar reasons. It took a war not always expertly fought but but fought to win independence. No wonder George Washington commented, “You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.”

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Benjamin Franklin’s Not-So-Famous Sister

250px-Benjamin_Franklin_by_Joseph-Siffred_DuplessisThey called one another “Benny” and “Jenny” throughout their lives in the letters they frequently exchanged. He was the most famous American in the world at the time. She lived a life of obscurity as a woman in colonial America who gave birth to 12 children and made her own soap. Harvard historian Jill Lepore chronicles the dichotomy of these two lives in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, the story of Benjamin Franklin’s sister and life-long correspondent. The public broadcasting show “Here and Now” offers a substantial selection from the book as well as an interview with Lepore talking about her book. 

“… One of the things that’s great about them is they really span the whole of the 18th century, which is just these epic moments in Western history, certainly in American history,” say Lepore during the interview. “And you can follow, over the course of their lives, everything happens to them. Most of them are things that Franklin is actually doing and responsible for and that Jane is a witness to. So it’s a fantastic story. And it’s traceable the whole way through because Franklin wrote more letters to his sister Jane than he wrote to anyone else. I mean, here’s this man who corresponded with kings, you know? But he remained deeply loyal to this sister, I think, felt singularly responsible for her. So you – it this great, untold story of American letters.”


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