The scene is familiar to almost everyone in America. July 4, 1776. As the delegates of the various colonies convene in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration Of Independence, John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, he of the outsized handwriting and ego to match, puts pen to parchment. With a flourish Hancock signs the document in a signature writ large; so large so that, as Hancock is reputed to have said, "fat old King George can read it without his spectacles!" It is a wonderful story of bravado and defiance. It also is almost certainly apocryphal. The Declaration was not signed on July 4, 1776. Indeed, it was not signed at any one particular date. The final copies for signature were not set out in Congress until August 2, 1776, and the signing occurred on a rolling basis, with delegates wandering into the room and signing the document as their schedules permitted over the course of weeks. There is no contemporary record of Hancock uttering his famous words, and copies of other documents bearing his signature show an equally large, bold flourish in every document he signed.
With that scene in mind, it perhaps is also apocryphal that, as Hancock and Benjamin Franklin stood in Congress on July 4, 1776, Hancock, contemplating the gravity of Congress' actions and the urgent need for unity in what were still a motley collection of colonies united only in their common resistance to, as they saw it, British tyranny, Hancock admonished the delegates "We must all hang together." To which Franklin is purported to have replied, with characteristic wit, "Yes, we must indeed all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately!"
It is a quote familiar to nearly every American. Pithy, witty, with a touch of gallows humor, it is exactly what we might expect of the brilliant Franklin, the preeminent American genius of the time. With one short exclamation he perfectly captures the gravity of the situation while simultaneously deflecting the blow with his customary brand of slightly irreverent humor. Of course, like Hancock's jibe to old fat King George, it also is likely apocryphal. There is no contemporary record of Franklin having said it. He never mentions any such scene in his Autobiography. The quote is not attributed to Franklin until some 64 years after the event, in an 1840 biography of Franklin by Jared Sparks.
The quote itself is memorable and witty. We can picture Franklin saying it with a twinkle in his eye, humor clashing with gravitas working to both instill upon his contemporaries just how much was at stake while lightening the somber mood with the leavening of his famous wit. Like many famous "quotes", if it wasn't said by the man to whom it is commonly attributed, it should have been.
There is a more reliable quote that actually happened on that fateful day of July 4, 1776, which perhaps better conveys just how much each of the founding fathers put on the line when they voted for independence. Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia doctor and signer of the Declaration of Independence, often told the story of his overhearing the conversation of two of his fellow delegates. On July 4, 1776, just after Congress finished making its final revisions of the Declaration and rushed it off to the printer for copies to be distributed to the several colonies, Rush found himself within earshot of fellow delegates Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Said Harrison to Gerry: "I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the ample size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead." Rush recalled that the comment produced a "transient smile, but was soon succeeded by the solemnity with which the whole business was conducted."
Certainly the Franklin anecdote is more famous, more popular, and more palatable. Franklin's purported quote, from a distance of 240 years, brilliantly captures the spirit of the time without bogging us down in the enormous risk each of the country's forefathers was taking. But in the heat of the moment, back in 1776, the real story unfolding was undoubtedly closer to the grim truth conveyed by the Rush anecdote.
The Declaration closes with each of the delegates declaring "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor" Each of this country's forefathers was in truth actually pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Each of them, if the Revolution proved unsuccessful, could reasonably expect their lives to end in a hangman's noose, their fortunes to be forfeited to the British crown, their families impoverished and ruined, their reputations forever tainted by the epithet of treason.
As we all enjoy the fireworks and the barbecues, the parades and the patriotic music, perhaps it makes sense to pause just for a moment and appreciate just how much those delegates put on the line that we might all enjoy the benefits in posterity. Today we still "hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
Happy 240th Birthday America. May the enormous risk and sacrifice of our forefathers so many years ago continue to bless each of us with the abundant fruits of the unalienable rights they fought for.