July 4, 1776: What Day One Looked Like

On April 17, 1775 a bunch of colonists from the Massachusetts Colony took exception, not the first time either, to the idea that the British Army had the right to seize guns and powder the colonists stored for future use.  On September 1, 1774 Gen. Gage sent troops to Somerville to confiscate guns and powder stored there.  Colonists heard of their intentions and secreted away their arms.  On December 14, 1774 Gen. Gage did the same at Portsmouth NH with the same results. The stage was actually set on February 26, 1775 when similar orders were given by Gage to collect ammunitions stored at Salem.  This time, however, Gage’s soldiers were met head-on by colonists.  The colonists offered just enough resistance by denying the British soldiers access to a draw-bridge across the river they faced that the commander of the British troops deemed it too late in the day for him to be effective and therefore withdrew back to Boston.

Those expeditions by the British troops were undertaken with relatively small detachments of men, 100 to 200 men.  But on April 18, 1775, American spies in Boston got word of a large movement of troops which were to be sent to Concord.  The seriousness of the situation was not lost on the colonist hence the actions of Paul Revere and his accomplices.  We all know that the spy in Boston signaled to Revere that the troops would travel via sea, which was actually little more than boarding ships in Boston Harbor and debarking on the shores of the Charles River.  Those troops numbered 500.  What they had not accounted for was the dispatching of an additional 400 troops attached the British artillery who would travel via land.  In those days Boston sat on a peninsula as shown below.  The land route meant going south over the “neck” of Boston to what is Dorchester today and then via Watertown westward to Concord.  Those 900 regulars outnumbered the entire population of Lexington and Concord by 2 to 3 times.  As John Hancock sat in a tavern in Lexington near to where the first skirmish took place he was fully aware that from that day forward he and his allies would be branded as traitors to the crown and subject to death if captured.  It was truly a very fearful time for these rebels.

boston - concord 1775

In September of that year the First Continental Congress was assembled in Philadelphia to discuss their situation and what to do about it.  Washington begged for financial support that he desperately needed to keep his troops not just fed and clothed, by loyal to the cause.  Unpaid soldiers were prone to desertion, something that plagued Washington throughout the Revolution.  Representatives from each of the colonies argued over how many troops they should send and how much financial support the should and could give.  Unfortunately little was accomplished.  Massachusetts, under John Adams, supplied the lion’s share of troops and supplies to the cause, something which did not sit well with Adams since being passed over for the job of General of the Army which he had coveted at the outbreak of hostilities.

But sometimes lost in this is one other document which affected all Americans at that time, “Common Sense.”  This was a pamphlet, written by Thomas Paine, an English expatriate, who set out in print how hostilities between the King and the colonists came to fruition and why such actions had to be taken by the colonists.  The pamphlet sold in excess of 120,000 copies during the first three months of 1776.  It helped set the tone for the yet to be written declaration.

In 1776 the Revolution was not going well for the Americans.  Some viewed it as a civil war over opposing ideas where one side would win and the government as they had known it would continue in some similar fashion when hostilities ended depending up who prevailed.  But from the very beginning, both the Massachusetts and Virginia colonial leadership knew full well that a return to life as it was would be impossible.  Thomas Jefferson had started writing treatises to that effect in 1774 and when he appeared as a congressional delegate in 1775 he was a natural to write a declaration of independence.  On June 11, 1776 a “Committee of Five,” as it was known, was selected to write the declaration.  Its members were Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Roger Livingstone of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts.  Jefferson wrote the majority of the document and presented it to the “Committee of the Whole,” Congress, on June 28. The famous picture below depicts this.


A debate ensued on how to adopt it which was settled on July 1.  Franklin insisted on a couple of changes which were granted and the signing began.  John Hancock was the first to sign.  His signature is by far the largest as well.  When queried as to why he had done this he responded that he wanted to insure that the King could see it.  At the end there were 56 signers, that was July 3.

On July 4 the Committee of Five, after rendering the document fit for printing, delivered it to John Dunlap, the broadside printer.  It was officially presented to the public on July 5 and sent via courier to King George III.  Fifty-six men had sealed their fate: lose the war and lose their lives in the process.

Prior to April 19, 1775, the inhabitants of the 13 colonies all considered themselves loyal subjects of the King.  They were Englishmen first and Americans second.  They had enjoyed great prosperity under English rule so their taking up arms against their own government in England was not taken on lightly but with great trepidation.  To wit, during that first year there was much discussion over who was a “patriot” and who was a “tory.”  Who could be trusted and who could not was discussed at great length and the matter was not settled until March 17, 1776 when the siege of Boston ended and British troops and loyalist left on an armada of ships for Nova Scotia.  Among them were here-to-fore respected and admired colonists of position and rank, judges, doctors and even one general in the militia.  There was even one colonial governor and son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Franklin, governor of New Jersey and son of Benjamin Franklin.  The two never spoke again.

Upon reading the Declaration you find the beginnings of our Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights.  This document not only set forth the grievances of the colonists to its former government, but a delineation of the direction they would be taking. It is sobering to consider that up to that point the new American army had won just one battle, that being Lexington and Concord.  Only two month after Lexington and Concord the colonists suffered a withering defeat at Bunker Hill.  Later, Gen. Washington suffered numerous defeats on Long Island and then New York City before retreating to the woods of Pennsylvania.  Only July 4, 1776 there was little reason for optimism even with the newly presented Declaration of Independence.  It was an extremely fearful time for all involved and still they had declared themselves “all in.”  On July 4th 1776 there was good reason to believe the colonists would not be successful and little reason to be on victory save that of their absolute dedication to the cause.  And in the end, that is exactly what won the day.


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