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Don't Know Much About the Declaration? A Refresher On Our Freedoms

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As we pursue happiness and work our way towards Independence Day on July 4th, here are a few fascinating facts about the document that created the United States of America and the day that the nation was born.

First of all, we celebrate the wrong day -- as far as John Adams was concerned. The Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, actually voted on a resolution of independence on July 2d. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that this day would be a day of history that would be marked with bonfires, church bells ringing and "illuminations" -- or fireworks. He was right about all the other details but missed on the date. The date of the adoption of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence became fixed on the national calendar.

Although Jefferson was the chief author of the Declaration, he was a member of a committee of five men charged with drafting a declaration that would explain why the colonies were separating from England. The others were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert Livingston of New York, who was not an advocate of independence.

"Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of ?" Jefferson borrowed from a phrase used by other writers, including fellow Virginian George Mason, who had written about "life, liberty and the pursuit of property."

Here is a link to Jefferson's draft as it was presented to Franklin and Adams with some of his changes shown.

Congress also made some changes. The most significant was the deletion of a paragraph in which Jefferson charged that King George III was responsible for the slave trade. That was dropped, Jefferson later noted, in deference to the men who owned slaves as well as those who made a great deal of money transporting them. Remember, some of the largest slave ports were in the northern colonies.

The July 4th vote was not unanimous. The vote tally was by each state delegation. New York abstained on July 4 and voted to approve the Declaration on July 9th, making it unanimous. All thirteen colonies were then aboard.

The signers didn't sign -- at least not on July 4th. Only two men actually signed the July 4th version: John Hancock, President of the Congress and Charles Thomson, serving as secretary. The actual signing ceremony took place on August 2, 1776. And even then, only 50 of the 56 signers were present to sign.

The first celebration took place in Philadelphia on July 8th when the Declaration was read publicly for the first time. The "Liberty Bell," a name that was not given to the famous symbol of freedom until the early 19th century, was rung. But it didn't crack then. That came later. The words inscribed at the top of the Liberty Bell read, "Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof." And no, Taco Bell did not buy the rights to the Liberty Bell -- that was a very successful April Fools Day joke. (Yes, they got me.)

Words on back? Sorry no secret, invisible treasure map as in the movie National Treasure. But the words "Original Declaration of Independence, dated 4th July 1776" are written on the back of the parchment version now displayed in the National Archives.

Read more about the Declaration and American History all week at www.dontknowmuch.com

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