declaration of independence by john trumbull

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October 19th 1781: Cornwallis surrenders

On this day in 1781 in Yorktown, Virginia, during the American Revolutionary War, British commander Cornwallis formally surrendered to George Washington. The American War of Independence began in 1775 with American victory at the battles of Lexington and Concord. The war was the culmination of mounting tensions between American colonists and Great Britian, fuelled by incidents such as the Boston Masacre in 1770 and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. In 1776, America issued its Declaration of Independence, listing grievances against the British crown, and American colonists fought for several more years to secure this freedom. Cornwallis’s surrender ended the Siege of Yorktown, marking a decisive victory for the American forces and their French allies. Yorktown was the last major battle of the war, as Cornwallis’s surrender led to the opening of peace negotiations. The Treaty of Paris was reached in 1783, which ended the war between Britain and the United States and recognised American independence.

If you’re wondering why Americans set off all of those fireworks on the Fourth of July every year, it’s not because they want to upset their dogs – it is, of course, the day the American Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. John Trumbull’s iconic portrait of the event is pretty much how we picture the signing: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams are presenting John Hancock with the document, everyone else is waiting around for their turn to sign their names on the dotted line and start independencing.

How else could the signing of the Declaration of Independence have possibly looked? It’s not like we’d expect them to sign with their feet.

Let’s start with the date. No one signed jack on the Fourth of July. The committee that wrote the document presented it to Congress on June 28, at which point the Congress put it aside while they spent a few days debating if they had the guts to break off with England. It wasn’t until July 2 that Congress came to a consensus and voted for independence. Then Congress spent a few days editing what was actually no more than the press release of the event, the Declaration of Independence. It just so happened that the final (unsigned) product wasn’t ready for publication until the 4th, but by then Americans already considered themselves not-English for two straight days. The Declaration was like the wedding announcement published in the local newspaper a week after the actual ceremony. Or better yet, the divorce announcement, if people were tacky enough to publish those.

As for the actual signing of the document, it took months

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