The July Fourth holiday celebrates events that occurred on July 2, 1776. It was on that date that the Continental Congress passed a Resolution of Independence from the British Empire. Various colonies had been making declarations of independence for several months, but for all thirteen colonies to collectively renounce their allegiance to King George III — that was a big deal.
The colonists knew that there could be serious consequences, but on July 2, they took the step from which there would be no turning back. John Adams of Massachusetts wrote to his wife Abigail, “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
As we know, Adams’ prediction was off by a couple of days. So… what actually happened on July 4th? A document that has come to be known as the Declaration of Independence was put on the table before the Continental Congress. It was primarily the work of Thomas Jefferson, who served on a committee with Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert Livingston of New York. They had been instructed in mid-June to draft a document that would explain the vote that was coming — the one that happened on July 2. In a way, this document was the press release, the public announcement of what they had already done.
There are stirring words at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, but if you’ve ever read the whole thing, you know that it’s mostly a lot of complaining about King George:
• “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
• “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”
• “He makes us wear these stupid wigs.”
(OK, that last one wasn’t in there, but trust me, it becomes clear that the king is to blame for pretty much everything.)
Inevitably a rewrite occurred. There were changes of wording and big chunks were cut — about 25% of Jefferson’s first draft was eliminated. By the time the vote took place, Jefferson was probably sulking. This vote, on July 4th, approved the final wording of the document. Hooray! Shoot off the fireworks!
It’s possible that some of the founding fathers signed it that day, although scholars debate that — some think the actual signing didn’t take place until August of ’76. Others think that perhaps as many as 34 men signed on July 4th; it’s fairly certain that not all 56 signers were together for the group photo.
In any case, the most famous signature is John Hancock, who signed his John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress. The least famous signature was Button Gwinnett of Georgia, who was so obscure that his autograph is now extremely valuable — it has sold for as much as $150,000.
Does anyone besides me wonder if “Button Gwinnett” was a fake name, used by a colonist who didn’t have “manly firmness”? After all, signing that Declaration was an act of treason that could get you hanged if the king found out. And come on, does “Button” seem like a real name to you?