The Real Independence Day?
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. – John Adams to his wife Abigail
John Adams was certainly correct that Americans would long celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, parades, games, and other festivities. But the date he expected future generations to celebrate? That’s another matter.
To Adams, July 2 was America’s Independence Day. Although it is not the date we remember with fireworks, July 2, 1776 and the deliberations of the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia that led to it are certainly worth celebrating.
Before the Declaration of Independence was adopted, the colonists had to agree that independence from Britain was the right choice. More colonists were adopting this point of view, but on June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee forced the question (Lee’s relative Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee is the namesake of Lee County). On the instructions of the Virginia Convention, he introduced a resolution beginning: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States . . .”
John Adams seconded the resolution, but not all delegates were ready to join. Some believed their colonies did not support independence. Congress put off voting on the resolution, in part so delegates could receive instructions from home. In the meantime, it appointed a committee to draft a declaration in case Lee’s resolution was adopted.
The committee consisted of Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson, who took the lead on a draft. They presented their work on June 28, meaning there was a declaration of independence before there was independence.
Fierce debate over the underlying question of Lee’s resolution continued, and the vote on independence that had been scheduled for July 1 was put off another day. Delaware’s present delegates had deadlocked, so Caesar Rodney rode through a rainstorm all night to break the tie. Although ill and exhausted, he arrived just as debate started on July 2 and swung Delaware’s delegation toward independence while still wearing his boots and spurs.
In less dramatic fashion, other colonies holding out reached unanimity, and at last, all the colonial delegations present and able to vote on the question (New York still had not sent instructions for its delegates) agreed. Lee’s motion for independence passed on that long-ago July 2.
The task of finalizing the declaration of independence remained. Jefferson’s work was edited by the Congress and then, on July 4, approved, but apparently not yet signed. Most of the signers put their names on the document August 2. Representing Virginia, they included Jefferson, Lee, and George Wythe, the namesake of Wythe County. Fifty-six men ultimately signed the Declaration, pledging to the cause of independence “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
On July 9, soldiers under the command of General George Washington gathered in New York, where they were fighting the British, to hear the Declaration. Jefferson’s words are familiar to us today, but they were new to these soldiers. It fell to them to carry Jefferson’s words to victory, so that they could stand for all time and not be discarded as the empty creed of a failed cause.
The efforts of many patriots were needed to make independence real, from Lee to Jefferson to Washington and his men. The odds were long at the time, but the cause was worthy and the reward great. That reward – a free and prosperous nation – is one we enjoy today. So perhaps we can afford to celebrate Independence Day on July 2 and July 4.
If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office. You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.