“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 forever more.” John Adams may have been off a few days in describing to his wife Abigail the forthcoming date of envisaged festivities sure to accompany a nation having just established its independence; however, his underlying assumptions were indeed prescient.
Although as Americans we often pay homage to the sacrifices of our nation’s Founding Fathers, we less frequently reflect upon how tenuous the prevailing conditions were that surrounded the colonies and rendered the likelihood of independence uncertain. As we celebrate the Fourth of July this weekend we can achieve a greater appreciation for the unqualified blessings that have accompanied America’s unique experiment in both individual and political freedom as we recount the tremendous struggle that engrossed the members of the Second Continental Congress 234 years ago.
Time has shrouded the period of American creation in both mystery and reverence. Although a fair amount of esteem has been rendered the seminal figures of the founding generation, the notion of unanimity in deference to independence has proven more a byproduct of time than reality. Independence was not inevitable; not following the increasingly noxious string of parliamentary edicts handed down to the colonies nor even in the wake of outright aggression. Accommodation with Great Britain was still seen by many as the more responsible and judicious course of action.
John Dickinson, a lawyer and continental congressman from Pennsylvania, led a group who believed that American independence was imprudent. Like many others, Dickinson sought to achieve a redress of grievances from the King rather than advocate for a separation from Great Britain. To this end, Dickinson helped author the Olive Branch Petition, an extended hand of reconciliation offered to the King and seeking his guidance in addressing the concerns of the colonists.
The public’s opinion toward independence began to coalesce following the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense; however, skepticism toward its realization remained substantial. As the appointed delegates of each respective colony convened in Philadelphia to address the ongoing struggles with Great Britain it became apparent that no succor from King George III would be achieved. The King’s rejection of Dickinson’s Olive Branch Petition confirmed this anxiety and offered the advocates for independence an opening.
On May 15, 1776, John Adams provided a declaratory preamble which anticipated America’s movement toward self-governance. Designed to accompany the authorization to create new governments in each respective colony, the Adams preamble effectively foreshadowed broader independence from Great Britain. Having been adopted, Adams believed the preamble a turning point on the road to a free and independent America, declaring, “This Day the Congress has passed the most important Resolution, that ever was taken in America.”
Following the Adams preamble a formal resolution seeking independence was introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. On June 7, 1776, Lee’s resolution, seconded by John Adams, was introduced to congress. “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought 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.”
Debate on Lee’s resolution was halted for a number of weeks as members of congress continued to seek guidance from their respective colonial governments. A “Committee of Five” was convened to draft a declaration suitable to the intentions of Lee’s resolution, should its adoption be secured. As Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Adams began preparing what would become the quintessential ethos of the American foundation, many others within the continental congress sought to reconcile their disagreements and achieve a consensus toward independence.
This process was tumultuous and fraught with disagreement but the culmination of years of struggle and aggression saw a vote on Lee’s resolution brought before the congress on July 2, 1776. Voting unanimously, with only New York’s delegates abstaining, the Second Continental Congress adopted Lee’s resolution and severed ties with Great Britain, proclaiming America a free and independent nation. Two days later the continental congress would adopt the language provided by the “Committee of Five” and place their signatures upon the Declaration of Independence.
Over time we have come to take for granted the immense freedoms enjoyed by virtue of our American heritage. The long road to freedom and independence that marked the years leading to July 4, 1776, were conspicuous with the blood and sacrifice of those who fought for its realization. As we celebrate this Fourth of July let us remember those sacrifices as well as the countless others that have subsequently affirmed our liberties. As John Adams reflected in a letter to his wife Abigail, “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 Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction.”