American Independence Day is a great, dramatic story. Here are its bare bones.
Thomas Jefferson, just 33 years old in the year of 1776, resisted writing the Declaration of Independence. He was John Adams' choice and Adams prevailed.
Quoting Adams' later recollection, John Meacham, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 biography, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, includes this exchange between the two men:
“You should do it,” Jefferson said.
“”Why will you not? You ought to do it.”
“I will not.”
“What can be your reason?”
“Reason first,” [said Adams] you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.”
“Well, if you are decided. I will do as well as I can.”
“Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”
Not that it was Jefferson's document alone. Among his influences were Locke, Montesquieu, philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adams, of course, and Benjamin Franklin took on some editing, contributing the phrase, “self-evident.”
According to Adams, says Meacham, delegates to that Continental Congress in Philadelphia, cut large passages including those condemning the people of England and a denunciation of the slave trade – all in all about one-sixth of Jefferson's document was removed.
The Declaration was ratified by the Congress on 2 July and when, six days later it was read aloud in front of the statehouse in Philadelphia, the crowds cheered, “God bless the free states of North America.”
Meacham tells us that the men in that muggy statehouse room with horse flies “bedeviling...the silk-stockinged legs of honorable members” knew, of course, that with their signatures, they had committed themselves to a treasonous course of action and what its consequences might be:
”Jefferson loved the story of an exchange between the fat Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and the wispy Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. 'Gerry, when the hanging comes, I shall have the advantage; you'll kick in the air half an hour after it is all over with me.'”
As we know, after a bloody awful war, things turned out differently and here we are celebrating this great, important document again, this beacon of personal freedom (even if we do not quite live up to it these days), on its 239th birthday. Meacham again:
”...the author of the document saw his words as sacred. Describing the desk on which he wrote the declaration, Jefferson later said: 'Politics as well as religion has its superstitions.
“'These gaining strength with time may one day give imaginary value to this relic for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.'”
Here is that desk which lives nowadays in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution:
Most American schoolchildren in my day were required to memorize the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
You can read the rest of it here.
It is fitting that on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1826, Thomas Jefferson died at his home in Virginia at 12:50PM. For me, it is an astounding and pitch-perfect coincidence that John Adams died on the very same day in Massachusetts at 6:20PM.
Adams's last words were recorded at his bedside as “Jefferson survives.” He died not knowing his old friend and rival had preceded him by just a few hours.
Now. Because backyard barbecues on the Fourth of July are as traditional as parades and fireworks, here, for some fun and silliness, are those Tiny Hamsters again, this time having a Tiny BBQ for Independence Day.
Enjoy the holiday weekend, everyone.