The Path to Independence

By | Jun 30, 2017

How much do you actually know about what happened on and around July 4, 1776?

We all know that July 4th is the birthday of the United States, but is it really?

Events that led up to the birth of the United States started in 1774 when 56 representatives from 12 of the British Colonies meet in Philadelphia from September 5 to October 26. They created a Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress in response to the Intolerable Acts.

A second Continental Congress was called to convene on May 10, 1775. Letters of invites to this congress was supposed to be issued to Georgia, Quebec, Saint John’s Island (now Prince Edward Island), Nova Scotia, Georgia, East Florida, and West Florida. It appears that only Georgia and Quebec actually received these invitation letters.

The 12 colonies came together on May 10, 1775, Georgia didn’t arrive until July. By the time this congress convened, the Battles of Lexington and Concord had been fought and war had begun. Congress was to take charge of the war effort. On June 14, 1775, the Congress voted to create the Continental Army out of the militia units around Boston and appointed George Washington, at the time a delegate of Virginia, as commanding general of the Continental Army.

While Congress was moving towards declaring independence from the British Empire many delegates lacked the authority from their home governments to take this action. That was until Richard Henry Lee, a representative from Virginia, received from The Virginia’s House of Burgesses new instructions. On May 15, 1776 the House of Burgesses resolved that “the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress” be instructed to propose to that respectable body to “declare the united Colonies free and independent states.”

Lee presented on June 6, 1776, a resolution to congress that read;

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.

That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.

That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

Debate began on the resolution, but it was decided to wait for three week so that the delegates could send the resolution to their home colonies and receive direction on voting. It also appeared to those present that the resolution would pass and that there needed to be a suitable declaration for the resolution.

On June 11, 1776 a committee, consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, was formed. They were known as the Committee of Five.

The committee delegated that Jefferson would write the draft. Jefferson and the committee worked on it from June 12 until June 27. Franklin and Adams made several minor corrections and the entire committee made additional changes and additions, a total of forty-seven alterations including the insertion of three complete paragraphs to Jefferson’s original draft. Jefferson then produced another copy incorporating these changes and the committee presented this copy to the Continental Congress on Friday June 28, 1776.

On Monday July 1st, congress began debate on the Lee Resolution.

Delaware had three delegates representing the colony. Delaware had just recently declared their independence not only from England but also from Pennsylvania with whom they shared a Royal Governor. The three delegates were Thomas Mckean and Caesar Rodney who were for Independence, and George Reed who was against. When debate began Rodney was in Dover Delaware. As a Militia General he was seeing to the command of his troops. (Some stories are that Rodney was on his death bed. While it is true that he had a rare form of facial cancer that left him disfigured and in constant discomfort he was not at his home due to the disease. In fact Rodney lived for nearly 8 more years).

Thomas McKean, who was on the side of independence, sent a dispatch to Caesar Rodney who received it on July 1st, the day before the vote would be taken. He quickly mounted his horse and began the 80 miles trip to Philadelphia. He rode throughout the night. While he rode he encountered a severe thunderstorm. He continued to ride through the rain that turned the road to mud. He arrived shortly after the delegates returned to the Congress after their lunch break, just before the final vote was taken on Tuesday July 2nd. When Delaware was called he rose and voted in favor of Independence. George Read, the Delaware delegate who was against Independence, did sign the Declaration.

South Carolina still wasn’t in favor of independence, but Edward Rutledge, who opposed independence and had made many motions to delay the vote, convinced the delegation that for the sake of unanimity, they should vote in favor. The New York delegation abstained, since they did not have instructions from their home government. The Vote for Independence had passed.

In a letter that John Adams sent to his wife Abigail on July 3, 1776 he said;

The second day of July, 1776, will be the most 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 and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore.

Finally at a little after 11 o’clock on Thursday morning July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved. Again the New York delegation abstained from the vote, but did approve the Declaration five days later. This vote was after many hours of debate during the previous two days. There were thirty-nine revisions to the committee’s draft, including the deletion of language that denounced King George III for promoting slave trade.

John Hancock, as President of Congress, and Charles Thompson, Secretary of Congress signed the document. They were the only two to sign the document on July 4th.

It wasn’t until July 19th that congress ordered that the Declaration to be officially inscribed and signed by its members. Congressional delegates began to sign the officially inscribed copy on August 2nd. It was even signed by some members who had not voted for its adoption and some who were not present at Congress when the vote was cast.

Note:
This was originally written in 2006 and has been revised and republished on various sites each year since then.


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