Do your children know these 10 things about . . . . . .

The Declaration of Independence

Although your children should know that the 4th of July celebrates our country’s declaration of independence from England, do your children know the specifics of how the Declaration of Independence came into existence? Here are 10 fun facts (with support details for those who are interested).

  1. July 4, 1776 is the date that the Second Continental Congress voted and unanimously (with 1 abstention until New York authorized a “yea” vote on July 15th) approved the wording for the Declaration of Independence. It was signed officially on August 2nd; however not everyone signed it on that date. The last signer was Matthew Thornton, who signed it on November 4, 1776

  2. The Declaration of Independence was proposed, written and then signed AFTER the first battles of our War for Independence at Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775. The First Continental Congress met starting in September of 1774 to discuss the taxation that had been imposed on the American Colonies by the British Parliament. The taxes were levied to help pay the costs that were incurred during the French and Indian War (which ran from 1754 to 1763). It is also known as the Seven Years War in Europe. Britain incurred debts to pay for the war and for the decision to station a large number of troops in the colonies. The Parliament felt that the colonists, who had benefited from the British victory as well as the security of the British troops stationed in America, should help pay for the cost of the war. Special taxes (The American Revenue Act of 1764 and The British Stamp Act of 1765 which was the first direct, internal tax that Britain had ever imposed on the American Colonies.) were levied. These were objected to by several colonial legislatures but independence was not initially envisioned. After colonial appeals against these taxes, economic refusal to buy British goods (non-imported) and much discussion in the British Parliament, the taxes were rescinded in March of 1766 not because they were unjust but because the Parliament felt that they could not be effectively enforced and the appeals of British merchants. Parliament continued to tax the American Colonies (The Townshend Act of 1766 (repealed in 1770), the British East Indian Company legislation of May 1773 which controlled how tea was imported into the Colonies and led to the Boston Tea Party, and finally the Coercive Acts of March and June 1774 enacted as punishment for the Tea Party). These taxations helped the “American Radicals” push for and eventually receive support throughout the colonies for Independence from Britain.

  3. Originally proposed on June 7th, 1776, there were 4 days of arguments about the merits and risks for Independence before the Second Continental Congress agreed to draft a document to formalize the American Thought on the topic. John Adams of the Massachusetts Colony was among several who tried to coerce/encourage his fellow members of the 2nd Continental Congress to declare independence. However, it was a difficult decision for many as they felt great loyalty to Britain, their parent country, and were afraid of the risk of losing everything if they became “rebels”. Additionally, John Adams’ personality rubbed other members of the Continental Congress the wrong way and they chose to fight against the pressure of John Adams as well as their internal battle over loyalty. It was only with the proposal of Richard Henry Lee (of Virginia) on June 7th (subsequently passed on June 11th) did the Congress agree to the composition of a resolution for review and voting.

  4. It took Thomas Jefferson (of Virginia) 16 days to write the declaration from June 12 – June 28th, 1776. He was part of a five person committee assigned by the Second Continental Congress on June 11, 1776 to draft the wording. The other members of the committee were: John Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Roger Sherman (Connecticut), and Robert Livingston (New York). Jefferson was the principal writer. Even though he was a quiet man, more prone to silence than conversation, he had a way with words. He was a lawyer in his home colony and had served in Virginia’s colonial legislature from 1769 – 1774, when he was sent to join the 1st Continental Congress. Jefferson drafted “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” in 1774 in response to the Coercive Acts enacted by the British Parliament while he was participating in the First Continental Congress.

  5. There were 56 members of the Continental Congress from each of the 13 colonies who signed “The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America” as the document was titled by the Second Continental Congress. The most prominent signature was that of John Hancock, who was the president of the Congress. The story, entirely unfounded, is that on signing the Declaration, Hancock commented, "The British ministry can read that name without spectacles; let them double their reward." An alternate story, also unfounded has him saying, "There, I guess King George will be able to read that!" He was the first to sign and he did so in an entirely blank space. The signatures were not made public until January of 1777.

  6. George Washington was not a member of the Second Continental Congress. While the Second Continental Congress was occurring, George Washington was the Commander of the Continental Army. He frequently wrote letter to Congress updating them on his situation and asking for support. The Continental Army was frequently in need of supplies, food, clothing, and pay for the soldiers. At one point, he declined payment for his efforts. On July 16th, 1775 (during the First Continental Congress) he wrote “As to pay, sir, I beg to assure the Congress that, as no pecuniary consideration could have tempted me to accept this arduous employment, at the expense of my domestic ease and happiness, I do not wish to make any profit from it. I will keep an exact account of my expenses. These, I doubt not, they will discharge; and that is all I desire.

  7. Jefferson’s ideas for the Declaration of Independence were developed by his knowledge of various philosophies developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. He was a well-read individual highly educated and gifted individual, who loved books and studying. Jefferson once said, "I cannot live without books." He used ideas from fellow Virginian George Mason, and studied many of the “enlightened” European philosophers including John Locke (a seventeenth century English Philosopher), Charles de Montesquieu (a contemporary French Political Philosopher), Francis Bacon (English philosopher and essayist), Sir Isaac Newton (English mathematician and natural philosopher), and two French Philosophers (Voltaire and Rousseau) to name just a few.

  8. Each colony had one vote regardless of the number of delegates to the Continental Congress. However, there was one delegate from Pennsylvania, John Dickenson who did not sign the Declaration of Independence. He was proud of the unwritten British Constitution and believed in reconciliation, not independence or revolution. He felt that the argument was with Parliament and not with the King. He absented himself from the discussion on wording as well as the final vote on July 4th. As a proposal had been agreed upon ("for our mutual security and protection," no man could remain in Congress without signing), Dickinson voluntarily left before the signing. He later joined the Pennsylvania militia and fought in the war when it became apparent that the Revolution was inevitable. Because of his unpopular decision, he was passed over for advancement in the military and resigned his commission in December of 1776.

  9. The debates during the Second Continental Congress were contentious as everyone felt strongly about their position. A unanimous decision was necessary and the different colonial delegations each tried to convince the other to change their opinions. One of the most famous of the delegates, Benjamin Franklin, appeared to sleep quite a bit during the proceedings. He always sat in the same location. Due to the acoustics in what is now called the Pennsylvania Statehouse (in Philadelphia) or Independence Hall, Ben Franklin could overhear the whispered discussions of other delegations as he planned his strategy.

  10. The Delegates knew that they were risking everything to in their quest for independence. A famous and humorous quote from a letter written by Benjamin Rush to John Adams tells of Col. Benjamin Harrison of Virginia speaking with Mr. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Mr. Gerry stated “I shall have the advantage over you, when we are all hung for what we are doing. 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.”

Sources for further research
A true Book – The Declaration of Independence by Patricia Ryon Quiri (early elementary school)
The Declaration of Independence by Dennis Brindell Fradin (late elementary school)
The Declaration of Independence, A Model for Individual Rights by Don Nardo (Middle School level
Debating the issues in Colonial Newspapers, Primary Documents on events of the period by David A. Copeland (High School or above)

1776 (a musical) by Columbia Pictures in 1972 (rated PG - late middle school and higher. There are mild language concerns for younger students. It is generally historically accurate within the Hollywood story conventions and is an approach to interest auditory learners.)