Seventeen Days in June

The events that resulted in Americans declaring their independence from Britain fell all across the calendar of the summer of 1776. The one on July 4th wasn't especially spectacular, except in the faulty memories of aging men. For instance, we know something about Thomas Jefferson’s July 4th since he was a rigorous record keeper.  As usual, he rose before dawn and noted the temperature as 68˚ at 6:00 AM., which seemed to herald a hot day in Philadelphia. But Jefferson at 1:00 PM was attending Congress when he jotted down that his thermometer was reading a pleasant 76˚. He could be confident of the figure since it was a new instrument that he purchased that very day, probably on his way to the Philadelphia State House. He also bought seven pairs of gloves to send home to his wife. 

To be sure, Congress was busy on July 4, 1776. Members passed a few resolutions, many of them about procuring, inspecting and manufacturing flints. In fact, the business of flints for muskets was a high priority that day. Another resolution authorized the presiding officer to hire an additional secretary. Congress appointed a couple of commissioners to meet with Indians in Pittsburgh, and it appropriated money to buy some gunpowder from a man in North Carolina. Of course, in addition to the workaday matters of flints, staffing, and Indian relations, Congress started the day by approving a revised draft of the Declaration of Independence. But the published journal, which was compiled and readied for a printer long after July 4, 1776, provides the text of the document and all its signers. In that, the journal gives the wrong impression about what happened.

What did happen? After the adoption of the document on July 4, 1776, two men — and two men only — signed the plain piece of paper containing the words that had been edited by Congress over the previous three days. They were John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, and congressional secretary Charles Thomson. Congress then sent the Declaration of Independence to a printer for the dispatch of copies to legislative assemblies, commanders of the army in the field, committees of correspondence, and far-flung communities. These were read to the public as definitive regarding not only America’s break from the British Empire but also the reasons for it. Then on July 19, Congress ordered the document engrossed, which is to say, Congress arranged for its final form. An artful scribe did this on heavy parchment, and the result is the document that resides under thick glass and vigilant guards in the National Archives to this day, ready in an instant to be whisked to a subterranean vault impervious to nuclear bombs and little Johnny’s ice-cream cone.  It was this parchment that was formally signed by all members of Congress on August 2, which is likely when its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, signed it. Even then, the official list of signers wasn’t made public until the following January.

The conflation of several events — those of July 4 and 19, and August 2 — to create the perception that all of them took place on the Fourth of July is understandable. It’s simpler than the more elaborate chronology that marked the halting pace to independence. But combining events that spanned from mid-May through late summer diminishes the profound courage of those Americans who took this momentous and perilous step. The most surprising aspect of declaring independence was that it didn't reflect an impulsive fit of pique. Rather, it was considered, postponed, debated, considered some more, and ultimately adopted by calm men casting votes with the full awareness that whatever happened, they were courting chaos. In fact, the road ahead looked by degrees to be only heading from bad to worse. The bad end was diplomatic isolation, economic turmoil, and commercial ruin.  The worse was defeat, arrest, and trial. Prisons awaited the lucky, gallows the rest.

Everyone had plenty of time to think about that, beginning in May when the Virginia delegation in the Continental Congress proposed “that the United colonies be declared free and independent states.” The subject had been on tongues in Philadelphia for months, but it was dangerous enough to be whispered rather than debated. “Independency,” as they called it that spring and summer, was defiance of the king in such measure as to rank as treason. The prospect of committing treason frightened those it didn’t enrage. When they heard Virginia's proposal, members of Congress promptly tabled it, and not until the first week of June did they finally come to terms with the enormity of the idea. It was because of Virginia again, specifically Richard Henry Lee's formal motion for independence on June 7. This time it was promptly seconded.  

On June 10, Congress established three committees: one to sketch out an idea to form a united government, and a second to propose ways to open relations with foreign governments. The third committee was the hinge on which the other two would swing. It was to draft a formal declaration announcing American independence, a document to be adopted if Congress decided, in the end, to vote for independency. Congress named five men to this committee on June 11. It was hardly an honor. Congress had done the king a favor by providing a short list of traitors. 

Not one of those five men flinched.

But they also didn’t talk much about what they were doing, which is why we know so little about the 17 days following their appointment, a span ending with their submitting to Congress the draft of the Declaration of Independence on June 28. We are fairly sure that they first gathered on June 11 at a house out on the Bristol Pike because it was there that the committee’s senior member was a temporary shut-in suffering from gout. 

That was Benjamin Franklin, 70 years old, and the most famous living American. Franklin’s inquisitive mind had made him a jack of all trades, but contrary to the old saying, he was a master of all of them. Journalist, publisher, printer, civic leader, educator, inventor, scientist, and philosopher, Franklin was a practical man rather than a starry-eyed dreamer. He had been an observant colonial agent in London during Parliament’s troubles with the American colonies, and from that experience, he understood the mind of Britain’s governing class better than anyone in the world, better even than members of Britain’s governing class. It was that understanding that caused a cautious and contemplative man, one given to introspection rather than insurrection, to become a revolutionary. 

Around this sage the other four gathered to hash out how to tackle their task. John Adams at 40 was an unlikely revolutionary as well, a lawyer by trade, a tireless reader and writer, and from a staid New England tradition that valued order above everything else, almost. For some time, he and his cousin Sam had concluded that there was no living with London calling colonial shots. John spent much of his time in the Continental Congress insisting that Americans stand on their hind legs and stop swallowing the king’s medicine as if they were errant children. Everyone knew John Adams was hard to get along with, but he could not be ignored, so he too was at the house on the Bristol Pike that day. 

As was Robert R. Livingston, at 29 the youngest member of the group. Livingston’s place on the drafting committee was a tribute to his influential family, which was abundantly wealthy, and to his talent for dispute that made him formidable in debate. Considering his wealth and position, Livingston had more to lose than almost anyone else in this project. He and his young bride had built an elegant house in New York that merited the grand name “Belvedere,” and his bright future was assured within the protective colonial cocoon of George III’s imperium. But he eagerly joined his fellow Americans to break away from that comfortable security, and did so upon pain of death in the extremity and certainly at the risk of losing his fortune. Livingston would elude death, but the British burned Belvedere to the ground the year after he signed the Declaration of Independence. 

The fourth man was Roger Sherman from Connecticut who at 55 was junior only to Franklin. Sherman’s career was probably the most varied of anyone in Congress. He had started life as a cobbler but became a mathematician because of his natural talent for numbers. And then he became a surveyor because of his passion for order, and a lawyer because the licensing authority in Connecticut judged him a bright and capable autodidact. No matter how far he wandered from the shoemaker’s bench, though, he kept the look of a man who worked with his hands and was proud of it. He also kept the manner of a man accustomed to approaching tasks as piece-work and finishing them accordingly. The fifth man on the committee was to remark that Roger Sherman “never said a foolish thing in his life.”

That fifth man was Thomas Jefferson, young at 33 but already with a reputation for writing soaring prose. It was also important that he was from Virginia, which meant that he was on the committee for much the same reason that his fellow Virginian George Washington had been appointed to command the Continental Army. Virginia’s participation removed the appearance that resistance to Britain was a regional tempest stirred up by New England hotheads, like John Adams. Jefferson gave the committee geographical balance. It was a picture of diversity with two from New England, one from Pennsylvania, one from Virginia, and one from New York. 

At this meeting the committee apparently assigned Thomas Jefferson to prepare a draft, and we know that only because he did so. But we know almost nothing about what happened in the 17 days that followed, and what we do know is more artifactual than substantive. For example, we know where Jefferson was living. He had returned to Philadelphia from Virginia in May of 1776 and had moved from the house of a cabinetmaker named Benjamin Randolph to a brick residence owned by a brick mason named Jacob Graff. Jefferson’s quarters on the second floor of the 3-story house consisted of a bedroom and a sitting room separated by the staircase. He brought with him a new “writing box” that his former landlord Randolph had fashioned from Jefferson’s drawing. It was a functional and appealing piece “taking no more room on the writing table than a moderate quarto volume.”

In that sitting room on his new writing box, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He didn’t think the occasion required originality and innovation. Rather he wanted to explain why Americans were angry and “give to that expression the proper tone and spirit.” He seems to have submitted his draft to Adams and Franklin for review. Adams made a copy, and a vague reference later suggested that Franklin was responsible for changing Jefferson’s phrase “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” It seems, though, that Jefferson’s draft was mostly intact when the committee presented it to Congress on June 28.


John Trumbull's patriotic tableau “The Declaration of Independence” depicts the five-man committee presenting the document to John Hancock. Charles Thomson stands beside him. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are in front, and John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston are behind them. 


Congress did not read it right away because it had not completed the debate on “independency” itself, and any document declaring it was not yet relevant. For days Congress debated. Finally, it adopted the Lee resolution for independence on July 2, which makes the Second of July the actual date of the decision. Having committed itself to the idea, Congress that very day then began editing Jefferson’s draft explaining it.

It is a rule that revisions by a committee — which is what Congress became in this process —  never improve an author’s language or meaning, but it was perhaps a sign of a Providential hand that the first four days of July in 1776 proved a magnificent exception. Only New York was silent during this process because it wouldn't have instructions to agree to independence until July 15, but delegates from the other 12 “states” had plenty to say about Mr. Jefferson’s work of 17 days, and much of it was sensible if painstaking. Hour upon hour they parsed punctuation and mulled over meanings word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.

The process tortured Jefferson who sat silent and squirming, occasionally wincing over the deletion of this word or tossing his head forward and chin down at the change of another. Franklin sat next to him, complacently watching, and finally put his hand on Jefferson’s arm to say, “Be still, Tom.” He tried to distract the young Virginian with a story about a hat maker in London whose elaborate and artistic sign at the entrance of his shop so confused potential customers that he improved it with a series of changes. The final sign only had his name on it, and a picture of a hat. If Jefferson chuckled, it was rueful. 

There is another story, this one featuring Franklin. John Hancock darkly reminded everyone that they must all hang together in the pursuit of independence. Benjamin Franklin twinkled in response: “Yes, we must all hang together, or we will surely hang separately.” Perhaps the exchange happened in some way like that. If so, rueful chuckles likely came again, something of a theme for men putting their names on a death warrant.

On August 2 when the delegates were queued up to sign the engrossed parchment, the solemnity of this deed made for a deathly silence, and the scratching quill sounded like thunder. Virginian Benjamin Harrison tried to lighten the mood. Harrison, a big and heavy man, turned to the spare Elbridge Gerry and said, “The noose on a man of my heft will snap my neck like a twig, but a skin-and-bones like you will twist for hours.” The now familiar sound of rueful chuckles only briefly broke the silence. 

Franklin, Adams, Sherman, and Livingston had known that the soft-voiced, freckled redhead from Virginia had it in him, and 17 magical days later, he delivered the goods. There were the truths plainly stated that God, not governments, gave life and liberty and the right to pursue happiness and that anyone who believed differently didn’t deserve to govern. Congress had not changed that, and in the end,  Congress did not alter Jefferson’s closing flourish: “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” 

From the quiet philosopher came fighting words for men with lion hearts. Over the course of 17 days, the quill in Jefferson’s hand had struck like lightning. Later that summer, after everyone had thought a great deal about it, each man took his place in line.

To despots sitting uneasily on thrones, the quill in Congress sounded like thunder.


© David S. Heidler 2017