The Legacy of ’76 by Gary Porter
“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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more,” so wrote John Adams to his wife Abigail the following day. As it turned out, Adams was off by a couple of days, unable to foresee that the following day’s approval of the declaration he helped edit would instead become the day that American’s chose to mark our independence. But the 2nd of July, the day Richard Henry Lee’s resolution declaring that the 13 colonies had decided to sever their political ties to “mother England” actually passed, is worthy of equal solemnity.
When Lee had introduced Virginia’s resolution way back on the 6th of June it was by no means a “done deal.” In fact, had a vote been taken that day, the resolution would probably have been soundly defeated. Postponing the vote allowed both sides to better marshal support, but more so those pushing for independence. Passions ran hot on both sides of the question. The cousins Adams (Samuel and John) along with the rest of the Massachusetts delegation knew they had much work to do if their goal of independence was to be realized. The “Reconciliationists,” those who believed a separation from Britain was shear folly, perhaps even suicidal, were represented by able leaders such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania.
A non-binding vote on July 1st, taken while Congress was convened as the Committee of the Whole, must have been demoralizing to the “Independence Men.” Despite news that same morning that a British fleet had laid anchor off the Jersey side of lower New York Bay, and that more British ships were arriving off Charleston (or perhaps because of this news), only 9 of the 13 colonies were willing to vote “aye;” a majority to be sure, but far short of the unanimous voice Congress sought. South Carolina and Pennsylvania voted “no,” but with mixed votes within their delegations. Delaware’s two delegates split, rendering their colony’s vote an abstention, and New York’s delegation was forced to abstain because their twelve-month-old instructions precluded them from approving anything that impeded reconciliation with the mother country. It was now evening, the delegates had been at work nine straight hours; South Carolina’s Edward Rutledge requested that the vote by the Congress be postponed to the next morning, suggesting that South Carolina might go along with the majority if given a bit more time “for consideration.”
As Congress convened on July 2nd, Delaware delegate Caesar Rodney, who had been at home ill with cancer, arrived at the hall, still in his spurs. Informed of his delegation’s split vote, he had roused himself from his sick bed and ridden all night. His vote would resolve Delaware’s vote in favor of independence. Two of Pennsylvania’s “Reconciliationists,” delegates John Dickinson and Robert Morris, “called in sick.” This switched Pennsylvania’s vote from 4-3 against, to 3-2 in favor of independence. When Congress took the formal vote, the nine affirmative votes of the day before had grown to twelve: South Carolina, Delaware and Pennsylvania were added to the affirmative. Only New York held out, honorably adhering to their instructions even though their instincts would have them vote yes. This was close enough to unanimous for the Congress. They declared the resolution adopted and then ordered it printed and distributed to the colonies to be read aloud. New instructions for New York’s delegation, permitting them to vote for independence, arrived later that month, thus allowing the engrossed declaration to begin with the words, “The Unanimous declaration”
At the end of the HBO mini-series “John Adams,” Adams is quoted as saying: “O Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.” Let’s take a moment today, a solemn moment, and ask ourselves whether we have “made good use of” our independence. America has obviously grown to become the mightiest nation on earth, but have we done our best to preserve the liberties and freedoms that the Founders secured for us? Have we “kept” the Republic (as Benjamin Franklin would later admonish)? Or have we squandered many our precious freedoms by ignoring their quiet usurpation by an ever growing leviathan of a government? Each citizen must decide this question for him or herself, and then adjust their energies accordingly. As for me, I resolve to work harder over the next year to awaken our nation’s “low-information voters” to the peril of waning freedoms that I perceive; and I challenge each of my readers to do likewise.
© 2013 The Constitution Leadership Initiative, Inc. This essay first appeared in the Yorktown Crier-Poquoson Post on 3 July 2013. Permission to reproduce this for non-profit purposes is hereby given.