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Independence Day USA

01:00 Tue 02nd Apr 2002 |

July 4th - that's Independence Day in the USA
It certainly is: the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. On that day in 1776 the 'United Colonies' declared their resolve to break away once and for all from the British Empire. King George III wasn't Mr popular across the Atlantic, and a general mood of rebellion had been gathering force for some time. Economic, commercial, social and political pressures were all coming to a head. The Second Continental Congress was in session in Philadelphia - they were essentially the government of the United Colonies.

All day on 3rd July and for most of the 4th the politicians debated, amended and finally approved Thomas Jefferson's draft Declaration of Independence. Copies of the text were printed that night by John Dunlap (the 'Dunlap broadsides'). 25 of them still exist, two held by the Public Records Office in London, strangely enough. The rest are all in the USA.

Declaration of Independence
Far from it - the signing of the single manuscript didn't take place on 4th July. The draft had to written out neatly and clearly on parchment - hats off to one Timothy Matlack - before the delegates to the Congress could sign ('engross') the manuscript. Most signed on 2nd August, a handful in the days that followed, and a couple refused to sign because they still disagreed with it. (George Washington wasn't a delegate and so never signed the Declaration).

What happened to the manuscript itself
Bear in mind this piece of parchment was the greatest symbol of the nascent United States. Although the Declaration had been printed in various forms, the manuscript itself was kept safe, travelling with the Continental Congress through New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia over the next years of war. It spent several years in Philadelphia. By 1800 it was housed in the newly-built capital district of Washington DC. Fittingly, the man charged with its preservation was the Secretary of State - the same Thomas Jefferson who wrote the Declaration back in 1776.

As early as 1817 it was noted that the ink was starting to fade on the parchment. A copper plate copy of the text was made using a process called 'wet transfer' which preserved the image of the document but hastened the decline of the original. 200 official parchment copies were printed from that copper plate.

From 1841 to 1876 the original was on public display in Washington and exposure to sunlight and changes in temperature continued to damage and age its appearance. In that year - the centenary of the Declaration of Independence, Congress resolved to restore and preserve it. However, scientific thought was mixed and not too much was done other than preserving the parchment out of the sunlight and between glass.

In 1921 President Harding ordered the transfer of both the Declaration and the original Constitution from the State Department to the Library of Congress (a sensible destination, you might think). A shrine was built and opened to the public in 1924, though it was transferred for extra safekeeping to Fort Knox during World War II.

Where is it now
The great documents of the nation, the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights, were transferred to the purpose-built exhibition hall in the new National Archives in 1952. It was built to be the most nearly bombproof building in Washington. More recently a $3million computerised camera system was installed to monitor the condition of the documents.

The Declaration as a work of literature.
Here are the opening lines of Jefferson's masterpiece. The words are as powerful today as ever:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."

Yes, but not very grammatical: type that out in Microsoft Word and the Spelling and Grammar option tells you it's a 'Long Sentence (no suggestions)'. Critics of Bill Gates will love that!

And who put their name to the Declaration
56 delegates to the Continental Congress signed the parchment. John Hancock was first, as President of the Congress. We record them here in alphabetical order:

John Adams,
Samuel Adams,
Josiah Bartlett,
Carter Braxton,
Charles Carroll of Carrollton,
Samuel Chase,
Abraham Clark,
George Clymer,
William Ellery,
William Floyd,
Benjamin Franklin,
Elbridge Gerry,
Button Gwinnett,
Lyman Hall,
John Hancock,
Benjamin Harrison,
John Hart,
Joseph Hewes,
Thomas Heyward Jr.,
William Hooper,
Stephen Hopkins,
Francis Hopkinson,
Samuel Huntington,
Thomas Jefferson,
Francis Lightfoot Lee,
Richard Henry Lee,
Francis Lewis,
Philip Livingston,
Thomas Lynch Jr.,
Arthur Middleton,
Thomas McKean,
Lewis Morris,
Robert Morris,
John Morton,
Thomas Nelson Jr.,
William Paca,
Robert Treat Paine,
John Penn,
George Read,
Caesar Rodney,
George Ross,
Benjamin Rush,
Edward Rutledge,
Roger Sherman,
James Smith,
Richard Stockton,
Thomas Stone,
George Taylor,
Matthew Thornton,
George Walton,
William Whipple,
William Williams,
James Wilson,
John Witherspoon,
Oliver Wolcott,
George Wythe.

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