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Happy Birthday America!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Patrick Williams
  • 6th Medical Operations Squadron commander
Independence Day is the national holiday of the United States commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Thomas Jefferson is credited with drafting the document between June 11 and June 28, 1776 and as we celebrate our Nation's birthday this weekend, it is important to reflect on just how our nation's declaration of independence came to be. 

At the time of the signing, the U.S. consisted of 13 colonies under the rule of England's King George III. Within the colonies, there was growing unrest concerning England's passing of the four "Intolerable Acts" which included the Boston Port Act, the Massachusetts Government Act, the Administration of Justice Act, and the Quartering Act. 
Although technically unrelated, some historians will also include the Quebec Act as one of the Intolerables, simply because of its timing. As the unrest grew in the colonies, King George sent extra troops to quell any potential rebellion. As a result of this, in 1774, the 13 colonies sent delegates to Philadelphia to form the First Continental Congress. 

Although unhappy with England and their patience wearing thin, they were not yet ready to declare war on Britain. 

In May, 1776, after a year of trying to resolve differences with England, the colonies sent delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Finally, in June, admitting that their efforts were hopeless; the "Committee of Five" was formed to compose the formal Declaration of Independence. Headed by Thomas Jefferson, the committee also included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Philip Livingston and Roger Sherman. On June 28, 1776, Thomas Jefferson presented the first draft of the declaration to Congress. A little known fact is that both Franklin and Adams edited Jefferson's original draft prior to him presenting it to Congress. 

After various changes within Congress, a vote was taken on July 4th. Of the 13 colonies, 9 voted in favor of the Declaration, 2 (Pennsylvania and South Carolina) voted No, Delaware voted undecided and New York abstained. 

To make it official, John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence. On July 8th the Declaration had its first public reading in Philadelphia's Independence Square. Twice that day the Declaration was read to cheering crowds. Even the bell in Independence Hall was rung. That "Province Bell" was later renamed "Liberty Bell" after its inscription - "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof"

On July 9 the action of Congress was officially approved by the New York Convention. All 13 colonies had now signified their approval. On July 19, therefore, Congress was able to order that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, and signed by every member of Congress."
Engrossing is the process of preparing an official document in large, clear handwriting. Historians believe that Timothy Matlack was most likely the engrosser of the Declaration. 

He was a Pennsylvanian who had written out George Washington's commission as commanding general of the Continental Army. On August 2, the journal of the Continental Congress recorded that "The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed." One of the most widely held misconceptions about the Declaration is that it was signed on July 4, 1776, by all the delegates in attendance. 

The original parchment measured 24¼ by 29¾ inches. Jefferson used a bold signature centered below the text. In accordance with custom, the other delegates began to sign at the right below the text, their signatures arranged according to the geographic location of the states they represented. New Hampshire, the northernmost state, began the list, and Georgia, the southernmost, ended it. Eventually 56 delegates signed, although all were not present on August 2. Among the later signers were Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, and Matthew Thornton, who found that he had no room to sign with the other New Hampshire delegates. Nonsigners included John Dickinson, who clung to the idea of reconciliation with Britain, and Robert R. Livingston, one of the original Committee of Five, who thought the Declaration was premature. 

Although the signing of the Declaration was not completed until August, the 4th of July has been accepted as the official anniversary of United States independence. The first Independence Day celebration took place the following year in 1777. By the early 1800's the traditions of parades, picnics, and fireworks were established as the way to celebrate America's birthday. Congress declared the 4th of July a federal holiday in 1941.
In the spirit of tradition, I encourage everyone to go out this weekend, relax and recharge your batteries in preparation for the busy summer months that lie ahead. Go to a parade or a picnic and by all means get out and enjoy a fireworks display. But I ask that you do it safely by leaving the fireworks to the professionals, having a plan, and using your Wingman.