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By Barb Kugle
Special to The PREVIEW
Those who had the courage to put their signature to a single sheet of parchment understood the import of what it might cost them personally. Signing America’s declaration of independence from British rule was considered an act of treason. Only a few brave men had the courage to align themselves with the campaign to break from the mother country. John Hancock was one of those men, if not the most instrumental.
Hancock was orphaned young and adopted by a wealthy, merchant uncle who sent him to Harvard. There, Hancock was educated in business and graduated at age 17. His uncle sent him to England on business where young John providentially witnessed the coronation of George III.
Few men desired America’s independence more than John Hancock. He was involved in revolutionary politics early on, and became instrumental in “coaxing” the revolution into existence. As a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, he aligned himself with those who were most sympathetic to the cause. In May 1775, he was elected President of the Continental Congress and immediately began a moral campaign for America’s independence. Although Hancock coveted the position of Commander-in-chief of the Continental forces, he accepted the practicality of appointing someone with military experience. Thus, on June 17, 1775, Hancock signed the resolution, which the Continental Congress passed, appointing George Washington as America’s first Commander-in-Chief.
In January of 1776, Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” attacking King George III’s rule, arguing that the colonies had a moral obligation to reject monarchy. His publications ignited debate for independence and word spread quickly throughout the colonies. “Common Sense” was liberally salted with pleas to Almighty God, along with Scripture quotes making a theological case for independence.
Taking advantage of this climate of partisanship, Hancock’s congress evoked the aid of God, and passed a resolution on March 17, 1776, proclaiming, “A Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer,” throughout the colonies, urging its fellow citizens to, “confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease (God’s) righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness.”
A new motto was added to the proclamation, “God Save This People,” in place of “God Save the King.”John Hancock signed it and copies were sent out to churches and other meeting places.
On June 11, 1776, a Committee of Five was chosen to draft a Declaration with Thomas Jefferson taking the lead. The committee included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman. After Franklin and Adams made changes to Jefferson’s original draft, the Declaration was submitted to the entire committee for review. Afterwards 26 additional changes were made. Finally, on Friday, June 28, the Committee presented it to Congress where it was put aside.
When Congress reconvened the morning of July 1, the resolution for independence was thoroughly debated with some delegates unable to commit, holding out hope that the colonies might resolve their differences with the motherland. On July 2, those who could not, in good conscious, vote for the resolution, chose to abstain by not attending the session, and still another rode all night to vote in place of and against his ill father’s wishes. Thus all twelve colonies adopted the resolution introduced by Henry Lee and John Adams. The Association known as United Colonies of America officially became the United States of America.
John Adams thought July 2 would be the day future generations of Americans would celebrate America’s independence and wrote to his wife Abigail: “The Second Day of July 1776 will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America … It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
After the resolution was passed the Continental Congress turned the debate over to the language of the Declaration drafted by Thomas Paine’s committee. Those debates took place on July 3 and 4. Finally, late that afternoon of July 4, 12 of the 13 states, with New York as the lone holdout, formally agreed to proclaim themselves free and independent. Church bells rang throughout the city of Philadelphia in celebration. The resolution of July 2 became the birth certificate of the new nation while the Declaration of Independence on July 4 was the birth announcement. (The New York Provincial congress adopted the resolution for independence on July 9, making the vote unanimous).
John Hancock and Charles Thomson, Secretary of the Congress, were the only two signatures appearing on the Declaration sent to King George III of Great Britain, dated July 5. It wasn’t until Aug. 2, 1776, that the remaining 56 brave delegates signed the singular piece of parchment proclaiming their unanimous Declaration of Independence.
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