Some people go to a church. Some people go to Yosemite. I go to Independence Hall. This is my church. This is where I find comfort and solace from the crazy world around me. While I certainly have no illusions that our country is godlike or even close to perfect, and while I completely embrace the faults and flaws of our founders and their process, I still believe that what we have is uniquely wonderful.
It’s easy to imagine that one day long ago 13 little colonies just decided to write a document, call it “A Declaration of Independence,” tell the King to piss off and start their own nation. It didn’t happen that way at all. It was many years in the making.
In order to grasp what this whole thing was about we need to go back to The French & Indian War (aka: The Seven Years War) from 1754 – 1763. This was a war fought on many fronts and it involved Austria, England, France, Great Britain, Prussia and Sweden. It played out in Europe, India and North America.
The French and the British were fighting for control of many pieces of the pie, North America being a significant part of it. While the British came out of the war being able to claim North America, this claim came at a staggering cost. The debt incurred during this conflict sent nearly all of Britain to the poorhouse. In order to replenish its purse, the British Parliament started scheming for ways to raise money. This came primarily in the form of taxes and duties. While these new laws affected the entire British Empire, it was especially troublesome for the colonies.
Between 1764 and 1776, Britain passed a series of laws that inflicted various fiscal changes. I am not an economist, nor a tax specialist, but I believe that the whole thing can be summed up this way: The King needed money and he plotted to find different ways of getting it. The colonists were not particularly pleased by these methods, as they had no voice in Parliament. This is what is commonly known as “Taxation without representation.” The English Bill of Rights forbade this and the colonists believed that they were on firm ground by disputing these additional taxes and duties. The King thought otherwise. Thus, our colonies and the King of England were at an impasse.
In September of 1774, the first Continental Congress met at Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia. Twelve of the 13 colonies sent delegates (Georgia being the holdout.) These delegates were elected by the people, legislature, or committees from each of the colonies. Keep in mind that up to this time each of the colonies acted independently. For them to send delegates to one place (a place where these delegates would act as a single body) was not easy. Much like our Congress today, not everyone agreed on the best course of action. While they all did agree there was a problem, they did not agree on the solution. (Somehow it’s refreshing to know that it wasn’t any easier back at the beginning.) While some of the men wanted to find a solution to maintain ties with England, others were already whispering (okay, screaming) about independence. At the end of the day, they found some ways to compromise, send their grievances off to the King, and keep their lines of communication open. They agreed to meet again the following year.
Within that same year, Patrick Henry decried “Give me liberty or give me death”, Paul Revere had his midnight ride, and all experienced “the shot heard ‘round the world.” The war had begun. In May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. As time moved forward, it became more and more clear that they were no longer a group of men appointed to monitor grievances, but they were becoming a governing body. By this time they had appointed George Washington to become Supreme Commander over the Continental Army and they were starting to print their own currency. Still, not everyone was seeking independence from Britain. But the more Congress appealed to the King, the more intolerant he became. He wanted all of their heads on a platter. The count: treason.
This brings us to the summer of 1776. Even though some of the colonies were still not 100% committed to the idea of independence, a committee was formed to start writing the document (probably in the hope that a few happy hours might help to change some minds). On July 1st, the document was brought into the chamber and tabled. Literally. Congress ordered the document to be put on the table. Between July 1st and 4th, 1776, the elected members of Congress sat in a very hot room, windows closed to any looky-loos, and there they began the debates. The speeches were long, arduous, tempestuous and probably more exciting than an HBO boxing match! And in the end the delegates voted for independence. Twelve yeas and one abstention. That was on July 2nd. Then for two more days they had further debates on the language of the document. On July the 4th, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was unanimously approved and sent off to the printer.
Legend has it that while he was signing the document Benjamin Franklin stated, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” These were people who could have been hanged for doing what they simply thought was right and just. They weren’t just a bunch of hotheads wanting to stir the pot. There were legitimate reasons for their distrust of the King. While the events leading up to this point had much to do with taxation without representation, the grievances placed before the King expanded far beyond that. You can read them all in the document. And while they tried in vain to find a solution that was mutually beneficial, they instead found the courage of their convictions to find a solution that, at the end of the day, was even better.
*The actual signing of the document did not happen until August of that year.