Posted by John Keller
On a warm morning 236 years ago today, 56 men met in what then was the State House in Philadelphia after having spent tiring hours the day before in the most important debate of their lives.
They represented a strip of coastal land with regions as diverse as New Hampshire and Georgia. Their values, culture, and home economies all were strikingly different. In fact, each one referred to where he lived as "my country," even though the 13 regions the men represented then officially were called colonies.
The word "colonies" was at the core of what the men debated that morning so many years ago, for those representing these 13 colonies were about to change the names of where they lived from colonies to states.
They had been colonies overseen by their mother country of Great Britain virtually since the first Englishmen landed on those shores, ironically 192 years to the day before that meeting in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. Eventually those first arrivals established England's first colony and named it Roanoke.
That colony, unfortunately, didn't survive. Its members vanished in a chain of events that today remains a mystery. Undaunted, more colonists crossed the Atlantic from England and established the first lasting English colony in North America, Jamestown, in 1607.
The name of that colony -- and the state to which it would evolve -- eventually would change, renamed for a little girl named Virginia Dare, the first child born in the vanished Roanoke colony. Not only would Virginia be the first American colony, but it also would be the home of a man named Thomas Jefferson who would author the document that effectively transformed the colonies into states.
Jefferson was among those 56 men who debated in Philadelphia the morning of July 4, 1776. They were tired, they were hot, and they were fed up.
In most of the 169 years since the establishment of Jamestown, the colonists had lived harmoniously with the mother country Great Britain. It was the government of Great Britain that provided the financial and military backing that helped establish the 13 colonies. England was the largest trading partner to the colonies, and most of the colonists considered themselves Englishmen. They were, after all, subjects of Great Britain.
They had plenty to thank Great Britain for. The strip along the East Coast of North America where the 13 colonies were located had been contested and fought over by European powers almost since the beginning of the colonies. Spain claimed lands south and west of the Colonies, and France claimed lands to the north. The colonies also often were surrounded by hostile Native American tribes. Great Britain provided protection from all of these threats.
The biggest threat to the colonies had come just 23 years before the meeting in Philadelphia that morning, and must have been on the minds of some of the men in attendance. France and Great Britain had engaged in a world war called the Seven Years War. It was this war that ultimately settled which European power would dominate the North American continent. In the American Colonies the war was known as the French and Indian War.
Although won by Great Britain, the war had cost money, and the British government looked to its North American colonies to provide some repayment. The colonies historically had been undertaxed, but that changed in 1763 shortly after treaties were signed ending the Seven Years War.
The British government passed the Sugar Act that year -- just 13 years before that morning's meeting in Philadelphia -- which introduced customs records, added new charges on consumables to push the colonists into buying British goods, and charged three pence a ton for molasses imported to the colonies from the West Indies. Although the taxes were not heavy, the colonists noticed for the first time that they were being asked to pay taxes to the British government without having elected representatives taking part in their passage.
Two years later the British government approved the Stamp Act, which put a tax on every legal document and every newspaper in the colonies. Closely behind was the Quartering Act, which required colonists to house British soldiers where no barracks were available. The Stamp Act led to street violence, and although the law didn't last, the slogan "no taxation without representation" became common in the colonies.
Resentment against British authority grew, leading to more violence in colonial streets. In 1770 British soldiers shot their muskets into an unruly mob in Boston that had been insulting them and pelting them with ice, oyster shells, and pieces of coal. That incident became known as the Boston Massacre.
The British government was determined to assert its authority. Members of the British Parliament believed the King of Britain had sovereign power over the colonies, had the right to pass laws and taxes, whether or not the colonists had elected representation in Parliament.
The last straw for the British government was an incident in Boston in late 1773. British authorities prohibited the sale of tea, a popular drink in the colonies, by any company except the British East India Company. In reaction to that limitation on free commerce, some colonists dressed as Indians, boarded ships in Boston Harbor, and threw their cargoes of tea overboard. This became known as the Boston Tea Party.
The British government had had enough, and in 1774 punished the colonies with what became known as the Intolerable Acts. These included closing Boston Harbor until the costs of the destroyed tea was repaid; limiting the number of public meetings; made appointment of colonial officials subject to the British Government rather than the colonies; allowed moving legal trials to other colonies or to Great Britain; and established another quartering act to house British soldiers in private colonial homes.
These laws led to more violence and unrest. It was just a year later that British soldiers, seeking to confiscate colonial weapons and explosives reportedly hidden in a small town outside Boston, met armed colonial resistance on the town green in the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord.
These so-called "Intolerable Acts," as well as the battles on the town green in Lexington and at the North Bridge in Concord, were on the minds of the men meeting in Philadelphia 236 years ago today. Just a day earlier they had hammered out most of the details of a declaration to separate the colonies from Great Britain. That morning they would finish the declaration, and each man in attendance would sign it.
Here is what they wrote:
In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of AMERICA.
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.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their CREATOR with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.
HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them and formidable to Tyranny only.
HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.
HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the people.
HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, Incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining, in the mean Time, exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.
HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.
HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.
HE has kept among us, in times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the Consent of our Legislatures.
HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:
FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:
FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
FOR depriving us in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:
FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:
FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule into these Colonies:
FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.
HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection, and waging War against us.
HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.
HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with Circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.
HE has constrained our fellow Citizens, taken Captive on the high Seas, to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
HE has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.
IN every Stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every Act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.
NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them, from Time to Time, of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our Connexions and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the Rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be,FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connexion between them and the State of Great-Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of Right do. And for the Support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of DIVINE PROVIDENCE, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.
The words of this document are what we celebrate today. As you enjoy your fireworks, hot dogs, hamburgers, watermelon, and family gatherings, please take a minute to remember the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, and the risks they took doing so. If captured they would have been executed, and their property confiscated.
Benjamin Franklin, who was among those 56 men representing the colony of Pennsylvania, remarked sagely, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Happy Independence Day, everyone.