Before we can examine if there are myths surrounding the Declaration of Independence we need to examine under what circumstances Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration (After the Fact pg. 75). By the spring of 1776, the patience of many congressmen had been sorely tried by bitter wrangling over the question of whether or not to declare independence. Many of the legislators thought it nonsensical to fight a war for any purpose other than independence, yet others disagreed. They held out hope for a resolution with England. For month after bloody month Congress had sat on its hands unable to offer a resolution, this angered many including John and Sam Adams of Massachusetts (After the Fact pg. 77). They felt that America was fighting a war it could not win unless it declared independence from Britain.
Opposition to Parliament had been growing since it enacted the first American tax, the Stamp Act of 1765. At the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in September 1774, some delegates wanted to force repeal of Parliament’s repressive measures through a trade embargo. A more conservative faction had pushed for a compromise to provide American representation in Parliament. In the end, Congress adopted the trade boycott, and war had come (US a Narrative History pg. 114-115).
The greatest reluctance to engage in Independence came from the middle colonies (After the Fact pg. 76). New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware and in South Carolina, all had long since been drawn into the economic web of the Atlantic world. Before the war, the products of the backcountry—furs, hides and lumber—as well as grain, had moved through New York and Philadelphia to markets in the Caribbean and England. Charleston exported indigo and rice. In return, English-manufactured goods entered the colonies through these ports. Business had flourished during most of the 18th century; in recent years Philadelphia’s merchants had routinely enjoyed annual profits of more than 10 percent (American History pg. 218-219).
The great merchants in Philadelphia and New York, who constituted a powerful political force, had other compelling reasons for remaining within the empire. Many relied upon credit supplied by English bankers. The protection afforded to transatlantic trade by the Royal Navy minimized insurance and other overhead costs. Independence, Philadelphia merchant Thomas Clifford asserted in 1775, would “assuredly prove unprofitable.” The “advantages of security and stability,” said another, “lie with . . . remaining in the empire.” But Adams was confident that those who favored reconciliation would be driven inexorably toward independence. In time, he believed, they would discover that London would never give in to America’s demands. Furthermore, he expected that war would transform the colonists’ deep-seated love for Britain into enmity, necessitating a final break (American History pg. 220).
On June 11, Congress created a five-member committee to prepare a statement on independence. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston of New York were given until July 1 to complete their work (After the Fact pg. 77). Once again it was to Jefferson that a panel turned, this time for the fateful task of drafting the declaration (After the Fact pg. 79).
Jefferson and his colleagues beat the deadline by two days, submitting on June 28 a document that explained and defended independence. By July 1, the final consideration of Lee’s motion to declare independence was taken up. That day’s session, John Adams told a friend in a letter written early that morning would see “the greatest Debate of all” (American History pg.222).
When debate began midmorning on that Monday, Dickinson was first on his feet to make one last speech against independence. Speaking for two hours in the stifling heat of the closed room (windows were kept shut to keep spies from listening in), Dickinson reviewed the familiar arguments: America could not win the war; at best, it could fight Britain to a stalemate, and deadlocked wars often ended in partition treaties in which territory is divided among the belligerents; therefore, after all the killing, some colonies would remain part of the British Empire, while others would pass under the control of France or Spain (American History pg.223).
It was John Adams—soon to be christened “the Atlas of Independence” by New Jersey’s Richard Stockton—who rose to answer Dickinson. Striving to conceal his contempt for his adversary, Adams spoke extemporaneously in subdued tones. Once again, he reviewed the benefits of independence. Although his speech was not transcribed, he surely invoked the ideas he had expressed and the phrases he had used on many another occasion. Breaking ties with Britain, he argued, would ensure freedom from England’s imperial domination; escape from the menace of British corruption; and the opportunity to create a republic based on equality of representation (American History pg.223).
Others then took the floor. The speeches stretched past the customary 4 o’clock adjournment and into the evening. The business was “an idle Mispence of Time,” Adams remarked sourly, as “nothing was said, but what had been repeated and hackneyed in that Room a hundred Times for Six Months past” (American History pg.223). After the Congress reconvened the next morning, July 2, the delegates cast their momentous votes. Twelve states—the colonies would become states with the vote—voted for independence. Not one voted against the break with Britain. New York’s delegation, which had not yet been authorized by the New York legislature to separate from the mother country, did not vote.
Adams predicted that July 2 would ever after “be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other forward forever more”(After the Fact pg. 78). He was wrong, of course, for July 4, the date that Congress approved the formal Declaration of Independence, would become the commemorative day. Although we celebrate July 4 as the official Independence Day it was not until at least August that all of the members signed the document.
So why is it that most Americans think that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence? If it was a committee of five, what did the others contribute? Surely they had to contribute something. I think that it is easier to accept the fact that it was written by Jefferson and that everyone agreed with him. We have to remember that people have not changed all that much. We know what happens today when a group of opinionated people get together. How long have we been debating health care? So if it was a group effort or if Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by himself, it was a remarkable achievement in such a short amount of time.