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Last week I wrote about Friday, August 2, 1776, when the delegates to the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Even though the day is not celebrated, I believe it is a very important day in the establishment of America. Fifty-six men – America’s esteemed forefathers – signed a document that British officials believed to be treasonous. Many of them paid a high price for signing their names to the Declaration that day. I believe the judgment and courage it took for them to vote on July 2 for independence from the British monarchy and to sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2 by pledging their lives, fortunes and sacred honor should never be forgotten.
It was exceptional to have so many leaders of their caliber serving in places of honor at such a critical time in America history – men who were willing to risk everything for freedom.
I hope the following excerpts will give you a flavor of what I imagine took place that day in the
Pennsylvania State House.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 2
“Gentlemen!” President Hancock said in a loud voice as he tapped the gavel twice on his desk. “It is time to begin. I call the August second, seventeen-seventy-six session of the Second Continental Congress into session.” He waited for the voices to stop. “Gentlemen!” he said in a louder voice. “Please take your seats … let us have silence. We have important business to transact this morning.” The room became quiet a minute later.
“Thank you,” he said as he sat down. “Today is the day we set aside to sign our Declaration of Independence. I think everyone has seen the engrossed document that Timothy Matlack prepared for us.” He held up the 24¼-inch by 29¾-inch sheet of parchment in both hands for everyone to see.
“If everyone is ready, I will sign my name first, then Mr. Thomson will call the roll.” He dipped the quill pen into the ink well and signed his name in large letters in the middle of the page underneath the text. “There, I guess King George will be able to read that,” he jokingly announced. “Now it is your turn. I do not want my name to be the only one. I already have a reward of 500 pounds on my head.”
The last New England delegate to sign was Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who suffered from cerebral palsy. He signed his name with a trembling right hand that he held steady with his left hand. “My hand trembles,” he said in a loud, clear voice, “but my heart does not.”
Benjamin Franklin limped to Hancock’s desk with the use of his cane when his name was announced. He exchanged looks with Hancock while he laid his cane on the desk. With his weight balanced on his good leg, he adjusted his bifocals and signed his name with a flourish under Benjamin Rush’s name.
“We must all hang together,” said Franklin as he carefully walked back to his chair, “else we shall all hang separately.”
Everyone understood the risk they were taking. They knew the penalty for treason against the British crown
was hanging. Their signatures were confirming the last sentence in the Declaration: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our
lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
After Tompson called his name, Jefferson rose from his chair, adjusted his coat and waistcoat and swiftly walked to the front of the room. Hancock handed him the quill pen. Jefferson dipped the pen into the ink well and let the excess ink drop back into the well. He looked up at Hancock and smiled. Then, he signed “Th Jefferson” in large letters. He laid the pen on the desk and turned to walk back to his chair by the window.
The silence, except for the sound of Jefferson’s footsteps on the wide-board floor, was broken when delegates began to clap. He modestly bowed his head. The applause continued until he was seated.
After Hancock announced the results of the vote, the large, white-paneled room became completely quiet as it had on July 4th when the wording of the Declaration had been approved. Everyone appeared to be deep in thought.
This week I’m making the first edits to the story. I plan to follow the example of the delegates who edited the Declaration of Independence. I’m going to carefully examine the manuscript word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence and paragraph-by-paragraph.
As always, I sincerely appreciate you taking time to read this Journal,