One voice, one will, one action is all it takes to shake the foundations of domineering status quo. In the excerpt below from David McCullough’s John Adams, one such action is taken, which is perhaps the singular reason the colonies of Great Britain declared themselves free, independent states.
MONDAY, JULY 1, 1776
Monday, July 1, 1776, began hot and steamy in Philadelphia, and before the morning was ended a full-scale summer storm would break. [John] Adams, as usual, was out of bed before dawn. He dressed, wrote a long letter to a former delegate, Archibald Bulloch, who was the new president of Georgia, and following breakfast, walked to the State House, knowing what was in store. “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.”
He had wished Bulloch to know also that constant vigil was being kept for the arrival of the British at New York. “We are in daily expectation of an armament before New York, where, if it comes, the conflict may be bloody,” he warned. Words in debate were one thing, the war quite another, but to Adams independence and the war were never disjunctive.
The object is great which we have in view, and we must expect a great expense of blood to obtain it. But we should always remember that a free constitution of civil government cannot be purchased at too dear a rate, as there is nothing on this side of Jerusalem of equal importance to mankind.
Presumably everything that could or need be said on the question of independence had been exhausted in Congress. Presumably, the question could be put and decided with little further ado. But it was not to be. John Dickinson had resolved to make one last appeal and Adams would be obliged to answer. They would rise to make their cases like the great lawyers they were, each summoning all his powers of reason and persuasion.
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. “He had prepared himself apparently with great labor and ardent zeal,” Adams would recall admiringly. “He conducted the debate not only with great ingenuity and eloquence, but with equal politeness and candor.”
Though no one transcribed the speech, Dickinson’s extensive notes would survive. 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 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 ever had before him a question of greater importance. Outside, the wind picked up. The storm struck with thunder, lightning, and pelting rain. In his schoolmaster days at Worcester, Adams had recorded how such storms “unstrung” him. Now 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. 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.
To Jefferson, Adams was “not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably 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,’ as enthusiastic preachers sometimes express themselves.” To Richard Stockton, one of the new delegates from New Jersey, Adams was “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 the justice, but the expediency of the measure.”
Stockton and two other new delegates from New Jersey, Francis Hopkinson and the Reverend John Witherspoon, famous Presbyterian preacher and president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, had come into the chamber an hour or so after Adams had taken the floor and was nearly finished speaking. When they asked that Adams repeat what they had missed, he objected. He was not an actor there to entertain an audience, he said good-naturedly. But at the urging of Edward Rutledge, who told Adams that only he had the facts at his command, Adams relinquished and gave the speech a second time “in as concise a manner as I could, ’til at length the New Jersey gentlemen said they were fully satisfied and ready for the question.” By then he had been on his feet for two hours.
Others spoke, including Witherspoon, the first clergyman to serve in Congress, whose manner of speech made plain his Scottish origins. In all, the debate lasted nine hours. At one point, according to Adams, 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.’ ”
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. The New York delegates abstained, saying they favored the motion but lacked specific instructions. South Carolina, too, surprisingly, voted no, while 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.
When Edward Rutledge rescued the moment by moving that a final vote be postponed until the next day, implying that for the sake of unanimity South Carolina might change its mind, Adams and the others immediately agreed. For while the nine colonies supporting independence made a clear majority, it was hardly the show of solidarity that such a step ought to have.
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 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 off New York of a hundred British ships, the first arrivals of a fleet that would number over four hundred.
TUESDAY, JULY 2 1776
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.
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 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the American colonies declared independence. If not all thirteen clocks had struck as one, twelve had, and with the other silent, the effect was the same.
It was John Adams, more than anyone, who had made it happen. Further, he seems to have understood more clearly than any what a momentous day it was and in the privacy of two long letters to Abigail, he poured out his feelings as did no one else:
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.
Lest she judge him overly “transported,” he said he was well aware of the “toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration.” Still, the end was more than worth all the means. “You will see in a few days,” he wrote in the second letter, “a Declaration setting forth the causes, which have impelled us to this mighty revolution, and the reasons that will justify it in the sight of God and man.”
That the hand of God was involved in the birth of the new nation he had no doubt. “It is the will of heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever.” If the people now were to have “unbounded power,” and as the people were quite as capable of corruption as “the great,” and thus high risks were involved, he would submit all his hopes and fears to an overruling providence, “in which unfashionable as the faith may be, I firmly believe.”