Why the Liberty Bells Ring for Indpendence on July 8

Jul 7, 2015

Courthouse in downtown Murray
Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

When the liberty bells ring on July 8, it will symbolize our beginnings, as a small country of three or four million people taking on the greatest military power in the world. While we celebrate July 4th as Independence Day, it wasn't until four days later when the average American heard the Declaration of Independence for the first time by orators on the court square or read it posted on the wall of the local tavern. The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Captain Wendell Oury Chapter in Murray, hosts a Liberty Bell Tolling Ceremony at noon tomorrow, July 8, on the Calloway County Courthouse Lawn. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte sought the back story for the bell tolling to celebrate the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence from Murray State University Professor of History Bill Mulligan.

Mulligan tells the story with further detail in the audio interview, but here is the summary. -- We tend, in popular imagination, to associate things with individual dates (Independence Day = July 4) but this is almost never the case, says history professor Bill Mulligan. These things are a long process with points along the way. In 1763, colonists and the British began debating their relationship over taxes and expansion. In April 1775, to one one's intention, a war broke out between British authorities and the colonists, he says. They didn't necessarily want a war, but rather their grievances resolved. As hostilities continued people began asking themselves what they were really fighting for.

An idea began among a small group of people to become independent. By June of 1776, Richard Henry Lee, at the instruction of the Virginia House of Burgesses, introduced a resolution to the Continental Congress that the United Colonies should be free and independent states. Questions arose as to whether or not this could be done, the state representatives didn't know how to do this and some were reluctant or slow to respond. On July 2, the motion was brought to the floor, voted on and carried. On this news, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: "The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America" to be celebrated with parades, picnics and illuminations.

Continental Congress needed to draft an explanation for why they have declared independence and that draft was approved on July 4th. It was clear in June, he says, that the majority of the colonies were for independence, but it had to be very close to unanimous to be considered sincere. John Hancock probably signed the draft, but the initial approved copy has since been lost. Printed copies became available on July 8th and Congress ordered public readings of the declaration, which people were feeling anxious for. The bells tolled, people came together and the public heard the declaration for the first time.

Meanwhile, a permanent copy was to be made and signed on August 8th. Hancock wrote a series of letters to revolutionary committees and official bodies attaching the Declaration of Independence. Copies went out to newspaper and trade networks, they went to British officials in New York, King George III, the King Louis XVI of France and other European countries. In the end, it wasn't addressed to the American people or a King or a parliament, but to the world, Mulligan says. It had on it a long list of things the king had done to push them to independence. It was important because here was a group of people who have taken up arms against a powerful king, threatening to overthrow the normal order of things. They needed and wanted the support of other countries.

Mulligan says this is the moment a relatively small group of people - three or four million - decided to take on the greatest military power in the world, with a huge navy, an army that had just defeated the French, to defend the basic principals of equality, rights and to be consulted by your government. They were willing to stand up and create one of the only countries in the world based upon an idea. "We're not the people of a certain land and we're not the people of a certain language group. We're the people who believe that all men are created equal and they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And government is created to ensure those rights. And that's what our country is about. And when those bells rang that was the first time for most average Americans where they could actually see it in writing, in one place and say that's right, that's what we're about."