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The Declaration of Independence

13 historical facts about the first 4th of July


Independence Day, popularly known as the Fourth of July, is the national day of the United States of America, commemorating when the people of the Thirteen Colonies declared themselves independent of Great Britain in 1776.

A nationwide public holiday, it is perhaps the most famous national day in the world. Even people outside of the US know that on this holiday Americans love to play baseball, eat hot dogs, and watch fireworks.

But what about the very first Independence Day? Here are 13 facts about 4th July 1776.

1. The Declaration of Independence was written on a laptop

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers and one of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence, drafted the text for the declaration on a small portable writing desk.

Even in the 18th century, this was sometimes called a ‘laptop’ or ‘lap desk’. Jefferson designed this mahogany mini desk and had it built especially for him. He penned the world-famous doc in the small room of his boarding house in Philadelphia.

Today, it is one of the most famous museum exhibits in the US, on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

2. Independence Day could be on 2nd July

On 4th July 1776, the congress in Philadelphia famously approved and ratified Jefferson’s document – the Declaration of Independence. This was certainly an important date as it was an official assertion by the colonists of independence from Great Britain.

But perhaps 2nd July 1776 should be considered the momentous day? This was the day that the delegates in Philadelphia voted in favour of the resolution declaring independence.

John Adams, who was a Founding Father and later the second US president, wrote to his wife, Abigail, on 3rd July that ‘the second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha in the history of America’, and ought to be celebrated from ‘one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more’.

3. The first signature on the declaration gave rise to a slang term

John Hancock, the president of the congress in Philadelphia, and Charles Thomson, the secretary, are believed by most historians to be the only two who signed the declaration on 4th July 1776.

Hancock’s large, elaborate, and easily readable signature became famous in American history. So well known that Americans still use it as a popular idiom for a signature. You might hear someone say, ‘I just need your John Hancock on this rental agreement, please.’

4. One of the signers is an ancestor of Reese Witherspoon

Award-winning Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon is reported to be a descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Witherspoon, born in Scotland in 1723.

But Reese is not the only well-known descendant of a Founding Father. King Charles III is a second cousin eight times removed of George Washington, and Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence is a first cousin seven times removed of Thomas Jefferson.

5. The signed declaration document was handwritten by a beer salesman

On 19th July 1776, the American congress gave orders that a nice official copy of the declaration was to be made for the complete signing.

A politician and businessman named Timothy Matlack, who had made money brewing and selling bottled beer, was commissioned to produce this copy.

Matlack was known for his fine handwriting, and after he’d handwritten the document onto parchment (animal skin used as paper), this copy was signed by the 56 delegates, on or after 2nd August 1776. It is claimed that the last signer, Thomas McKean, may have put his name to the document as late as 1781.

Matlack’s document, known as the ‘engrossed’ copy, is one of the single most revered items in America and is on permanent public display in Washington, D.C.

6. Thomas Jefferson recorded the day’s weather

Thomas Jefferson personally owned several expensive thermometers and one of his hobbies was keeping a weather diary.

Jefferson recorded in his journal that it was 76 Fahrenheit (24.5 Celsius) at 1pm on 4th July 1776. Jefferson also noted that it was sunny with increasing clouds.

While this was by no means a cold day, it was perhaps, even in the 18th century, an unseasonably mild day. Nowadays typical daily highs in Philadelphia in July are 88 Fahrenheit (31 Celsius).

7. The war had already been going on for over a year

The events of 4th July 1776 certainly spurred Britain on to increase the scale of the war and to try to secure the colonies, but it wasn’t the start of the fighting. The American Revolutionary War, aka the War of Independence, had already been going on for 15 months, having kicked off on 19th April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts.

8. The Liberty Bell was not rung on 4th July 1776

One of the most enduring symbols of American nationhood and the struggle for independence is the Liberty Bell, still housed in Philadelphia.

Made in London in 1752 and shipped across the pond, the large bell is famous for its crack, which it developed sometime in the 19th century. One myth about the bell, which was widely believed to be true in the 19th century, is that it was rung on 4th July 1776, its peals announcing the Declaration of Independence. This did not happen, although it likely rang out on 8th July that year.

One traditional Fourth of July ceremony which carries on to this day is for descendants of the Founding Fathers to tap the revered bell 13 times, once for each of the Thirteen Colonies.

9. Not everyone in Britain was against the declaration

In Britain, news of the declaration was unsurprisingly met with opposition, scorn, and mockery. In Scotland, the Scots Magazine of August 1776 mocked the declaration, saying that the American revolutionaries ‘assume to themselves an unalienable right of talking nonsense’.

Britain’s King George III told parliament in October 1776 that the declaration was a disappointing turn of events, the king had hoped that the colonists would have gotten over their ‘delusion’ and returned to their ‘duties’.

But some in Britain opposed going to war. Member of Parliament Thomas Townsend urged the government not to continue with such an ‘unjust’ and ‘ruinous’ war.

An influential cleric named Dr Price even believed the breaking away of the American colonies made sense, likening it to a parent proudly sending off their child out into the world.

10. The Statue of Liberty bears the famous date

The Statue of Liberty, the world-famous copper statue which sits on a small island in Upper New York Bay, holds, as most people know, a torch in her right hand and a tablet in her left.

But did you know what it says on the tablet? Yep, you guessed it. Engraved on the tablet is: ‘JULY IV MDCCLXXVI’, the date of the first Independence Day.

11. A statue of George III was pulled down in New York

On 9th July 1776, the people of New York made their feelings clear in an incident that was to become one of the most famous in the city’s history. The large equestrian statue of King George III, which had stood in the city’s Bowling Green Park since 1770, was torn down by locals.

According to contemporary sources, it was pulled down into the dirt and its metal melted down to make bullets for the war.

12. There’s a mysterious handprint on the signed copy

The signed declaration (Matlack’s ‘engrossed’ copy) bears a mysterious smudgy handprint in the bottom-left corner. This was first noticed in 1940 and was not present on the paper when it was photographed in 1903.

To this day, nobody knows how it got there or who it might belong to.

13. The signers were risking their lives

Those who signed the Declaration of Independence were not just making a bold political move – they were risking their lives, too. If the British had won the war, the 56 men who had signed the declaration would have been arrested and tried as traitors. When King Charles II of England ascended the throne in 1660, the government left no stone unturned in bringing his father’s regicides to account, executing or imprisoning many of them.

The British government would have done the same with the signers – and the Founding Fathers were well aware of this. Signer Benjamin Franklin is famously supposed to have referred to this risk in July 1776 when he said, ‘We must all hang together, or [...] we shall all hang separately.’