When we consider this holiday, rarely even do we call it Independence Day. Instead, it's the Fourth of July -- often just "the Fourth" -- and it means fireworks, barbecue, ice cream, and sunburns. The men gathered in Philadelphia that summer 238 years ago didn't have any of that; theirs was a grim business.
Just before the Declaration of Independence there weren't two neat sides with Americans on one and the English on the other; everyone was English. What we had were English colonials in North America divided roughly into three camps: those loyal to the British crown, those who didn't care and just wanted to be left alone, and the English rebels who wanted to end or fundamentally alter British government rule over the 13 colonies.
Remember, of the British Colonials living in America, less than half wanted independence, or anything close to it. It's a wonder that what eventually became the United States simply didn't remain part of the British Empire like Canada did. That would have been a lot less fuss and bother, but probably a lot less interesting -- not to mention no fireworks and barbecue on the Fourth of July, but I digress ...
When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia that summer 1776, all of these viewpoints were represented. There were the hotheads from New England, where a shooting war with England had been going on for more than a year.
The Battles of Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, had happened the previous year. New Englanders were spoiling for a fight with Britain not only because of these battles, but also because of the bad blood that had been festering for years. A riot in Boston that led to what became known as the Boston Massacre had happened more than six years before. New Englanders were more than ready for a split with Britain.
Then there were the elites of New York and Charleston who wanted to remain loyal British subjects. Many of these had established business interests that independence or any political turmoil would threaten. They wanted the status-quo, and were notable for throwing parties for top British commanders. Then there were frontiersmen who sought expansion deeper into the continent's interior, who were limited by British law that prohibited them from settling on Indian land. Owners of small businesses in Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities were chafing under British taxation, and wanted change. All of these interests were represented at the congressional session in 1776.
It took a lot of negotiating, cajoling, conniving, plotting, politicking, and prayer -- remember, the Continental Congress had been meeting in separate sessions for nearly two years -- but eventually the vote for independence was cast.
When the ayes had it, there must have been an awkward moment as the representatives looked around at one another and wondered, "Okay, now what?"
That's when it must have sunk in. The British were serious about loyalty. A declaration of independence from the crown clearly was considered treason, and the penalty for treason was death. Probably more than one in that room wished he could change his vote.
At the signing, it's believed that Benjamin Franklin, one of the signers from Philadelphia, summed it up by saying, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Afterward, some of the signers did have a hard time of it at the hands of the British. Some had their homes ransacked and destroyed, some lost fortunes, others lost family members in the Revolutionary War. Still, it's doubtful that the signers were singled out disproportionately for what would be considered acts of treason.
In hindsight, that's probably because those seeking independence won the war. How might it have gone had the British prevailed, and were able to put down the rebellion successfully?
There might have been show trials for treason, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence most likely would have been some of the first headed for the gallows. There's just no way to tell, but after the vote for independence was taken in July 1776, those in that room in Philadelphia knew it was a distinct possibility.
Just something to think about when you're enjoying your barbecue and ice cream on Friday.