Tag Archives: 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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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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The Gettysburg Address: Liberty’s Calling Card

Lincoln's ten sentences changed America.

Lincoln’s ten sentences changed America.

It is nearly impossible today to comprehend how Americans viewed their nation and their political institutions before the U.S. Civil War.

American presidents rarely spoke in public – it was considered undignified. God knows what George Washington or Thomas Jefferson would have thought of today’s chief executives attempting to curry the voters’ favor by suffering the indignities of an appearance on The Colbert Report.

Then, we were one nation, quite divisible, with liberty and justice for some. Slavery was a multi-billion-dollar-a-year labor system that made the United States the third-wealthiest country in the world. North and South, a popular view of the federal republic was it existed only as a creature surviving at the whim of the states. The states entered freely, proponents said, and they could leave freely.

In fact, on the eve of the War Between the States to many it seemed the only glue that held us together was the wealth generated by King Cotton and the blood drawn from the backs of slaves.

Yet 150 years ago on November 19, while we were engaged in a great civil war, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech in public that redefined us forever. It became known as the Gettysburg Address, and it is rightly credited for performing the nearly impossible. Invited by the city fathers of Gettysburg, Penn., to offer “a few appropriate remarks” at the dedication of a new cemetery, Mr. Lincoln’s ten sentences not only summarized the meaning of the Civil War but the meaning of America. He called on Americans, then and now, to dedicate themselves to the “unfinished work” of the battle – the vindication of the principle of natural rights and human equality. Few things ever said by any American achieved so much through so few words.

Today, we think of the Gettysburg Address as an assignment for school children or verbal decoration for the marble walls of memorials. The relegation of that powerful speech to such status is as trite as it is unfortunate. It took Lincoln, a man who once said that every political sentiment he possessed sprang from the Declaration of Independence, to remind us that the central ideas of the United States are liberty and freedom. He echoed those concepts in the opening words of the address, saying we are a nation “conceived in liberty.” The “proposition” that all men – the inclusive term for humankind used in the 18th and 19th century – are created equal is a rule of nature, like Isaac Newton’s laws of physics. This was a revolutionary idea, even while the Civil War was being fought, because the Declaration stated that the laws of nature were created by God and they were inviolable. Therefore, “liberty” is protection from the arbitrary will of another. Thus, Lincoln was not only telling his audience that the war was fought for the “new birth of freedom” that would end slavery. He was telling America, even the world, the United States must survive because when we at our best our nation is the home of a political idea that expands freedom and protects its citizens from indiscriminate power used to harass and bully a people. At a time when the federal government without reasonable suspicion uses national technical resources to spy on its own citizens, when the Bill of Rights seems an inconvenience to an American president, and when the result of these and other abuses have stripped the American people of trust in their government, it is time to return the Gettysburg Address to its rightful place: Our first and best statement “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Legend has it that Mr. Lincoln was not pleased with the speech.  There is no basis in fact for that conclusion, but the address itself contains a phrase that seems to indicate that he wondered whether it would weather the test of time.  Of the many comments made about the Gettysburg Address the reflections of Sen. Charles Sumner, a man who was once nearly beaten to death by a fellow lawmaker on the Senate floor for his anti-slavery views, captures the speech’s perennial value. “(It) is a monumental act,” Sumner wrote not long after the president’s assassination. “In the modesty of his nature he said ‘the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.’ He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it.” Every American of every political stripe and all backgrounds should note the Gettysburg Address, read it, understand its meaning, and cherish its vision. It defines what we should be, now and forever: A nation of free men and women, a nation of laws, and a nation where liberty is still our birthright.

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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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Think of Them as the Founding Twenty-Somethings

John Trumbull, "The Declaration of Independence" (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

John Trumbull, “The Declaration of Independence” (1817), U.S. Capitol Rotunda

From Slate via a repost from the Journal of the American Revolution, Todd Andrlik asks us to consider an often overlooked fact about the Founding Generation: Many of them were younger than we think. Although there were plenty of the Fathers and Mothers who were as ancient as a certain mariner (Ben Franklin comes to mind), many of them were in their 20s, even their teens when the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Andrlik compiled a list ranging from youngest to oldest of the Patriots (and a few figures from the other side) of the American Revolution. He also uses a quote from biographer David McCullough to explain why we age our founding heroes.

“We tend to see them as much older than they were,” said John Adams biographer David McCullough in a 2005 speech. “Because we’re seeing them in portraits by Gilbert Stuart and others when they were truly the Founding Fathers—when they were president or chief justice of the Supreme Court and their hair, if it hadn’t turned white, was powdered white. We see the awkward teeth. We see the elder statesmen. At the time of the revolution, they were all young. It was a young man’s–young woman’s cause.”

It was a youthful revolution, particularly when it comes to the age of the men who fought in the ranks of the Continental Army or supported the war on the home front. Sam Adams or Roger Sherman added some gravitas to the ranks of the Second Continental Congress, but many members were still in their 30s, including luminaries such as Benjamin Rush and Thomas Jefferson.  Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox, two future members of George Washington’s administration, were still in their 20s yet in command of soldiers in the field. Yes, people lived shorter lives and maturity was something grasped during one’s teen-aged years. But, just consider this: Could you have led a revolution when you were 20 years old? The future of the United States would have been doubtful if I were alive then and had been given such an awesome responsibility at so youthful a time in my life with little experience to guide my efforts. That so many young people guided this nation into existence when no other nation like the United States had ever existed before is another reason to be amazed by the American Revolution.



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Pauline Maier, RIP

Some truly sad news today via History News Network. Pauline Maier, author of American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998) and one of the nation’s most lauded historians of the American Revolution, died Monday of lung cancer, according to an HNN article. She was 75.

Maier was among a group of historians who turned the tide of historiography about the American Revolution by emphasizing the

Pauline Maier

Pauline Maier

unique political achievements of the independence movement and the political culture it created. She represented a younger generation of historians who rejected the New Left and Progressive schools of thought, examining how radical English libertarian thought changed American political beliefs and how wide-spread acceptance of natural rights and individual liberty distinctively altered politics, economics, and society. Maier’s thoughts on these subjects deeply influenced my own perspective as a historian, as the pages of this Web site often attest. 

Not only was I influenced by her research, which was always written in clear and interesting prose all-too-uncommon in the academic world, but her work also helped me gain as an American history teacher.  She deeply respected secondary and college educators like me who labor in the trenches day after day so students can learn about (and learn to guard) the democratic principles of this nation. I have used curriculum she created with great success while teaching the American Studies courses that I teach.  Her death is a great loss to scholarship and the intellectual marketplace of the contemporary United States. RIP.

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