“With parade, parties and prayerful thanks”

July 1, 2014

Tuesday is a special day that will be celebrated around the nation with parades, outdoor concerts, fireworks (where not prohibited and where safe!), and general fun. Honored as the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it is one of the few holidays honoring our nation that has not lost its significance. Few people remember the day that the Constitution was finally ratified, or the days that our various wars ended. Fewer people attend Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day services each year. Perhaps because these days do not have the party atmosphere, their popularity is declining.
Philadelphia in July of 1776 did not have what we would consider to be a party atmosphere. Writings of the time indicate that the weather was hot and humid, insects terrible and disease rampant. There had already been skirmishes between colonists and the Crown, and many of the men gathered to debate the cause of independence were on the “most wanted” list circulated by the King. This was not the first time that the delegates had gathered. A similar collection of farmers, artisans, soldiers, teachers, preachers, lawyers and doctors had gathered to debate the continent’s future before. Many firmly believed that the path proposed by “those radical New Englanders” would lead to subjugation, and a worse life than any could contemplate. Their concerns resulted in trips to London to argue with the King and Parliament, as well as other efforts at reconciliation.
The mood of the world in the late 1700s was different from any that had preceded it. Monarchies were still the most common form of government, but the “divine right of kings” was in serious trouble. The governed were no longer willing to simply accept a decree because it suited the purpose of the monarch. Literacy among the middle and lower classes was becoming more common, leading to a dangerous concept – thought! Even as they were reading the Bible, they were studying tracts by radical thinkers, such as Thomas Paine. While the modern world had never seen a working example of it, the idea of democracy, a people governing themselves, was capturing the minds of the governed.
It is not surprising that the northeastern colonies were more in the grip of these new ideas than the more traditional south. Education was important in both regions, but a higher population density encouraged study, exchange of ideas, and free thought. As a result, the delegates from these colonies were more likely to speak and argue in favor of secession from Britain. While the people in the streets of Philadelphia came to a near riot pitch encouraging independence and the subsequent war, there were not enough votes to pass the Declaration in the first meetings.
The men who signed the Declaration of Independence served as delegates from their colonies to the convention. They spent long hours in a building about as well ventilated as most barns, without benefit of electric fans or air conditioning. The general feeling among them was that the public should not be included in the debate, so all doors and windows were kept closed to avoid eavesdroppers. Most sessions ended in the early afternoon due to the heat. The men stayed at local boarding houses, the lucky ones being paid a stipend by their colony, the others paying for their own needs. Since there was not easy transportation home for the majority, they had to pay for laundry, as well as room and board for themselves and their horses. Mail was slow, making communication with wife and family challenging. There was no pay for serving, and in most cases, no one at home to till the field or keep the business running, causing a second financial drain.
Diaries and letters of those involved indicate that the debate was bitter, up until the final ratification of the Declaration. Some delegates departed for England as soon as it was signed, fully believing that the death warrant of the American colonies was now in place. Others lost life long friends over the issues. None of those involved profited from their experience, at least, not until their later years when they could look back over a job well done.
We should respect the fortitude of these men, if not their foresight. The physical discomfort that they accepted was such as few of us would accept with a paid position. Few, if any, would accept it in the interest of a responsibility that, at best, paid satisfaction and a small stipend. Add to the physical discomfort the lack of communication with friends and family, and the knowledge that the immediate result of the decision would be war, probably with ruin for those we love, and there are even fewer who would be willing to help draft and pass such a document.
The signors of the Declaration would, I believe, be thrilled to see the size and strength of their “experiment” at this time. While there are aspects to our society and laws that would concern them, I think we can rest content in their acceptance. Many were of the opinion that the 4thof July would forever be celebrated with parades, parties, patriotic salutes and prayerful thanks to the Almighty. With remembrance in our hearts, let’s not disappoint them!

Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to editor@sweetwaterreporter.com.

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