Inventing America

I just finished reading Inventing America a great history of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I failed in my first attempt to read this text, but I succeeded when I started over. It is so rich in information it can’t be rushed and reads much easier the second time.

As all kinds of patriotic meanings were attached to the Fourth, the signers themselves began, very early, to talk about having signed the Declaration on the Fourth. John Adams made this claim only five years after 1776, Jefferson seven years later, and Franklin ten (Warren, WMQ 1945, 242-43). By 1814, Adams had even forgotten that the vote on independence took place on July 2 (Letter to Mercy Warren, January 7).

These men could not, at first, have made this claim after much reflection on the matter. The document itself, read carefully, reveals that they were forgetting. The inscribed Declaration begins, “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States…” But it was known to all those who took part in the events that the thirteen states were not unanimous on the Fourth. New York’s delegates were still waiting for instruction and could not vote. Their approval of the document did not reach the Congress till July 19th, when at last the boast of unanimity became fact. An engrosser was commissioned to pen a formal copy of the document under its proud title. This fair copy was not ready for signing until August 2, when the delegates began to put their names to it. But by that time, not all those who had voted on the Fourth were still present. (There was intense travel back and advising back and forth between Philadelphia and the efforts, at home, to draft provincial constitutions-a matter more serious to many delegates than anything the Congress was currently doing.) Some of these absentees returned, after August 2, and put their names to the parchment. But others who actually voted for the document’s passage on the Fourth would never come back and be known as Signers. And some new arrivals would sign without having voted on the wording. Not only were the Signers not all present together on the Fourth. They were never together in the same room at any time-on, before, or after the Fourth.

Actually, this matters less than one might think, from the later cult of individual Signers. No individuals voted on the last ballot for the Declaration. Only the new-formed states did, one vote one state. No matter how many men were in a delegation, no matter how slim the majority within any delegation, each group voted as a block, since the larger states had lost their effort at “weighted” voting led by Patrick Henry in the first Congress. Thus, when the signing began on August 2, the delegations were widely spaced about on the bottom of the parchment document, so that delegates arriving could put their names in the area allotted to their state. It was a memorial action by that time. The notion that putting one’s name to the Declaration was an act of individual courage is a bit of genial mythologizing in the general air of inflation that was to occur all around this document. The men who signed-and even the men who voted and did not sign-were all known revolutionaries. Their very presence in the Congress after August 2 made that clear.

I don’t recall history books telling this story. Did you know this from your schooling?