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July 4, 1776: The Die is Cast for Independence

A dramatization of the representatives of the 13 colonies voting on a resolution to approve a declaration of independence from the British Crown

Excerpts from a letter from John Adams to his wife dated July 3, 1776, the evening before that fateful vote:

Had a declaration of independence been made seven months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious effects. We might, before this hour, have formed alliance with foreign states. We should have mastered Quebec and been in possession of Canada.

But, on the other hand, the delay of this declaration to this time has many great advantages attending it. The hopes of reconciliation which were fondly entertained by multitudes of honest and well-meaning, though short-sighted and mistaken, people have been gradually, and at last totally, extinguished. Time has been given for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independence, and to ripen their judgment, dissipate their fears, and allure their hopes, by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets, by debating it in assemblies, conventions, committees of safety and inspection, in town and county meetings, as well as in private conversations, so that the whole people, in every colony, have now adopted it as their own act. This will cement the union, and avoid those heats, and perhaps convulsions, which might have been occasioned by such a declaration six months ago.

But the day is past. The second day of July, 1776, will be a 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, shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.

You may 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 light and glory; I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph, although you and I may rue, which I hope we shall not.

As it turned out, of course, as it was July 4th, not July 2nd, that has become the date of our great Anniversary Festival.

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And what those 56 brave men who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor? Here is what it cost them*:

Seventeen of the signers served in the military during the American Revolution. Thomas Nelson was a colonel in the Second Virginia Regiment and then commanded Virginia military forces at the Battle of Yorktown. William Whipple served with the New Hampshire militia and was one of the commanding officers in the decisive Saratoga campaign. Oliver Wolcott led the Connecticut regiments sent for the defense of New York and commanded a brigade of militia that took part in the defeat of General Burgoyne. Caesar Rodney was a Major General in the Delaware militia and John Hancock was the same in the Massachusetts militia.

Five of the signers were captured by the British during the war. Captains Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, and Arthur Middleton (South Carolina) were all captured at the Battle of Charleston in 1780; Colonel George Walton was wounded and captured at the Battle of Savannah. Richard Stockton of New Jersey never recovered from his incarceration at the hands of British Loyalists and died in 1781.

Colonel Thomas McKean of Delaware wrote John Adams that he was “hunted like a fox by the enemy—compelled to remove my family five times in a few months, and at last fixed them in a little log house on the banks of the Susquehanna . . . and they were soon obliged to move again on account of the incursions of the Indians.” Abraham Clark of New Jersey had two of his sons captured by the British during the war. The son of John Witherspoon, a major in the New Jersey Brigade, was killed at the Battle of Germantown.

Eleven signers had their homes and property destroyed. Francis Lewis’s New York home was destroyed and his wife was taken prisoner. John Hart’s farm and mills were destroyed when the British invaded New Jersey and he died while fleeing capture. Carter Braxton and Thomas Nelson (both of Virginia) lent large sums of their personal fortunes to support the war effort, but were never repaid.

*Source: Independence Forever: Why America Celebrates the Fourth of July

Let us then shake off the seductions of those who believe that freedom is our natural entitlement, and recall that to every generation anew falls the duty and privilege of defending our liberties and working to offer the blessings of freedom to all peoples of the earth.

(cross-posted at And Rightly So!)

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