Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Declaration of Independence

Today, July 4th, or Independence Day, Americans celebrate the day a delegation of colonists under the rule of George III and Great Britain declared the United States (thirteen colonies) an independent nation.

During the 1970s, in conjunction with the approaching Bicentennial anniversary of this event, the United States Department of the Interior, National Parks Service published Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. This title is Volume XVIII in the series, The National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings. The series editor was Robert G. Ferris. My copy is a revised edition, dated 1975, but it retains the Foreword written by Richard Nixon from the White House, Washington, D.C.

Part I of this book provides historical background , Part II provides biographical sketches of the signers of the Declaration, and Part III surveys the historic sites and buildings connected to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is this last part that is of particular interest to me because of family history.

In June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson was asked to draft a document to present to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in support of the Resolution for Independence favored by most colonies. Jefferson sought a quiet place where he could work on his assignment. Near the edge of town, at the corner of 7th and Market Streets, he rented a third floor room from Jacob Graff, Jr.

I am a descendant of the Graff family. Jacob Graff, Sr. was my fifth great-grandfather, but my direct line of descent goes through another son, John Graff, brother of Jacob, Jr. So it's actually a great-uncle of mine who built the Declaration House in 1775, and a year later rented the room to Thomas Jefferson for a few weeks so he could draft the Declaration of Independence. The house was destroyed in 1883, but the National Park Service rebuilt it in 1975 from old photographs in time for the Bicentennial.

The rear endpapers of the book depict the Graff House as it may have appeared in 1776 when Jefferson rented a room there. The sketch below is of the proposed reconstruction to be completed in 1975. Below that image is a photo of the finished house.

The Declaration was submitted to Congress on June 28th, where it was debated and edited (minor edits by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin). But Congress created a final draft with some pretty significant omissions, including Jefferson's passage condemning the slave trade.

Some interesting facts from the book:

  • On July 4th, all colonies except New York voted to adopt the Declaration.

  • The document was first read to the public on July 8th outside the Pennsylvania State House.

  • New York approved the Declaration on July 15th. Four days later Congress ordered the document prepared on parchment for signature.

  • The 56 signers did not sign as a group and did not do so on July 4th.

  • The official signing took place on August 2nd, 1776. Fifty men signed at that time, five more signed later in the year, and one more the following year.

  • On January 18th, 1777, Congress finally authorized the printing of the Declaration.

  • Declaring one's independence is one thing, actually getting it is another. The fighting had begun before the Declaration and continued for seven years afterward. In the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Britain officially recognized the Americans' independence, which they had declared in 1776 and fought so hard for in the ensuing years.
One of the Patriots in the fight for independence was my fifth great-grandfather, Caleb Whiting.

Happy Birthday, America!

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