In the midst of commemorating our Nation’s birthday with fireworks and fellowship, many overlook the magnitude and uncertainty of the muggy days of early July 1776 in Philadelphia that fundamentally altered the course of human history.
Six months earlier, Thomas Paine had captivated the colonies with his powerful pamphlet Common Sense, assuring the colonists that independence was their natural right and calling them to arms. But despite the growing fervor of their constituents in favor of separation, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress were skeptical about the prospects of actually winning independence from the Crown.
Then on June 7 Richard Henry Lee of Virginia put forth a resolution: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from 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.”
However, although key delegates like Edward Rutledge of South Carolina and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania supported the idea of independence, they had strong reservations about its prudence. Rutledge wrote to John Jay after debate commenced on June 8 that “[n]o reason could be assigned for pressing into this Measure, but the reason of every Madman.” After all, George Washington had personally reported to the Congress in late May that the British Army, which was expected to descend upon New York any day, could be 30,000 strong, while Washington’s combat troops numbered only 7,000. Even ardent supporters of independence like John Adams understood that the campaign for self-governance would be perilous and prolonged.
Historian David McCullough recounts the incredible, and still somewhat unknown, circumstances which surrounded the vote for independence after weeks of debate. On July 1, Adams and Dickinson made their respective closing arguments for and against the Lee Resolution. By nightfall four colonies still refused to vote in favor—including the all-important Pennsylvania delegation led by Dickinson. Additionally, that same night news arrived that the vaunted British Navy had arrived off the coast of New York.
One can only imagine the fear, anxiety, and pressure that shrouded the delegates as the vote approached on the morning of July 2. McCullough describes the record of what transpired next as “regrettably sparse,” but what is known is that Dickinson and fellow Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris abstained from the proceeding, allowing the state to vote for independence and clearing the way for the remaining colonies to follow suit (New York abstained from voting at all).
Two days later, the Congress would approve Jefferson’s transcendental text proclaiming to the world that this new nation was instituted to protect the natural rights of man and derived its authority not from heredity or force, but from the consent of the governed. Eleven years later, delegates would return to Philadelphia to enshrine the Declaration’s promise of limited government in the form of a new Constitution.
Although these hallowed words could not by themselves secure victory for the colonies, McCullough points out that the Declaration constituted a watershed moment in the mindset of the Continental Army. Now that reconciliation with the Crown was extinct, the soldiers were no longer merely engaged in a minor rebellion to effect more favorable treatment from England. It was now a full-fledge revolution for an American nation.
The writings of the Founders at the time indicate an incredible sense of prescience about the importance of their cause to posterity and the world. John Adams wrote:
The object is great which We have in View, and We must expect a great expense of blood to obtain it. But We should always remember that a free Constitution of civil Government cannot be purchased at too dear a Rate; as there is nothing, on this Side the New Jerusalem of equal importance to Mankind.
The fifty-six brave souls who gambled everything when they signed their names ended the Declaration with a compelling assertion of brotherhood and resolve: “[W]ith a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Two hundred and thirty eight years later we are still aspiring to the ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence. This Fourth of July, as we spend time celebrating the birth of our exceptional Nation with family and friends, take a moment to appreciate the significance and grandeur of what transpired in Philadelphia that summer.
Christian B. Corrigan is an attorney working in law and public policy in Washington, D.C.