On 2 August Americans will probably not celebrate any patriotic holiday in particular, even though it will be the 245th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 2 August 1776. It had taken months to get to this point and extensive political maneuvering. As frustrating as the process was, Massachusetts delegate John Adams felt it had all been worth it. “Time has been given for the whole People, maturely to consider the great Question of Independence and to ripen their Judgments, dissipate their Fears, and allure their Hopes,” he wrote to his wife Abigail, “by discussing it in News Papers and Pamphlets, by debating it, in Assemblies, Conventions, Committees of Safety and Inspection, in Town and County Meetings, as well as in private Conversations, so that the whole People in every Colony of the 13 have now adopted it, as their own Act.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft. As he himself later explained, the Declaration was a collection of philosophical, legal, and moral arguments that reflected the politics of those supporting the Revolution.” Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing,” Jefferson reflected in 1825, “it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
The drafting of the Declaration was an opportunity for the dozens of colonial delegates to debate and refine their vision of a future independent country, a place to state the goals and ideals that would transform a revolt into a recognized nation. Adams, one of the intellectual architects of the Revolution, acknowledged both the historical drama of the moment and the hard reality that the document reflected. “You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not,” he wrote in the same letter. “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States.—Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”
The Great Question of Independence
The creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was a long, complicated, and highly political process. Convincing the thirteen American colonies to agree on anything was a challenge, and even though ninety separate declarations of independence had already been issued by July 1776 by an array of colonial and local governments, uniting all their arguments in one document was challenging. The Revolutionary War was ongoing and, in the case of New York, approaching British soldiers made it too dangerous for the New York Provincial Congress to come to an agreement on whether to support a vote for independence. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the work continued.
On 11 June 1776 Congress appointed John Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Thomas Jefferson (Virginia), Robert R. Livingston (New York), and Roger Sherman (Connecticut) as the Committee of Five, tasked with writing a first draft of the declaration. Jefferson was elected to write the first draft and, after some changes were made by the rest of the committee, the declaration was submitted to the Second Continental Congress on 28 June 1776, entitled "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.”
Now the other members of Congress had their chance to make changes. In addition to cutting the document’s length by a quarter, some of the writing was changed to make it palatable to all present. For example, the first draft had accused King George III of perpetrating “slavery” upon the Thirteen Colonies, but Congress agreed to remove the phrase, to placate not only southern colonies with substantial populations of enslaved workers, but also northern colonies whose economies depended on the offshore buying and selling of enslaved people. On this and other issues the colonial delegations debated, until on 1 July they took what amounted to a straw poll, with each colony casting a single vote. Nine colonial delegations voted in favor of independence. New York was forced to abstain, as its delegation was still under threat. Delaware also abstained because its two delegates disagreed with each other. Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against independence. Nobody was satisfied, and all present agreed to postpone the final vote until the following day.
With the arrival of a few new delegates who were absent the previous day, on 2 July Delaware’s delegates found common ground and voted in favor of independence, as did South Carolina and Pennsylvania. The Second Continental Congress then voted unanimously in favor of independence (acknowledging the ongoing abstention of New York).
Some members of Congress, such as John Adams, rejoiced on what they assumed would be a new national independence day. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams wrote to his wife Abigail. “It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more… The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.”
But the work was not yet finished. It was not until two days later, on the fourth of July, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress officially adopted the revised document, and this became the date Americans observed their celebrations.
The Declaration of Independence is displayed alongside the Bill of Rights and the United States Constitution in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives, Washington, D.C. It may be the most recognizable of the three documents, mainly due to the famously oversized signature of John Hancock (a delegate from Massachusetts) in the bottom center. Hancock was allotted this prime position because he was the president of the Second Continental Congress. The story that Hancock intentionally signed his name in extra-large script “so King George could see it without spectacles” is apocryphal; Hancock signed the document in the presence of just one other person, Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress. Signing the document was a bold act in itself, for it opened the signers to charges of treason from the King.
The Declaration of Independence was signed by the rest of the Second Continental Congress after 4 July and it is this document that is displayed in Washington, D.C., bearing the signatures of 56 delegates. But were these the same delegates who were present for the vote on 4 July 1776? Historians still debate this issue. Some argue that as few as 34 delegates were actually present that day, while others believe there were more. At least eight delegates who were present never signed the document at all. What is certain is that some of those who signed the famous document, such as Matthew Thornton (New Hampshire), were not even elected to serve in Congress until after the resolution was passed.
The delegates organized their signatures by geographic location. The process began on the right hand side of the document, with the order of signatures running from northernmost states to southernmost states, down and to the left. The New Hampshire delegation thus signed at the far right, while the Georgia delegates signed at the far left. This meant that by the time Matthew Thornton was elected to Congress in November 1776, there was no room left for his signature next to his fellow New Hampshire delegates, and he had to sign below Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut.
Printed copies of the Declaration of Independence were distributed throughout the newly created thirteen states to be read aloud to the citizens. It was, after all, the citizens to whom the Declaration was composed, not King George. The Declaration of Independence was created to formally explain Congress’ legal and moral justifications for severing ties with England to the American colonists. In this, it was a huge success. Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army George Washington read the declaration aloud to his troops as British troops waited just offshore in New York Harbor, and the proclamation nearly incited a riot as patriotic crowds tore down statues of the King and other symbols of royal oppression throughout New York City.
By mid-August the Declaration of Independence had been printed in British newspapers and was making its way across Europe. Although American Revolutionary War did not formally conclude until the Treaty of Paris was signed on 2 September 1783, the United States of America’s symbolic first day of freedom is the Fourth of July, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted.
Chipping Away at Those Colonial-American Brick Walls
In order to conduct thorough, comprehensive research on our ancestors, it is first necessary to have an understanding of the time period in history in which they lived. This can be especially important during the Colonial era, as there were numerous events which resulted in the creation of unique records. Placing your ancestor in or near those events can lead to discoveries of details that may not have otherwise been recorded.
The establishment of settlements in British America by the Europeans, following the First Virginia Charter of 1606, sparked some of the earliest extant records for the American Colonial time period. An understanding of notable settlements of the era, along with some of their associated records, can provide a great foundation with which to build your ancestral research upon.
1607 - Jamestown (Virginia): Biographically-pertinent records include the 1624/5 Muster, which was an enumeration of all households in Virginia. Though the original records are held in London, the details extracted from the original records are available in six online databases - Main, Deaths, Food, Arms, Livestock and Buildings.
1620 - Plymouth (Massachusetts): The lineage society General Society of Mayflower Descendants has documented five generations, or more, of the descendants of the Mayflower passengers, making the endeavor of researching back to your potential Mayflower ancestors much more manageable. These verified descendants are commonly referred to as gateway ancestors and the genealogies have been published by the society in what are called the Silver Books. Learn more about Mayflower ancestors in our previous article The 51 Survivors.
1623 - New Hampshire:Provincial probate and land records were among the documents which were created as early as the 1630s and are available through the New Hampshire Department of State.
1630 - Boston (Massachusetts): Mandates for recording of vital records in Massachusetts began soon after the settlement of Boston, as early as 1639. These records were maintained at the town level, with the majority later being published in book form under a project known as the “Tan Books.” Learn more about the records of Colonial Massachusetts in our Boston-focused article here.
These early settlements were followed by those of St. Mary’s in 1634, Hartford in 1635 and Providence in 1635; soon thereafter came the remaining formations of the 13 original Colonies - Delaware in 1638, North Carolina in 1653, South Carolina in 1663, with both New Jersey and New York in 1664, wrapping up with Pennsylvania in 1682 and Georgia in 1732. State archives, such as the LIbrary of Virginia’s Virginia Memory collections, or university libraries, such as the Early American History Special Collections held by William & Mary, can prove to be some of the most unique and plentiful resources for Colonial era records.
There were many historic events which shaped the American Colonies, resulting in numerous records, including the unique, as well as the not so uncommon. Focusing on the changing geographic boundaries and events that occurred where your ancestors resided may highlight the path to unlocking your ancestral mysteries.
Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Catherine Nicholson, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 29 July 2021), “The Declaration of Independence and the Hand of Time.”
Declaration Resources Project, (https://declaration.fas.harvard.edu/ : accessed 29 July 2021), “Unsullied by Falsehood: The Signing.”
National Archives, (https://www.archives.gov/ : accessed 29 July 2021), “Declaration of Independence: How Was it Made?”
Jessie Kratz, National Archives, Pieces of History (https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/ : accessed 29 July 2021), “John Adams’s vision of July 4 was July 2.”
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British colonies 1763-76 shepherd1923.PNG : 29 July 2021), digital image of original print map, ca. 1911, ” File:British colonies 1763-76 shepherd1923.PNG;” file uploaded by Tm; citing William R. Shephard, Historical Atlas (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1923).
Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:United States Declaration of Independence.jpg : 29 July 2021), digital image of facsimile print from engraving by William Stone, ca. 1823, ” File:United States Declaration of Independence.jpg;” file uploaded by Parhamr.