This is an excerpt from "Our Lost Declaration: America's Fight Against Tyranny from King George to the Deep State" by Mike Lee, in agreement with Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Mike Lee, 2019. Published with permission.
STATE HOUSE, PHILADELPHIA
July 4, 1776
Once his fellow delegates had finished editing the Declaration, Jefferson’s fellow Virginian Benjamin Harrison made the report that the document had been shaped into its final form. It was read aloud one more time, voted on, and officially adopted by the Continental Congress.
But what good was a Declaration if its message wasn’t declared far and wide? As soon as the Declaration was officially adopted, the very next order of business for the Congress was to begin the process of disseminating it. Accordingly, they ordered “that the declaration be authenticated and printed” by one of the many printers to be found in Philadelphia. After that it was to “be sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops; that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army.”
Note that as soon as the Declaration had been adopted, in its very next measure, the official records of the Congress were referring to “the United States.” The colonies were no more. In addition, it was critical that the soldiers in the field fighting the King’s soldiers were able to hear the Declaration too. Now they could hear an exquisite articulation of just what they were fighting for. And that fight was preparing to ramp up. On the very same day that Congress voted to adopt the Declaration, a fresh force of British troops under General William Howe completed landing operations on Staten Island in New York.
STATE HOUSE COURTYARD, PHILADELPHIA
July 8, 1776
They came from all over Philadelphia, called out of homes and shops by the bells that rang out from church steeples. It was, in the words of one account, a “warm sunshine morning” on Monday the eighth of July, as citizens gathered to hear the momentous news that had been spreading for the past few days.
The printer John Dunlop had worked through the night of the fourth to print the first official copies of the Declaration of Independence, and by Saturday the sixth it appeared on the front page of the Pennsylvania Evening Post. So the words of the Declaration had been circulating, but they had not yet received their first official public reading. This was to take place at noon on the eighth, and it was for this singular event that the bells pealed and the crowds gathered.
The man chosen for this solemn duty was not a member of the Continental Congress, but he was no less a patriot. John Nixon was a native Philadelphian and a colonel in the militia, currently in charge of the city’s defense. As such, it had been the task of Nixon and his militiamen to keep the Continental Congress safe were the King’s forces to attack. Now it was Nixon’s privilege to read aloud the fruits of Congress’s labor for the first time.
He stood in front of the crowd assembled in the State House courtyard, held up the parchment just a few days off the press, and began to read. His voice was loud and clear enough to be heard the next block over, and the people responded with “repeated huzzas.” Some historians report that there were three cheers of “God bless the free states of North America!” (That has a nice ring to it, but it’s probably best we stuck with “United States of America.”)
Even after Colonel Nixon’s reading, Philadelphia’s bells continued to ring into the night. And before the celebrations were over, according to one newspaper, “our late King’s coat of arms was brought from the Hall, in the State House . . . and burned amidst the acclamations of a crowd of spectators.” The official symbol of King George III’s rule over the former colonies was literally and figuratively consigned to the ashes.
STATE HOUSE, PHILADELPHIA
August 2, 1776
The celebrations had been over for some weeks, and an ominous silence now hung in chamber of the State House on the morning of August 2 as, one by one, the delegates of the Continental Congress filed up to formally sign their names to the Declaration of Independence. Among them was Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, who remembered even decades later “the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants.”
The president of Congress was John Hancock, who had felt the King’s injustice firsthand and is supposed to have signed his name extra large in order that George III might see it more clearly. This is likely, however, an entertaining fiction-- Hancock probably signed in large letters simply because he signed first, as president.
There is another anecdote from that day for which we do have some documentation. Amid the “silence and gloom” that Rush remembered, Benjamin Harrison, known for his corpulent physique, made a clever remark to his more wizened colleague Elbridge Gerry. “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing,” observed Harrison. “From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
There was a “transient smile” at this jibe, but soon the gravity of the moment returned. The Declaration was known to the world now, including the British. There was no turning back. And as they affixed their names to the document, these men knew that it was as good as crafting a most- wanted list for the Crown. Yet they went through with it. Why endure such risk? Because, simply put, they had had enough. His Majesty’s Government had pushed them this far.