1: “Monday, July 1st, 1776, began hot and steamy in Philadelphia, and before the morning was ended a full-scale summer storm would break,” David McCullough writes in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography John Adams.
John Adams, then one of Massachusetts’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress, was up before sunrise.
Early that morning, he wrote a long letter to Archibald Bulloch, the new president of Georgia: “This morning is assigned the greatest debate of all,” he had said in the letter. “A declaration, that these colonies are free and independent states, has been reported by a committee some weeks ago for that purpose, and this day or tomorrow is to determine its fate. May heaven prosper the newborn republic.”
Richard Henry Lee‘s prior motion calling for independence was read aloud.
The greatly respected, prominent Philadelphian John Dickinson rose to speak. He led the opposition to a declaration of independence. That morning, he would make one final appeal for reconciliation with Britain.
“Gaunt and deathly pale,” David writes, “with marked earnestness, he marshaled all past argument and reasoning against ‘premature’ separation from Britain.”
While there is no transcription of his speech, his extensive notes have survived. David writes: “He knew how unpopular he had become, Dickinson began. He knew that by standing firm, as a matter of principle, he was almost certainly ending his career. “My conduct this day, I expect, will give the finishing blow to my once great . . . and now too diminished popularity. . . . But thinking as I do on the subject of debate, silence would be guilt.”
To pursue a declaration of independence, he said, would be “to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.”
“When he sat down,” David writes, “all was silent except for the rain that had begun spattering against the windows. No one spoke, no one rose to answer him, until Adams at last ‘determined to speak.’
“That it was the most powerful and important speech heard in the Congress since it first convened, and the greatest speech of Adams’s life, there is no question,” David notes.
John Adams began by stating his desire to have the speaking gifts of the ancient orators of Greece and Rome, “for he was certain none of them ever had before him a question of greater importance,” David writes.
“Outside, the wind picked up. The storm struck with thunder, lightning, and pelting rain,” he details. “He spoke on steadily, making the case for independence as he had so often before. He was logical, positive, sensitive to the historic importance of the moment, and, looking into the future, saw a new nation, a new time, all much in the spirit of lines he had written in a recent letter to a friend:
‘Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measures in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.’
“No transcription was made, no notes were kept. There would be only Adams’s own recollections, plus those of several others who would remember more the force of Adams himself than any particular thing he said.”
Later in his life, John would remember being “carried out in spirit, as enthusiastic preachers sometimes express themselves.”
Thomas Jefferson reflected later that John Adams was “not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent,” but spoke, “with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.”
Richard Stockton, a delegate from New Jersey, would call John “the Atlas” of the hour, “the man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independency. . . . He it was who sustained the debate, and by the force of his reasoning demonstrated not only justice, but the expediency of the measure.”
The debate would continue for nine hours in all. At one point, Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, who had long opposed separation from Britain, “started suddenly upright, and lifting up both his hands to Heaven, as if he had been in a trance, cried out, ‘It is done! and I will abide by it,'” John Adams later recalled.
2: At last, the time came for a preliminary vote.
“Four colonies unexpectedly held back, refusing to proclaim independence,” David writes. “The all-important Pennsylvania delegation, despite popular opinion in Pennsylvania, stood with John Dickinson and voted no.”
The New York delegates abstained, indicating they favored the motion but lacked specific instructions.
“South Carolina, too, surprisingly, voted no, while Delaware, with only two delegates present, was divided,” David writes. “The missing Delaware delegate was Caesar Rodney, one of the most ardent of the independence faction. Where he was or when he might reappear was unclear, but a rider had been sent racing off to find him.”
South Carolina delegate Edward Rutledge, who opposed the declaration, spoke up and moved that a final vote be postponed until the following day, “implying that for the sake of unanimity South Carolina might change its mind,” David writes.
The other delegates immediately agreed.
“For while the nine colonies supporting independence made a clear majority, David notes, “it was hardly the show of solidarity that such a step ought to have.”
David writes: “The atmosphere that night at City Tavern and in the lodging houses of the delegates was extremely tense. The crux of the matter was the Pennsylvania delegation, for in the preliminary vote three of the seven Pennsylvania delegates had gone against John Dickinson and declared in the affirmative, and it was of utmost interest that one of the three, along with Benjamin Franklin and John Morton, was James Wilson, who, though a friend and ally of Dickinson, had switched sides to vote for independence.
“The question now was how many of the rest who were in league with Dickinson would on the morrow continue, in Adams’s words, to ‘vote point blank against the known and declared sense of their constituents.’
“To compound the tension that night, word reached Philadelphia of the sighting of New York of a hundred British ships, the first arrivals of a fleet that would number over four hundred.”
3: On the morning of July 2nd, 1776, as the doors of Congress were about to be closed, the missing Delaware delegate Caesar Rodney, a strong proponent of independence, “mud-spattered, ‘booted and spurred,’ made his dramatic entrance,” David writes.
“The tall, thin Rodney—the ‘oddest-looking man in the world,’ John Adams once described him—had been made to appear stranger still, and more to be pitied, by a skin cancer on one side of his face that he kept hidden behind a scarf of green silk. But, as Adams had also recognized, Rodney was a man of spirit, of ‘fire.’
“Almost unimaginably, he had ridden eighty miles through the night, changing horses several times, to be there in time to cast his vote.”
Yet, even more significant than Caeser’s entrance were two empty chairs among the Pennsylvania delegation.
“Refusing to vote for independence but understanding the need for Congress to speak with one voice, John Dickinson and Robert Morris had voluntarily absented themselves from the proceedings,” David shares, “thus swinging Pennsylvania behind independence by a vote of three to two.
“What private agreements had been made the night before, in any, who or how many had come to the State House that morning knowing what was afoot, no one recorded.
“Outside, more rain threatened, and at about ten came another cloudburst like the day before.
“New York continued to abstain, but South Carolina, as hinted by Edward Rutledge, joined the majority to make the decision unanimous in the sense that no colony stood opposed. The vote went rapidly.
“So, it was done, the break was made, in words at least: on July 2nd, 1776, in Philadelphia, the American colonies declared independence,” David writes.
“If not all thirteen clocks had struck as one, twelve had, and with the other silent, the effect was the same.”
Writing to his wife, Abigail, John Adams, understood what a momentous day it was:
“The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
So, why do we celebrate American Independence on July 4th if the votes were cast on July 2nd?
More tomorrow (actually Wednesday, as tomorrow is a holiday)!
Reflection and Action: For those of us living in the United States, take time today and tomorrow to give thanks for the many great Americans who preceded us.