“In 1776, when Maryland instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to vote against independence, Chase launched a successful campaign to persuade the Maryland assembly to reverse its position. In the next two days he rode one hundred miles and arrived in Philadelphia just in time to sign the Declaration of Independence.” –American National Biography
Bad cop: Nobody except John Hancock and Charles Thomson signed the Declaration of Independence until August 2, more than a month after the Maryland Convention reversed its position on independence. Because Chase supposedly signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, people thought he must have engaged in a heroic ride that is still celebrated today. In fact, Chase had fallen ill and didn’t arrive in Philadelphia to resume his stint in Congress until July 17, almost two weeks later.[i]
Good cop: The first part of the story is true. Chase did engage in a campaign to get the Maryland Convention to reverse its position, and this is indeed worth celebrating, not only for Chase’s participation, but for how the reversal came about: from the people themselves, acting in their county conventions.
The background: On May 21, 1776, Maryland’s Provincial Convention, which served as a de facto government in the absence of British authority, instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to oppose any move toward independence. Consequently, on June 7, when Richard Henry Lee moved to that the “United Colonies” become “free and independent States,” Maryland’s delegates walked out of Congress and headed back home, announcing they could not be party to a declaration of independence and they would not consider themselves bound by the decisions of Congress.
Did the people of Maryland really oppose independence so strongly? Apparently not, for when Samuel Chase and other pro-independence leaders asked the various counties to hold emergency conventions, these assemblies promptly repudiated the Provincial Convention’s opposition. They stated forcefully, in the words of the Charles County Convention, “The sooner they [Congress] declare themselves separate from, and independent of the Crown and Parliament of Great Britain, the sooner they will be able to make effectual opposition, and establish their liberties on a firm and permanent basis.”[ii] Pushed by these county conventions, the Provincial Convention held an emergency session and on Friday evening, June 28, it voted unanimously in favor of independence.
On the morning of July 1, just as Congress resumed debate on Lee’s motion, a messenger entered the chamber and delivered a letter from Samuel Chase to John Adams, written on the evening of June 28: Maryland had just changed its stance, Chase reported, and its delegates were now instructed to vote for independence. “See the glorious effects of county instructions. Our people have fire if not smothered,” the letter exclaimed.[iii] Fire indeed – the people had spoken directly through written instructions to their representatives, a democratic driving force of the American Revolution.
The instructions were real, but Chase’s ride was imaginary. How did a legend so clearly fallacious become imbedded in our national narrative?
Chase’s wild ride is an offshoot of the fictive signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, since his signature on that document is the only alleged “evidence” that he was in Philadelphia at that time. The signing of the Declaration was a manufactured event, consciously designed to produce a sort of “overnight antiquity,” in the words of historian Garry Wills. “The Fourth includes celebration of some things that happened on different days and of other things that did not happen at all.”[iv]
Here is how Congress pulled it off. In our nation’s first “photo op,” an engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence was presented for signing on August 2. Many members of Congress signed on that day, and over the course of the next several months, others who had been absent or were newly elected affixed their signatures as well.
The following spring, the committee that printed the official Congressional Journal fabricated an entry for July 4 that included a fictive signed document while omitting the critical entries for July 19 (the day the New York delegation finally gave its assent, making the declaration truly “unanimous”) and August 2 (the first day anyone other than President Hancock and Secretary Thomson actually signed the document).[v] According to the official but contrived record, the “Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States” was entered into the books fifteen days before it became unanimous, signed even by delegates from New York. This clever invention gave Americans a signing on the Fourth of July.[vi]
Samuel Chase was not the only signer absent on July 4. Fourteen men who were not even present signed their names to the document that appears in the Congressional Journal for that date. Eight of these—Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire, William Williams of Connecticut, Charles Carroll of Maryland, and Benjamin Rush, George Ross, James Smith, George Clymer, and George Taylor of Pennsylvania—had not yet become delegates. Six others were members of Congress but left for various reasons, alhtough they would return to sign the document on August 2 or later. Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut had taken leave of Congress to assume command of his state’s militia, while Lewis Morris and Philip Livingston went home when the British threatened to invade New York. William Hooper of North Carolina and George Wythe of Virginia were helping their states constitute new governments, and of course Samuel Chase had left to urge the people back home to push their representatives to vote for independence.[vii]
Although Samuel Chase never did take that wild ride from Annapolis to Philadelphia, his letter did, carried by unidentified postmen who arrived in Philadelphia just in time for Maryland’s delegation to change its vote. Chase was a true patriot, but so too were the postmen who speeded his letter along and all those citizens of Maryland at the county conventions who insisted on independence. This was a people’s revolution.
[i] James Haw, Francis F. Beirne, Rosamond R. Beirne, R. Samuel Jett, Stormy Patriot: The Life of Samuel Chase (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1980), 68. Early versions of this story, dating from the 1820s, stated that Chase had ridden to vote for independence on July 1, not sign the Declaration on July 4. (Charles Goodrich, Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence [New York: Thomas Mather, 1836; originally published in 1827], 340.) But since the only alleged evidence that he was in Philadelphia at any point in early July was his signature on the Declaration, the legend evolved into Chase riding to sign on that date. This played well into the legend of a ceremonial “signing” on the July 4.
[ii] “Instructions to the Delegates of Charles County, Maryland,” Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Fourth Series: A Documentary History of the English Colonies in North America from the King’s Message to Parliament of Marcy 7/74, to the Declaration of Independence by the United States (New York: Johnson Reprint Company, 1972; first published 1833-1846), 6: 1019. For instructions from other Maryland counties, see Force, American Archives, 6:933, 1017-1021.
[iii] Samuel Chase to John Adams, June 28, 1776, Papers of John Adams, Robert J. Taylor, ed., (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1977-), 4:351 or Letters of Delegates to Congress, Library Congress, American Memory, 4:305. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwdglink.html
[v] Charles Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 2 (1945): 246. Here are the original journal entries, not included in the first printed version: “July 19. 1776. Resolved That the Declaration passed on the fourth be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of ‘The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America’ and that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.—Aug. 2. 1776. The declaration of Independence being engrossed & com-pared at the table was signed by the Members.” (John H. Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence: Its History [New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1906], 204.) The original manuscript of the minutes, in the journals of the Continental Congress, was first consulted by Mellen Chamberlain in 1884. (Warren, “Fourth of July Myths,” 245.)
[vi] Ordinary Americans were primed to celebrate independence on July 4, when the public statement was approved, rather than July 2, when Congress actually declared independence, because the broadside of the Declaration of Independence, which circulated widely in July 1776, bore the heading, “In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.” The record was altered to conform to this preference.
[vii] John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4: 468; 11: 146; 13: 772; 15: 903–904; 18: 911–912; 19: 73; 21: 609; 23: 514, 721; 24: 93; Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Scribner’s, 1943), 4: 235; 17: 284; 18: 325. Even today, all these names appear as signers of the Declaration of Independence in the July 4, 1776, entry of the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, available on the Internet: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00525))