When the First Continental Congress adjourned in October of 1774, the delegates agreed to meet again in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775. Between the First and the Second Continental Congress, many events happened that increased the tensions between the British and the Colonists. The battles of Lexington and Concord, the Colonist defeat in Quebec. The Colonists tried to establish their rights and to fight against the British oppressive taxation and laws. They weren’t exactly the best of friends.
When they met again in the Second Continental Congress, there was a lot of debate whether they should declare independence and risk a war with Britain or should they try to negotiate with King George III. The Patriots wanted to work the problems out in a reasonable fashion and had offered “The Olive Branch Petition” to try to avoid war, but King George III refused to read it and continued to goad the Colonists. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense published in February 1776 convinced many who were undecided there was no choice but to declare independence.
The Patriots had pushed the British out of Boston with a buildup of artillery at Dorchester and were victorious at Charleston where they fought against Admiral Howe’s navy which was trying to capture the port city. There was a lot of frustration over some of the Patriots not wanting independence at the cost of war. Finally, on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee made a formal proposal that the Colonies declare their independence from England and King George III:
RESOLVED, That these United Colonies are, and of right out to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
It appearing in the course of these debates that the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland & South Carolina were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem, but that they were fast advancing to that state, it was thought most prudent to wait a while for them, and to postpone the final decisions to July 1, but that this might occasion as little delay as possible a committee was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence. The Commee. were John Adams, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston and myself. Committees were also appointed at the same time to prepare a plan of confederation for the colonies, and to state the terms proper to be proposed for foreign alliance.
Everyone on the committee agreed that Thomas Jefferson was the best writer among them and asked him to do the actual writing. It took two weeks (June 11 to June 28, 1776) for Thomas Jefferson to finish the declaration. Personal liberty was the basic theme, but he also listed all the things King George III did as the main reasons for the Colonies wanting independence.
It was presented to Congress and then debated on July 1st and voted for acceptance of the declaration on July 2nd. The delegates from the middle colonies thought any declaration of independence would be premature. On the first vote, only nine colonies voted in favor of declaring independence – South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York were against it. A new delegate from Delaware, Caesar Rodney, changed Delaware’s vote and joined the colonies in favor of independence. Later that day twelve colonies voted for declaring independence, and New York abstained, but approved a move towards independence.
John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, and said:
…will 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. 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.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that prosperity will triumph in that days’ transaction, even though we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.
On the 3rd and 4th of July, the delegates went over the Declaration many times. They made a few changes, but by the time they adjourned on July 4th, the more poetic version drafted by Thomas Jefferson was adopted in final form with US Congress approving the Declaration of Independence from England and declaring the God-given unalienable rights of the American people to pursue happiness, not to be the property of a government to be mistreated. This is why July 4th is celebrated as America’s Day of Independence and not July 2nd (when Congress had accepted the resolution put forward by Richard Henry Lee) as John Adams suggested.
The president of Congress, John Hancock, and its secretary, Charles Thomson, immediately signed the handwritten draft, which was dispatched to nearby printers. Four days later, on July 8, members of Congress took that document and read it aloud from the steps of Independence Hall, proclaiming it to the city of Philadelphia, after which the Liberty Bell was rung. The inscription around the top of that bell, Leviticus 25:10, was most appropriate for the occasion:
“Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.”
On July 19, Congress decided to produce a handwritten copy to bear all the delegates’ signatures which occurred on August 2nd. Secretary Thomson’s assistant, Philadelphia Quaker and merchant Timothy Matlack, penned the draft.
To see the turmoil in other nations, their struggles and multiple revolutions, and yet to see the stability and blessings that we have (mostly) had here in America, we may ask how has this been achieved? What was the basis of American Independence? John Adams said “The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.” Perhaps the clearest identification of the spirit of the American Revolution was given by John Adams in a letter to Abigail the day after Congress approved the Declaration. He wrote her two letters on that day; the first was short and concise, jubilant that the Declaration had been approved. The second was much longer and more pensive, giving serious consideration to what had been done that day. Adams cautiously noted:
“This day will be the most memorable epic in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
It is amazing that on the very day they approved the Declaration, Adams was already foreseeing that their actions would be celebrated by future generations. Adams contemplated whether it would be proper to hold such celebrations, but then concluded that the day should be commemorated – but in a particular manner and with a specific spirit. As he told Abigail:
“It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”
John Adams believed that the Fourth of July should become a religious holiday – a day when we remembered God’s hand in deliverance and a day of religious activities when we committed ourselves to Him in “solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.” Such was the spirit of the American Revolution as seen through the eyes of those who led it, evidenced even further in the words of John Quincy Adams, one who was deeply involved in the activities of the Revolution.
In 1837, when he was 69 years old, he delivered a Fourth of July speech at Newburyport, Massachusetts. He began that address with a question:
“Why is it, friends and fellow citizens, that you are here assembled? Why is it that entering on the 62nd year of our national existence you have honored [me] with an invitation to address you. . . ?”
The answer was easy: they had asked him to address them because he was old enough to remember what went on; they wanted an eye-witness to tell them of it! He next asked them:
“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 [the Fourth of July]?”
An interesting question: why is it that in America the Fourth of July and Christmas were our two top holidays? Note his answer:
“Is it not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Savior? That it forms a leading event in the progress of the Gospel dispensation? Is it not that the Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth? That it laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity?”
According to John Quincy Adams, Christmas and the Fourth of July were intrinsically connected. On the Fourth of July, the Founders simply took the precepts of Christ which came into the world through His birth (Christmas) and incorporated those principles into civil government.
Have you ever considered what it meant for those 56 men – an eclectic group of ministers, business men, teachers, university professors, sailors, captains, farmers – to sign the Declaration of Independence? This was a contract that began with the reasons for the separation from Great Britain and closed in the final paragraph stating “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Faced with the death penalty for high treason, courageous men debated long before they picked up the quill pen to sign the parchment that declared the independence of the colonies from the mother country on July 4, 1776. For many hours they had debated in the State House at Philadelphia, with the lower chamber doors locked and a guard posted.
According to Jefferson, it was late in the afternoon before the delegates gathered their courage to the sticking point. The talk was about axes, scaffolds, and the gibbet, when suddenly a strong, bold voice sounded–
“Gibbet! They may stretch our necks on all the gibbets in the land; they may turn every rock into a scaffold; every tree into a gallows; every home into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment can never die! They may pour our blood on a thousand scaffolds, and yet from every drop that dies the axe a new champion of freedom will spring into birth! The British King may blot out the stars of God from the sky, but he cannot blot out His words written on that parchment there. The works of God may perish; His words, never!
“The words of this declaration will live in the world long after our bones are dust. To the mechanic in his workshop they will speak hope: to the slave in the mines freedom: but to the coward kings, these words will speak in tones of warning they cannot choose but hear.
“Sign that parchment! Sign, if the next moment the gibbet’s rope is about your neck! Sign, if the next minute this hall rings with the clash of falling axes! Sign, by all of your hopes in life or death, as men, as husbands, as fathers, brothers, sign your names to the parchment, or be accursed forever! Sign, and not only for yourselves, but for all ages, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever.
“Nay, do not start and whisper with surprise! It is truth, your own hearts witness it: God proclaims it. Look at this strange band of exiles and outcasts, suddenly transformed into a people; a handful of men, weak in arms, but mighty in God-like faith; nay, look at your recent achievements, your Bunker Hill, you Lexington, and then tell me, if you can, that God has not given America to be free!
“It is not give to our poor human intellect to climb to the skies and to pierce the Council of the Almighty One. But methinks I stand among the awful clouds which veils the brightness of Jehovah’s throne.
“Methinks I see the recording Angel come trembling up to the throne and speak his dread message. ‘Father, the old world is baptized in blood. Father, look with one glance of Thine eternal eye, and behold evermore that terrible sight, man trodden beneath the oppressor’s feet, nations lost in blood, murder, and superstition, walking hand in hand over the graves of the victims, and not a single voice of hope to man!’
“He stands there, the Angel, trembling with the record of human guilt, But hark! The voice of God speaks from the awful cloud: ‘Let there be Light again! Tell my people, the poor and oppressed, to go out from the old world, from oppression and blood, and build my alter in the new.’
“As I live, my friends, I believe that to be his voice! Yes, were my soul trembling on the verge of eternity, were this hand freezing in death, were this voice choking in the last struggle, I would still, with the last impulse of that soul, with the last wave of that hand, with the last gasp of that voice, implore you to remember this truth–God has given America to be free!
“Yes, as I sank into the gloomy shadows of the grave, with my last faint whisper I would beg you to sign that parchment for the sake of those millions whose very breath is now hushed in intense expectation as they look up to you for the awful words: ‘You are free.’”
The unknown speaker fell exhausted into his seat. The delegates, carried away by his enthusiasm, rushed forward. John Hancock scarcely had time to pen his bold signature before the quill was grasped by another. It was done.
The delegates turned to express their gratitude to the unknown speaker for his eloquent words. He was not there. Who was this strange man, who seemed to speak with a divine authority, whose solemn words gave courage to the doubters and sealed the destiny of the new nation? His name is not recorded; none of those present knew him; or if they did, they did not one acknowledged the acquaintance. How he had entered into the locked and guarded room is not told, nor is there any record of the manner of his departure.
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