May 11, 2012 (San Diego) --San Diegans Richard Lederer and Caroline McCullagh are the proud parents of a bouncing baby book, American Trivia: What We All Should Know About U.S. History, Culture & Geography (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2012). Over a span of a year, the co-authors will share with you their journey through American history. You can order inscribed and signed copies of the book by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Nation's Birthday
The most prominent all-American holiday is the Fourth of July. It’s the birthday of our country, and do we ever celebrate! Families gather for parades, picnics, concerts, carnivals, and fireworks.
That national outpouring of jubilation commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But if you have an image in your mind of a room full of patriots lined up to sign that document on the fourth, think again. That’s not how it happened.
The Second Continental Congress, with representatives from the thirteen colonies, was called to order in May 1775. The battles at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, had been fought on April 19. Even so, the delegates had little appetite for breaking away from England. Instead, in July 1775, they sent a petition to King George III asking him to protect them from Parliament, which, in the colonists’ eyes, taxed them often and unreasonably. The phrase “no taxation without representation” summed up their complaint.
King George ignored their petition.
On June 11, 1776, a committee was appointed to draft an affirmation of independence. The group included Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Jefferson took on the task of writing the document. All Americans should know the clarion words of the preamble:
"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 statement has been called "one of the best-known sentences in the English language" and "the most potent and consequential words in American history."
After some revisions, the Continental Congress on July 2 voted to accept the declaration of our national sovereignty.As reported in the Pennsylvania Evening Post, "This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States."
On the fourth, John Hancock of Massachusetts, president of the Congress, signed the Declaration of independence with his prodigious signature in an almost empty chamber. Secretary Charles Thomson was the only other person who actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, as a witness to Hancock's signature.
On July 8, Hancock read the text to a large and boisterous crowd in Philadelphia. Their joyful response was the first celebration of independence. On July 19, Congress ordered that the Declaration of Independence be engrossed, or written, on parchment. When that was completed, the document was sent to be signed by the members of the Congress, including John Hancock. Forty-nine signed it on August 2, almost a month after its adoption. Five members signed it later, and two never signed it.
The document marked the formal end of the effort by the American colonies to reconcile with King George. We now considered ourselves to be an independent nation and no longer subjects of the British king.
It was in the Declaration of Independence that the term The United States of America was used for the first time. Celebrating the Fourth of July didn’t become common until after the War of 1812, and Independence Day wasn't made a federal holiday until 1870. The original parchment copy of the Declaration is housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.