Something important happened July 4Published 5:59pm Friday, July 6, 2012
For many years there was a very interesting suggestion that on July 4, 1776, King George III wrote in his diary, “nothing important happened today.” As the king did not keep a diary, I think that very interesting suggestion has been put to rest as false, but whether he wrote it or not, no one can say that July 4, 1776, was an insignificant day for America.
July 4 is the day that the most important document in our history, the Declaration of Independence, was adopted by that Continental Congress. That great document had been written in the weeks prior to that date by the Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.
An account of all that Jefferson accomplished would take many books and they have been written. But for the purpose of July 4, nothing ranks higher on his list of achievements that his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. He wasn’t alone; he was part of a committee, but committees back then got a lot more accomplished than committees these days.
The committee to write the Declaration was assigned by the Continental Congress of 1776 and consisted of five men, three of which will be familiar and another two who were not quite the household names. John Adams was on the committee and so was Benjamin Franklin. Robert R. Livingston was the youngest member at 29 and Jefferson was just a few years older at 31. Roger Sherman was the fifth member.
Just a cursory glance at the committee would lead one to think that Benjamin Franklin would have been asked to take the bull by the horns. After all, he was one of the most famous of the American founders. He and Jefferson were known as polymaths. That is an interesting word. I had never heard of polymaths and thought maybe they were good at arithmetic.
A polymath is one who is good at lots of things. Franklin was a well-known scientist and inventor. He had invented bifocals, the Franklin stove, an odometer for carriages, and lots of other things. He was an author and statesman, a diplomat, and helped create such diverse organizations as the public library and the public fire department. As I said, he was a polymath. Surely he could write the Declaration of Independence in his sleep.
So could John Adams, who was well known as a lawyer and political theoretician in the important state of Massachusetts. He had been at the center of this push for freedom for these colonies for many decades, much longer than the young Jefferson. But, it was John Adams who saw something in Thomas Jefferson that led him to say, “he’s the man.”
Jefferson had impressed Adams when he had joined the Continental Congress in 1775, the year that the “shot heard round the world” had been fired and the hostilities between mother England and child America had begun. Adams thought Jefferson was a quiet man at the Congress, but when he did speak or write, everyone seemed to pay very close attention.
“He was prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation,” Adams told a friend. “He soon seized upon my heart.”
Still, Jefferson wanted to defer to Adams. Perhaps it was Adams’ reputation and seniority, but Adams gave him three reasons why he should be the one to take upon himself the major portion of the writing of our Declaration of Independence.
First of all, Jefferson was a Virginian and Adams had been advised that the largest and wealthiest of the colonies should take the lead. Secondly, John Adams was honest about himself. He told Jefferson, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are not.” Those founders seemed to be a little more honest than politicians today.
The greatest reason Adams favored Jefferson was the most appropriate and, once again, highlighted Adams’ humility. “You can write 10 times better than I can.” Seems Adams knew what he was talking about.
Jefferson undertook the task on June 11, 1776, and it took him 17 days to write those beautiful and radical words. According to Adams in a letter to another founder, Timothy Pickering, not much was changed. The committee submitted the document to the Continental Congress and it was accepted after discarding about one-fourth of it. That was July 4, 1776.
We’ve been grilling hamburgers and hotdogs ever since. May God bless America again!