On This Date in History: 235 years ago, a group of 56 men faced the gallows for what they contemplated doing or rather what they had already done. You see, the Declaration of Independence was actually voted on by members of the Continental Congress and approved on July 2, 1776. You see, it was the formal adoption of the document with a good clean copy that took place on July 4, 1776 and it wasn’t signed by most of the delegates for another month. It was thought that the document would long be celebrated but at least on of the Founding Fathers contemplated that the actual date of approval would be the one noted in history, not the one associated with formality. John Adams wrote to his wife that “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. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance.” That letter wasn’t published until the 19th century and by that time the Fourth had become the traditional Independence Day. What happened on July 4 was an approval by the delegates of the final version of the document. The final version was not printed on parchment until July 19 and it wasn’t signed until August 2, 1776 by but 50 delegates. The other six got around to it later.
Someone may have been the catalyst to their moving forward and signing a document that would change world history. No one knows who that someone was but, he gave a speech that roused the emotions of the delegates in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Here is the text of what has become known as The Speech of the Unknown. It is said that this “unknown patriot” said in part, “Sign! if the next moment the gibbet’s rope is round your neck! Sign! if the next moment this hall rings with the echo of the falling axe! Sign! By all your hopes in life or death, as husbands–-as fathers–-as men–-sign your names to the Parchment or be accursed forever!” Sounds pretty good. But is it too good? The text of the speech is quite detailed, even accounting for applause. And the description of the “unknown patriot” is quite compelling, detailed and believeable. However, The Jefferson Encyclopedia says there is no evidence exists to support the story of the Speech of the Unknown. They claim the story of the “unknown patriot” was simply part of a work of historical fiction in 1847 by George Lippard: Washington and His Generals; Or, Legends of the Revolution. As evidence, it cites the American National Biography when it claimed that Lippard “wrote many semifanciful ‘legends’ of American history, mythologizing the founding fathers and retelling key moments of the American Revolution so vividly that several of the legends (most famously the one describing the ringing of the Liberty Bell on 4 July 1776)  became part of American folklore.”
However, Ronald Reagan and 20th century philosopher Manly P. Hall both made references to the unknown speech with both men claiming that the evidence lies in Thomas Jefferson’s records. Yet, the Jefferson Encyclopedia claims no such evidence exists in Jefferson’s writings. I certainly don’t know the truth, but I can say that I once had a published work (Ohio Valley History, 8 (Fall 2008), 40–61.) that uncovered much new material relating to Louisville. No scholars previously had ever come across the material. The reason was that most studies of Louisville used The 1896 Memorial History of Louisville and the editor of that book included only material that they wanted future Louisvillians to know. They skillfully made no mention of the decade long and successful Industrial Exposition but had an entire chapter devoted to the successful 5-year Southern Exposition. They also made no mention of the 63rd Birthday of Ulysses S. Grant even though it was nationally significant enough to find its way on a plaque at Grant’s Tomb. What I am saying is the the folks at the Jefferson Encyclopedia have no evidence that the speech took place, yet they have no evidence that it did not take place either. When one read’s the text of the speech put forth by Lippard, it is possible that Lippard made it up since he was considered a genius and an eloquent speaker. But, the detail makes it hard to believe that he was that creative and it certainly would indicate that Lippard would have a vivid imagination to match his “genius” talent.
In any event, the delegates really voted in favor of the declaration on this date in 1776. (see Second of July?) Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Jefferson was not the sole contributor to the Declaration of Independence. He was part of a committee consisting of Jefferson, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (the committee of five) whose task it was to come up with a document for the Continental Congress to approve. They knew that the Declaration of Independence could be a historically significant document and so Adams and Franklin agreed that Jefferson was a much more gifted writer; Jefferson was thus given the job of putting their ideas to paper. The writer of the declaration, Thomas Jefferson was reluctant. John Adams had to convince him giving him three reasons:
“You are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of business”
” I(Adams) am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.”
“You can write ten times better than I can.”
Jefferson responded, “if you are decided, then I will do as well as I can.”
The beauty of the document resides in Jefferson’s style and structure more so than the substance because the ideas in the document were not new. The first part was a reformation of the contract theory of John Locke, a 17th Century British philosopher, which generally was that governments are created to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. Jefferson jazzed it up by exchanging “property” with “the pursuit of happiness.” The second part then laid out the crimes of King George in violating the “contract” with the colonies and he had therefore forfeited his claim on their loyalty. Initially, there was a middle section that condemned King George for his introduction of slavery in the colonies, but that section was removed as it was surmised the southern colonies would never sign such a document. Hence, they kicked the can when it came to the slavery issue and the Congress would follow suit into the mid 19th century when it finally came to a head in the form of a bloody Civil War.
In 1817, John Trumbull painted the famous portrait of the signers of the Declaration. He hadn’t been there on July 4, 1776 but he did make sketches of many of the individuals and checked out the room so there is still some accuracy. One funny thing he did was to have John Adams stepping on Thomas Jefferson’s foot. Jefferson and Adams became fast friends but were political rivals. Both died on July 4, 1826 exactly 50 years to the day of the official presentation of the Declaration of Independence. They were the only two signers of the declaration to become president. It is said that, on his deathbed, Adams said “Jefferson survives” or “Jefferson lives” not knowing that Tom had died a few hours earlier. I suppose it’s possible that Trumbull’s placement of Adams’ foot on the top of Jefferson’s was a statement of support for Adams who had been at odds over many issues with Jefferson. It just so happens that Trumbull had painted Adams’ portrait.
However, I found one source that claims that the feet are merely close together and the claim of Adams stepping on his foot are unfounded. The University of Baltimore suggests that it was merely the artist’s problem with positioning of the founding fathers and points out that later engravings had the feet repositioned. To the right is a montage of all of the signers that you can click on. Trumbull for some reason left 14 of the signers out of the portrait but did manage to put 5 other men in the picture that were not signers. I have yet to find out why he did that…perhaps he was making another statement or he did not know what they looked like.
And the rest they say, is history. King George though had no idea of what was happening. Back in England, he wrote in his diary on July 4, 1776 that “nothing of importance happened today.” Oh…the folly of Kings. Or was it? Some say this too is a bit of American mythology. But, in this case, I say we go along with the idea brought forth by Maxwell Scott to Ransom Stoddard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. “