On July 1, 1776 delegates of the Second Continental Congress entered what John Adams called, “the greatest debate of all.” Even after over a year’s worth of conflict against the mightiest military force on earth, declared independence from Great Britain was far from a forgone conclusion. Just weeks earlier the majority of the men in the Congress were very much hoping that some formula for peace could be found with Great Britain.
In The Light and the Glory, by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, it’s noted that these Congressmen knew very well what it would cost them personally to, “cast their votes with those few who were advocating an open declaration of independence. For the men who signed such a declaration would, in the likely event of America’s defeat, be held personally responsible. And the penalty for instigating rebellion against the Crown was death.” Declaring independence required a unanimous vote from the Congress, and as Ben Franklin soberly put it, “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately.”
During the debate on July 1, John Dickinson, representing Pennsylvania, made powerful and lengthy arguments against declaring independence. With quiet resolve, but equal conviction, Adams answered him concluding with, “All that I have and all that I am, and all that I hope in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it. And I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration… Independence now, and Independence forever!”
Shortly following this exchange, Congress voted. The majority supported independence, but it was not unanimous as required. Nine of the thirteen colonies were ready to officially declare for freedom and the war necessary to achieve it. Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted no. Delaware’s two delegates were split. The New York delegates abstained. Debate was to resume the next day followed by another vote.
On the following day, July 2, the South Carolina delegates, for the sake of unanimity, were swayed to support the Declaration. New Pennsylvania delegates voted for independence. With New York still abstaining, Delaware was the key. Its two delegates remained split. With a dramatic and grueling overnight ride through stormy weather, where often he had to dismount and lead his horse, an exhausted third Delaware delegate, Caesar Rodney, entered the State House in Philadelphia around 1:00 p.m., just as the final vote was about to occur. He had come to break the deadlock among his fellow statesmen.
Barely able to speak, he exclaimed, “As I believe the voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in favor of independence, my own judgment concurs with them. I vote for independence.” Therefore it was unanimously decided (New York would join with the other colonies officially on July 9th). Thus, The United States was born on July 2, 1776.
The significance of the event and the day was such that, on the following day John Adams wrote his wife Abigail and said that July 2 “will be the most memorable… 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 forevermore.” So according to John Adams, the celebration of our independence is a couple of days late.
It was two days later on July 4 that an official Declaration of Independence document was actually signed, albeit only by two members of Congress: John Hancock, the President of Congress and Charles Thompson the Secretary of Congress. Most of the rest of the Congressmen would sign the Declaration about a month later.
On July 4, 1837, in a speech delivered in the town of Newburyport Massachusetts, John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, and the 6th U.S. President, proclaimed, “Why is it that, next to the birthday of the Savior of the World, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day? Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth?” (For the full speech, see my website.)
Witnessing the events of the Revolution as a boy, and then going on to serve his country in many various capacities, John Quincy Adams saw that Christmas and Independence Day were fundamentally linked. He understood well that the Founders simply took the principles that Christ brought to the world and incorporated those into civil government.
That, my friends, is why the United States of America is the greatest nation the world has ever known, even though we may be celebrating its birthday on the wrong date.
Trevor Grant Thomas — At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason. http://www.trevorgrantthomas.com/