Happy Independence Day
Image: American Battlefields
We call them Americans now, but in the long lead-up to the Revolution, they were Brits, fighting for their rights as free-born Englishmen.
By the time the men who represented the British colonies in America met together in Philadelphia on the hot and steamy morning of Monday, July 1, 1776, they had already exchanged fire with the King's troops in Massachusetts. They knew more troops were arriving by ship to put down their rebellion, and that full-scale conflict, if it came, would be bloody.
Other people might have fled. They stood their ground, or rather, they sat down to debate a declaration that had been reported out of committee - that Americans would be free and independent.
David McCullough describes the scene in his biography of John Adams -
At ten o’clock, with the doors closed, John Hancock sounded the gavel. Richard Henry Lee's prior motion calling for independence was again read aloud; the Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole and 'resumed consideration'. Immediately, Dickinson, gaunt and deathly pale, stood to be heard. With marked earnestness, he marshaled all past argument and reasoning against ‘premataure’ separation from Britain. . .To proceed now with a declaration of independence, he said, would be 'to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper'.
When he sat down, 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'.
He wished now as never in his life, Adams began, that he had the gifts of the ancient orators of Greece and Rome, for he was certain none of them had before him a question of greater importance. Outside, the wind picked up. The storm struck with thunder, lightning, and pelting rain. . .
Adams spoke on steadily, making the case for independence as he had so often before. . .and, looking into the future, saw a new nation, a new time, all much in the spirit of lines he 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.
. . .To Jefferson, Adams was 'not graceful, nor elegant, nor remarkable fluent', but spoke 'with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats'. Recalling the moment long afterward, Adams would say he had been carried out of himself, 'carried out in spirit'. . .
But when later that evening a preliminary vote was taken, four colonies unexpectedly held back, refusing to proclaim independence. The all-important Pennsylvania delegation, despite popular opinion in Pennsylvania, stood with John Dickinson and voted no. . .
Delaware, with only two delegates present, was divided. 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. . .
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. . .To compound the tension that night, word reached Philadelphia of the sighting off New York of a hundred British ships, the first arrivals of a fleet that would number over four hundred.
Though the record of all that happened the following day, Tuesday, July 2, is regrettably sparse, it appears that just as the doors to Congress were about to be closed at the usual hour of nine o’ clock, Caesar Rodney, mud-spattered, 'booted and spurred', made his dramatic entrance. The tall, thin Rodney – the 'oddest-looking man in the world', 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.
They had had enough of rule by a King and Parliament that ignored their God-given rights and freedoms. The delegates approved declaring independence. John Dickinson, still opposed, had absented himself from the proceedings.
Congress was "well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us", as Adams put it. Unflinching, the representatives now turned to consider the wording of the declaration by which they would explain themselves to the world.
Thomas Jefferson had drafted it. He drew on a number of sources, including the Virginia Bill of Rights. A quarter of the declaration was cut. The terrible question of slavery was deferred. On the Fourth of July, the delegates accepted the Declaration of Independence. The statement that has endured for more than two hundred years, and that eventually ended slavery and created a country where people from all over the world have found freedom and happiness, was simple and revolutionary -
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The Declaration swept the colonies. Militias turned out in great numbers. "John Dickinson, though ill and exhausted from the strain of the past weeks, departed at the head of the first troops to march out of the city to join in the defense of New Jersey."
In Britain, many Brits refused to fight a people fighting for freedom. The King was forced to hire German mercenaries.
John Adams hoped that succeeding generations would celebrate the declaration's anniversary with "pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continet to the other from this forward forever more".
As we head for parades, bonfires, tea party demonstrations and fireworks, we, too, hope that the Fourth is forever a day of celebration.