The Declaration of Independence

I really like the 4th of July. I enjoy the fireworks and all the festivities that go with that day. Above all, I appreciate the reason why we celebrate. This is the day that we declared our independence from a colonial power and decided to stand on our own.

My friend Harry is a really smart guy. He used to be a teacher, a coach and a school administrator. He knows how to motivate people, and he knows his history.
For example, I mentioned to him that every American child knows that George Washington was our first President.

Harry looked at me and shook his head. "Bill, all those kids are wrong, Of course Washington was the first President of the United States but John Hanson was President of the Continental Congress, our nation's first governing body." 

"Who?" I asked. "I never heard about a John Hanson."

Harry looked smug. "John Hanson was President of the first Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation. He was the first person to be elected presiding officer of our nation."

Harry really does know his history. He then pointed out to me that John Hancock was President of our second Continental Congress.

I commented: "I know about him. He was a smuggler and there was a price on his head. He was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence and he made a point to write his name so that every one could read it. He signed his name bigger than everybody else's because he wanted to make sure that "Fat old King George" could read it without his spectacles.'

Harry shook his head. "Most of that is just legend. There was never any proof that John Hancock was a smuggler. He irritated some people and because of this was once accused of smuggling. British authorities tried to seize one of his ships. Hancock took the British Government to court and won. He got his ship back and was never convicted of smuggling.

John Hancock was an owner of a reputable shipping firm and was one of the wealthiest men in the colonies. He was worth something in the neighborhood of $300,000 (A very substantial sum in a time of tight money). He was well respected by both the British and the Colonial government and he paid his taxes.
It's true that he was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence. This was expected, since he was President of the Continental Congress. My understanding is that he was the only delegate that had his name on the first published version of the Declaration.

Hancock's name was printed, not signed. This printed version was known as the Dunlap broadside. Signing of a parchment version began later on August 2nd and wasn't completed until January of the next year, this parchment copy is known as the "Engrossed copy." It is the Engrossed copy that is on display at the National Archives in Washington D.C. 

"Harry," I asked, "I thought that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th, not August 2nd?"

Harry laughed. "The Continental Congress actually approved independence from England on July 2nd, but didn't complete a formal Declaration until July 4th when they produced the printed Dunlap broadside. 

Harry motioned to me. "Come on. Let's go to the den." 

We walked into Harry's den.

Harry pointed to his wall where a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence hung. "This is the Engrossed copy, the copy that we are familiar with. Note the date is shown as July 4, 1776. I would like you to note how these 56 signatures are arranged. John Hancock was the first to sign, so consequently he signed it in the center. Note that there are 10 signatures located to his left, 11 below him and 34 to the right of his signature. According to the National Archives, the delegates followed the prevailing custom of the time and arranged their signatures according to the geographic location of the states that they represented. New Hampshire, the northernmost state is at the top and Georgia the southernmost state is at the bottom."

Harry again pointed to the declaration. "It took a lot of guts to sign that paper. By signing the Declaration and announcing independence from Great Britain they committed an act of Treason. If caught, each and every signer would be destined for the gallows.

I remarked,  "I'm glad that they were successful."

Harry nodded. "Me too."

I really like the 4th of July and I appreciate the reason that we celebrate.
I looked at Harry and said "God Bless America; may we ever be free;" and
Harry responded with "God Bless. May the spirit that is America last forever." 

Home                            More of Bill's Writings