On Monday, July 1, 1776, a thunderstorm swept through Philadelphia. Peals of thunder shook the Pennsylvania State House where several dozen anxious and angry men had gathered to decide the fate of the colonies. As lightning flashed, a steady rain beat down on the tall windows of the old, brick building.
Inside, the men were anguished over the decision before them. It had taken some months to finally reach this moment. Pennsylvania’s most respected speaker and jurist, John Dickinson, argued for two hours for reconciliation — not to stop fighting, but to continue to fight until the colonists had secured equality as Englishmen.
Massachusetts’ John Adams stood at the end of Dickinson’s long and eloquent exposition, and in the thunderstorm, the man Thomas Jefferson referred to as “the colossus of that Congress” made his plea — not for reconciliation, but for independence. At the beginning he said he “wished for the Talents and Eloquence of the ancient Orators of Greece and Rome, for [he] was very sure that none of them ever had before him a question of more Importance to his Country and to the World.”
Adams told his countrymen that it was time. “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish,” he said. “I give my hand and my heart to this vote. It is true, indeed, that in the beginning we aimed not at independence … But ‘there’s a Divinity which shapes our ends.’ The injustice of England has driven us to arms, and blinded to her own interest for our good, she has obstinately persisted, till independence is now within our grasp. We have but to reach forth to it, and it is ours.” One onlooker called Adams the “Atlas of American Independence” and another “fancied an angel was let down from heaven to illumine Congress.”
Adams’ words stirred the debate, and it went long into the night and began early the next day. At that very moment British General William Howe’s massive invasion fleet arrived off the coast of New York with some 100 warships, 400 transports and perhaps 35,000 men. It was the largest fleet ever seen in America up to that time. The very campaign designed to capture the Hudson River and split the colonies commenced even as Congress debated.
At length the assembly voted. It was then July 2, 1776. Twelve colonies voted for independence; New York abstained, waiting for permission from its state assembly. Congressional President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson signed the document.
With some changes, it was approved by Congress on July 4. On July 5, the new Declaration was circulated on the streets of Philadelphia and the citizens gathered to applause and gave three loud cheers “God bless the Free State of North America!” Church bells “rang out joyously” and every citizen lighted a candle in every window in their homes.
Despite the joyous celebration on July 5, Adams felt that July 2 would “be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.” As it turned out, the “approved” declaration was dated as July 4, and that date has become fixed as Independence Day. In reality, however, it was July 2 in which the fateful decision was reached — and it was not until Aug. 2 that all the signers affixed their signatures.
American independence was truly a new epoch, one in which the birth of a new republic wrested for all men the torch of liberty from the despotism of monarchy and one in which simple human dignity stood above the pompous claims of titled nobility. Free people everywhere should celebrate the birth of a nation dedicated to those ends. Benjamin Franklin, writing to his countrymen from France, would later say, “It is a common observation here, that [the American Revolution] is the cause of all mankind; and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.” Years later, after the French Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette sent his friend George Washington the key to the French prison The Bastille as a symbol of this signal American contribution to liberty around the world.
And though it was a great new epoch, it was not the greatest of them all — that one came long before, with a humble birth in a stable, which marked the arrival of a true savior for all mankind.
Dr. Shawn Fisher, assistant professor of history