“The second day of July 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.”
This was the prediction or more accurately the expressed hope of John Adams for the future remembrance of America’s day of Independence. And yes, you read correctly – he did indeed say “the second day of July”. That is because that is the day on which the Continental Congress actually voted to declare the independence of the 13 colonies from their mother country of Great Britain was indeed July 2. The debate on the specific wording of the document itself then proceeded and it was this that was ultimately signed on today’s date, July 4 in 1776. And even that was not quite what happened. But more about that in a moment.
John Adams – the Driving Force Behind the Declaration
John Adams, who would be the driving force behind the move to declare Independence had written of his intention to push for it as early as February of that tumultuous year of 1776. But he knew that the congress was sorely divided on the question. “We were about one third Tories, [one] third timid, and one third true blue.” he would later write. His meaning was that one third of the delegates to this second Continental Congress were men who actually favored Great Britain (“Tories”) one third were for Independence (“true blue”) and the rest were too busy carefully straddling the fence to actively support either side (“timid”). He even had some difficulty in convincing Thomas Jefferson to write the document. Jefferson was a man of deep convictions, but not altogether demonstrative or vocal about them. Nevertheless, he did convince Jefferson to write the Declaration, and in a committee which included
Benjamin Franklin, a remarkable document was fashioned. There was considerable debate about whether or not to approve the resolution. Adams took the lead in contentious debate with John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. The timing was all too premature in Dickinson’s view. To declare at this time would in Dickinson’s view be “…to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” In the film version of the Broadway musical “1776” Adams is referred to throughout as being “obnoxious and disliked”. I once had the pleasure of attending a lecture at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas by David Mc Cullough on his acclaimed biography of Adams. I asked Mr. Mc Cullough about this, and he told me that a measure for the respect in which Adams views were held was the fact that members of the New Jersey delegation who arrived a full hour into Adams speech in favor of the resolution asked that he repeat it for their benefit. Adams objected but the other delegates urged him to do so. And he did. So he may well have been disliked, but he was nevertheless respected.
Thomas Jefferson – A Man of Many Contradictions
Ultimately, the vote was taken and the resolution was approved. Many amendments were made to the final draft of Jefferson’s document. There had been a direct reference to slavery and the importation of African captives into the colonies for the purpose of slavery. Jefferson was indeed a man of deep convictions, but also a man of many contradictions. And in no area was this more clearly demonstrated than in this area of his attitude towards slavery. Here was a man of the enlightenment, who authored the Declaration’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal”. Yet he owned over two hundred slaves himself, and he never was able to bring himself to free them, not even in his will, as George Washington would do. His words in the Declaration about slavery wound up being removed because some of the southern delegates objected, and also because some of the northern delegates came from states which had been involved in the slave trade. So this was one dirty little business which with America would have to deal at a later time. John Adams (who incidentally was the only one of the founding fathers who never owned slaves on principle) took the lead once again, this time vocally defending every phrase of Jefferson’s work. Jefferson himself would write later that
“No man better merited than Mr. Adams to hold a most conspicuous place in the design. He was a pillar of its support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults encountered.”
July the FOURTH, 1776?
But the actual document itself was not signed in its final form until some time later, August in fact. The fine and well penned document now so familiar did not get printed and prepared for all of those famous signatures until that time in August, and many of the signatures did not come until later than that, as the delegates arrived in Philadelphia to sign it. Nevertheless it was dated “July 4” because that is the date on which it was officially signed by the President of the Congress, John Hancock, and the Congressional Secretary Charles Thompson. Although in later years both Adams and Jefferson would insist that they had signed on July 4, they did in fact sign on August 2.
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The full text of the Declaration can be found at:
“John Adams“ by David Mc Cullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.
“The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America” by Thomas Jefferson, with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, Philadelphia, 1776