Happy Fourth of July
It's an American story, but it's also Britain's story, and it's a good day for lovers of freedom everywhere.
Presenting the Draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress (detail) by John Trumbull (1817-1819), US Capitol rotunda. Britain's Union flags and the flag of England hang behind them.
By the time the men from the British colonies in America met in convention in Philadelphia on the hot and steamy morning of Monday, July 1, 1776, they had already exchanged fire with the King’s troops. They knew more troops were arriving by ship to put down their rebellion, and that full-scale conflict, if it came, would be bloody. But they were determined to protect their right to "the bright inheritance of English freedom", as they had declared to the Mayor of London.
Other people might have fled. They stood their ground, or rather, with resolute determination to use their guns to defend their rights, if necessary, they sat down to debate whether to declare independence on the basis of a radical idea found, lost, and reestablished by Britain's people during a thousand years of struggle.
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 'premature' 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 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. . .'
To Jefferson, Adams was ‘not graceful, nor elegant, nor remarkable fluent’, but he 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. . .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. . .understanding the need for Congress to speak with one voice, John Dickinson and Robert Morris had voluntarily absented themselves from the proceedings. . .
The delegates voted to declare independence.
Congress was "well aware of the toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us," as Adams put it. 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, including the line, "We might have been a free and great people together", a sentiment which Winston Churchill supported two hundred years later. The terrible question of slavery was deferred.
On July Fourth, the delegates accepted the Declaration of Independence. Its ideals eventually ended slavery and created a country where people from all over the world have found freedom and happiness:
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. The last line was repeatedly quoted, "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour." Militias turned out. "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."
Nation makers at the Battle of Brandywine by Howard Pyle (1903), Collection of the Brandywine River Museum
Many people in Britain supported them. Granville Sharp, the abolitionist, resigned his job in protest, writing the British government, "I cannot return to my ordnance duty whilst a bloody war is carried on, unjustly as I conceive, against my fellow-subjects." Edmund Burke, the eloquent Anglo-Irish MP, spoke passionately against the war in the House of Commons. William Pitt the Elder joined him, crying, "Americans are the sons, not the bastards, of England!" Thomas Paine left Britain for America just in time to advocate independence in his widely-published and inspirational pamphlet Common Sense. There were many other pro-American British activists, now forgotten.
John Adams proved prophetic. He imagined 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 continent to the other from this time forward forever more". After the war of independence was won, Americans would work to create a US Constitution based on the rights and liberties enshrined in Britain's Constitution, which Adams called, "the most stupendous fabric of invention in human history".
Happy Fourth to all those who understand:
No government on earth gives us our rights and freedoms. Our rights and freedoms are our birthright. We were endowed with them at birth. Government exists only to protect them.
This post has been edited, and republished.
A postscript: Our illustrated description of these events and a thousand years of Britain's most important and passionate history is here: