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Ask Cokie: The Role Women Played In The Declaration Of Independence


And I'm Steve Inskeep here to ask Cokie about the Declaration of Independence on this Independence Day. We regularly ask Cokie Roberts how politics and Washington work. And now we're going to ask about how politics worked in the days before there was a Washington, D.C., how American leaders arrived at the document that declares that all men are created equal.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: So it's 1776, I guess, as we all learned in school. But the Revolutionary War actually started a year or so before that, right?

ROBERTS: Right, of course, the Battles of Concord and Lexington, April 19, 1775. And there was a lot of fighting going on. Massachusetts was really under siege. But the men meeting in Philadelphia who were members of the Continental Congress, who had been sent by every colony to try to rule the non-country, were debating whether to stay close to Great Britain or to declare independence. And they really didn't want to get there very easily because, of course, if they declared independence, they were traitors. They were treasonous. They could be hanged.

INSKEEP: So we have a question of politics here because you have different people from different states all in a room with different interests and also with their necks on the line, I guess.

ROBERTS: Exactly. Now, some states, like North Carolina, were adamant that they wanted at least some separation from the king. And they have what was called the Mecklenburg Resolutions (ph), where they sent a man by horseback to Philadelphia in 1775 to say that the laws of Great Britain were null and void.

But the Continental Congress, in July 1775, not only was not accepting that, they were still sending a peace offering to the king, the Olive Branch Petition. And Steve, that's signed by most of the same guys who signed the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams. And I can tell you, that did not sit well at all with Mrs. Adams. She was furious (laughter).

INSKEEP: This has got to feel familiar to you, Cokie, as someone who has covered politics in more modern times because you have an actual shooting war. You have what seems like a desperate, urgent situation. But you have a Congress that's working its way through debates and half measures and trying to kind of talk the problem away, if they can.

ROBERTS: And some of the women were simply not having it. Abigail Adams was in the middle of all the fighting, even before Lexington and Concord. She said Americans would rather die the last of British freemen than bear to live as the first of British slaves.

INSKEEP: I appreciate you reminding us that women are part of this debate. But of course, they weren't in the room. In the end, it's a few dozen men in a room in Philadelphia. How did they then approach the actual declaration that we now know and hear about every July Fourth?

ROBERTS: So they finally did, on July 2, by the way, 1776, approve the Declaration of Independence and then made it public on July 4. But they had to escape Philadelphia pretty fast, Steve, because the British were coming. And by January 1777, they were ready to promulgate it with everybody's signatures on it.

And they went to the most respected printer in Baltimore, and she typeset the Declaration of Independence and put her own name, Mary Katherine Goddard, printer, at the bottom. So she, too, was a signer. She, too, was treasonous. She, too, could have been hanged.

INSKEEP: So when you think about that story and the different clashing interests and the year or more that it took them to get on the same page about independence, what does it tell you about politics today?

ROBERTS: It tells you that compromise is what is necessary. People have to talk it out and get to a point where they can agree. But it's also true that crisis makes a big difference. And there was a crisis.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Although, even when there's a crisis, it might take an extra year or so.

ROBERTS: (Laughter) That's true.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks very much.

ROBERTS: Thank you, Steve. Happy Fourth.

INSKEEP: You, too. Commentator Cokie Roberts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.