Declaration of Independence: History, Meaning, Continental Congress, and Facts
Similar to the partial revolution in England, the American Declaration of Independence was based on a model that says that the leader’s sovereignty comes from parliament (the people) and not family lines or birth. Similarly, we could make mention of the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath (1320) and the Dutch Act of Abjuration (1581).
The most profound of these influences would have to be from John Locke. Locke was a renowned English philosopher and a physician. The Continental Congress must have drawn a lot from his works on Liberalism and social contract. Jefferson considered Locke as one of the three greatest minds to ever live (the others were Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton).Francis Bacon’s ideas did not just influence Jefferson only, but the rest of the Congress. In all likelihood, Congress must have picked some of their ideas from the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon.
Furthermore, traces of the Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s ideas can be seen in the Declaration. As a matter of fact, his books The Principles of Natural (1747) and The Principles of Politic Law (1751) were like the gospel truth to the various Congressional delegates back then. Burlamaqui was the first to propose that man’s quest for happiness was a natural right and inalienable from him. This particular notion of finding one’s bliss in life featured extensively in the Preamble of the Declaration.
The bottom line is that these ideas in the Declaration did not come out of the vacuum, they were the compressed result of logical reactions and beliefs of more than three centuries of human evolution. The signers simply synthesized and unified those innovative ideas in a brilliant manner.
The Signers of the Declaration of Independence
The moment Congress voted on it, the Declaration of Independence became official. As a matter of fact, the delegates’ signatures are not what made the declaration official because Congress had already passed the Declaration. The number of delegates that signed was 56. John Hancock, President of the Congress, was the first person to put his signature. Hancock signature was so huge that it occupied about 5 inches of space on the document. For the next century or so, the term John Hancock became synonymous with signature. Some reports claim that Hancock wanted to make his signature so visible that it could easily be read by the King. This was Hancock’s way of saying, the colonies were done and through with the British Empire’s rule.
Also on the document were the signature of several founding fathers such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. All in all, the backgrounds of the signers were not that diverse considering the fact that it was in the 18th century. The races of these signers were entirely Caucasians. There was no representation from the African American community or the Native Americans. There were no women in Congress back then therefore the document had no woman signers. At the age of 26, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was the youngest signer while Benjamin Franklin’s age of 70 made him the oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence document.
Complete list of all 56 Signers of the Declaration
Even though, the Declaration was on July 4, 1776, it is possible that not all 56 signers appended their signatures on that very day. An account from Thomas McKean points to the fact that some members of Congress were not present on July 4, 1776. The account went on to say that some of the 56 signers had not even been elected to Congress as at 4th July 1776. However, on August 2, 1776, those that weren’t present on July 4 signed the parchment paper copy of the Declaration.
Interesting Note: The Syng inkstand that majority of the signers used is the same inkstand that would later be used to sign the United States Constitution in 1787.
The Public’s Reaction to the Independence Declaration
The general public reacted in a very joyful manner to the July 4th Declaration. All across the American colonies (now independent states), the atmosphere was one of utter bliss and relief. In some colonies, the public ripped apart anything that had to do with the British Empire. Statues, landmarks, buildings and signs of the Empire were all brought down.
Congress printed about 200 large paper sized copies for distribution. The printing was done in the vicinity of Congress at John Dunlap’s printing shop in Philadelphia. The copies appeared in all thirteen colonies on notice boards and in newspapers. There were also public readings of the Declaration in those colonies. The first of those readings occurred on July 8 in Philadelphia.
The document was also published in several languages, most notably German. The Colonial Army’s General, George Washington, was given a broadside copy. On July 9 for example, Washington proclaimed the declaration to the army in New York City. The rationale behind the proclamations being made in army camps was to whip up morale in the troops. The proclamation also served as a means to encourage people to join the continental army.