History: the room where America was born, 237 years ago today.

independence hall

In case you don’t recognize it, this room is the main assembly room of the Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo is by Wikimedia user Rdsmith4). In this room, on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare the independence of the thirteen colonies–now called the United States of America–from Great Britain. Many people, including John Adams who was present, believe that July 2, not July 4, is America’s true Independence Day.

In fact, July 4 is less important than several other dates in American Revolution history. It is the date that appears on the official text of the Declaration, penned by Thomas Jefferson, and it’s certainly the date on which it was first read aloud in public–a significant act, to be sure. I won’t even go so far as to say July 4 is the day the text was adopted, because historically there is some question as to whether the Continental Congress was even in session on July 4. Jefferson, for example, does not mention being in session, or any votes or adoption, in his diary or notes. You’d think the act that he would go down for in history would warrant a mention as it happened!

No, the real act of independence was the vote on July 2. There was no Declaration yet (Jefferson spent the next two nights, July 2-3 and 3-4, writing it), but the vote had been taken on the second, not the fourth.

And forget any rubbish about the Declaration of Independence being “signed” on July 4. The actual document that appears in the National Archives was signed piecemeal over the course of the summer, with the final signatures being affixed in August. There was no climactic scene in this room where the Congress members lined up at a table and signed the thing all on one day. It didn’t happen.

In fact, you can make an argument that the adoption of the Declaration wasn’t even the real act of independence. By July 1776 the Revolutionary War had already been going on for 15 months. Most of the thirteen colonies, which were established by royal charters from Britain, had either already written new constitutions separating themselves from Britain, or were in the process of doing so. On May 15, well before July, the Continental Congress caught up to this development by passing a resolution recommending that all the states jettison their legal and constitutional connection to Great Britain. You could argue that that was the true “Declaration of Independence,” but of course it’s not as dramatic.

I have been in this room. It’s smaller than it looks in the photo. You can imagine what it looked and smelled like in the 18th century, in the middle of the summer in Philadelphia, where it’s hot and muggy, where people didn’t bathe very often and covered their body odor with cheap perfumes, and where boxes of sand were set out on the floor so the Congressional delegates could spit their tobacco into them. Oh, and there was a tannery not far from Independence Hall. You can bet that smelled good.

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4 Comments on History: the room where America was born, 237 years ago today.

  1. From 4 July 1776 to 3 March 1789, there never was an autonomous sovereign called the USA. The USA began as an autonomous sovereign on 4 March 1789, when the US Constitution became operational.

    On 4 July 1776, 13 British colonies broke away from Great Britain and became 13 free and independent states (13 autonomous sovereigns). This means there was an international border between New Jersey and New York. This was officially stated in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Paris Peace of 1783 as free and independent states. The 13 free and independent states formed a confederation (a league of nations), which went by a set of rules called the Articles of Confederation. The president of the United States in Congress Assembled was not the executive in charge. Under the Articles, the president was the presiding officer of Congress, chaired the Committee of the States when Congress was in recess, and performed other administrative functions. He was not, however, an executive in the way the successor President of the United States is a chief executive, since all of the functions he executed were under the direct control of Congress. In addition, any member state can leave the confederation without permission because no confederation is sovereign to its member states.

    The Articles did not create a sovereign national government as other historical documents lead you to believe.

    Therefore, the first president of the USA was George Washington. If any historian, politician, lawyer, or any subject matter expect tells you otherwise then they are simply lying.

    And this means the USA is 227 years old, as of 4 March 1789.

    • You’re certainly correct that the President of Congress under the Articles was in no way comparable to the President as set forth in the Constitution. However much of the rest of your post is incorrect. The United States did have a federal government that was legally recognized as a sovereign state pre-1789; the Supreme Court affirmed that proposition numerous times, and had it not been the case the Treaty of Paris, the Northwest Ordinance and various other national and international arrangements could not have happened. The actual distribution of sovereignty was somewhat undefined, which was one of the reasons the Constitution was created in the first place.

  2. The was no federal government prior to 1789. There was a confederation of 13 autonomous sovereigns, which did address issues like the Northwest Ordinance and other arrangements. The term “United States” was referring to the confederation.

    The Definitive Treaty of Peace 1783, Article 1: His Brittanic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, viz., New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, to be free sovereign and independent states, that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs, and successors, relinquishes all claims to the government, propriety, and territorial rights of the same and every part thereof.

    Sovereignty was well defined at that time in terms of defining a nation-state entity.

    Which federal government are you referring to prior to 1789?

    • Sorry, I’m not really interested in having a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” type argument about the legal definition of national sovereignty in the 18th century vis-a-vis today. (In any event you might read the Supreme Court case of Pollard’s Lessee v. Hagan which establishes the validity of certain acts of the pre-Constitution United States that clearly are sovereign powers. Various other Supreme Court opinions held the same). I suppose your initial purpose in commenting was to refute the claim that the United States was “born” in 1789, not 1776. I really have no interest in debating that question, as it lies in a nebulous universe akin to the realm of pseudohistorical/pseudolegal mythology about the Early Republic that one finds in tax protestor or sovereign citizen circles. That’s a rabbit hole it’s just best to stay out of.

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