It is hard to imagine, but there were no transcripts of the events that occurred when the Continental Congress was debating and deliberating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. Thankfully, many of John Adams’ and John Dickinson’s extensive notes survived. Historians will forever be indebted to Adams for the very meticulous letters that he wrote to his wife Abigail. Many think the decision to separate from England was heartily supported by the majority of colonists, but Americans in 1776, like now, were very politically divided.
Calling the body to order, John Hancock, president of the Congress, slammed the gavel on July 1, and Richard Henry Lee’s prior motion for independence was again read aloud. Congress immediately resolved into the committee of the whole. John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, stood to be heard. He recalled and clarified all the previous arguments against “premature” separation from Britain. Silence prevailed, and then John Adams rose to speak in support of the motion.
Each colony was allowed one vote. The individual delegations negotiated among themselves and their vote was cast according to the majority’s wishes. After much debate, a preliminary vote was taken. Nine colonies voted in the affirmative, two against, and two abstained.
New York abstained, claiming the delegates had not received adequate instructions from their constituents. Delaware, with only two of its delegates present, one for and one against separation, could not cast a vote.
Pennsylvania’s all-important seven-man delegation voted no. Three voted for independence and three others aligned with John Dickinson and voted no. This was very surprising because every county in Pennsylvania had just sent representatives to a conference to determine the citizens’ desires. The outcome instructed the Pennsylvania delegates to vote for independence.
South Carolina shockingly voted no as well. Edward Rutledge, of South Carolina, knowing that unanimity on such a momentous matter was of utmost importance, moved that the final vote be postponed until the next day. The others vigorously agreed.
Once again, official records of the next day proceedings were very sparse. Just as the doors of Philadelphia’s State House were being locked, Delaware’s missing delegate, Caesar Rodney, who ardently supported independence, entered. His appearance put Delaware’s vote in the affirmative column.
Strangely, there were two empty seats in the Pennsylvania delegation. John Dickinson and Robert Morris voluntarily chose not appear. That allowed the Pennsylvania delegation with a 3-2 split to cast its vote in favor of independence.
As speculated when Rutledge moved to delay the vote, South Carolina also voted for independence. The New York delegation still claimed they had not received instructions and continued to abstain.
The final vote for separation was 12 to 0. David McCullough, in his book “John Adams,” states, “If not all thirteen clocks had stuck as one, twelve had, and with the other silent, the effect was the same.”
There was no time for celebration because Congress had to approve the document’s wording. That task fell primarily on Thomas Jefferson’s shoulders. It became another painful ordeal. Congress changed and eliminated about one-fourth of what Jefferson wrote. Finally it was agreed upon, and on July 4 the vote on the final language was taken. As before, it was 12 to 0 with one abstention.
There was no hoopla to commemorate the finalization. Only John Hancock and Charles Thomson, secretary of Congress, signed it. July 8 became the great day of celebration when the Declaration of Independence was read at noon in the state house yard.
The actual signing by all the members did not take place until Aug. 2, after an exact replica had been engrossed on a giant sheet of parchment. Again, there was no ceremony. For the time being, it was important to keep the names of the signers secret because, in the eyes of the Crown, they had committed treason.
Those in Congress who had been ardently opposed to declaring independence now became full-fledged patriots. John Dickinson, the voice for reconciliation, rode off at the head of the first troops to march out of the city and the defense of New Jersey. This made an acute impression on many to include John Adams. “Mr. Dickinson’s alacrity and spirit,” he told Abigail, “certainly becomes his character and sets a fine example.”
Adams mistakenly thought that the great day of remembrance would be July 2. Writing one more letter to his wife he declared, “It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty” and celebrated with parades, bells, bonfire and illuminations.
This glorious Fourth, let’s strive to be like John Dickinson and set aside our political differences. May we absorb, internalize and truly understand that Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness come from our Creator and not government. Rejoice, celebrate and be thankful our founders were true patriots.
WILLEE COOPER is a former teacher and military spouse. A Hopkinsville resident, she is past president of the Kentucky Federation of Republican Women. Her column runs twice a month. Reach her at email@example.com.