By Rev. Peter Marshall
From the new edition of The Light and The Glory – 2008
In Philadelphia an almost fantasy-like refusal to accept the reality of what had already taken place seems to have held the colonial representatives firmly in its thrall. So strong was it that they spent much time carefully drafting a conciliatory appeal addressed directly to King George who, when it was presented to him, disdained to even look at it.
The situation was reminiscent of the Israelites in the wilderness, convincing one another that they had been better off in Egypt, and growing daily more certain that the only thing to do was to go back. For out in the wilderness they were forced to face the unknown and to put their entire trust in God. There was no one else to trust! Forgotten was all memory of the slave pits and the grinding, hopeless existence they knew, before the Lord God of Hosts delivered them. All they could remember now was that their bellies had been full, and they had known where their next meal was coming from, even if it was only stale crusts.
It may well have been the unknown – of having to trust in God, because there was nowhere else to turn – that was causing many delegates to Congress in 1776 to turn their thoughts back to a less perilous time of the 1740’s, or fifties, or sixties.
There were, however, a few realists in Congress who were not trying to escape into fantasy – men like John and Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry and the others from Virginia. At least, John Adams, often the most persevering of the realists, had the benefit of having a wife with an extraordinary awareness of exactly what was at stake. As Abigail wrote to him on June 18:
“I feel no anxiety at the large armament designed against us. The remarkable interpositions of heaven in our favor cannot be too gratefully acknowledged. He who fed the Israelites in the wilderness, who clothes the lilies of the field and who feeds the young ravens when they cry, will not forsake a people engaged in so righteous a cause, if we remember His loving kindness.”
Adams and the other realists saw clearly that events had progressed beyond the point of no return, and that to go back now would be to go back under England’s terms – under a far-from-benevolent dictatorship. For despite the support of eloquent and high-minded Members of Parliament, the prevailing sentiment there reflected the King’s own intransigence (as well it might, since George III’s personal patronage had bought the majority of the seats). In the Kings eyes, the only way to deal with rebellion was to crush it. To show even the slightest mercy was to invite a recurrence in the future.
Nevertheless, great Parliamentarians like Pitt, Burke, and Fox, in speaking out for the cause of America, reached heights of oratory seldom heard since the days of Rome.
Of those in sympathy with the American cause, the most impressive address came not from the House of Lords, but from the House of Commons. There, Mr. George Johnstone spoke in terms so ringing that he might have been standing alongside Samuel Adams or Patrick Henry.
“To a mind who loves to contemplate the glorious spirit of freedom, no spectacle can be more affecting than the action on Bunker Hill. To see an irregular peasantry commanded by a physician (he was referring to Patriot leader Dr. Joseph Warren, killed as one of the last defenders), inferior in number, opposed by every circumstance of cannon and bombs that could terrify timid minds, calmly waiting the attack of the gallant Howe leading on the best troops in the world, with an excellent train of artillery, and twice repulsing those very troops who had often chased the chosen battalions of France, and at last retiring for want of ammunition, but in so respectable a manner that they were not even pursued—who can reflect on such scenes and not adore the constitution of government which could breed such men! Who is there that can dismiss all doubts on the justice of the cause which can inspire such conscious rectitude?
The conduct of the people of New England for wisdom, courage, temperance, fortitude and all those qualities that can command the admiration of noble minds, is not surpassed in the history of any nation under the sun. Instead of wreaking our vengeance against that colony, their heroism alone should plead their forgiveness.”
Neither the King, nor any of his Ministers, nor any of his bought Members of Parliament, had ears to hear. That same day, George III publicly announced his decision to crush the rebellion by force of arms, including the use of mercenaries. When the ensuing debate was finally over, the House of Lords voted in favor of the King’s address, 76 to 33, and Commons voted 278 to 108 in favor. England declared war.
Even so, seven months later, as the first week of June, 1776, drew to a close, the majority of men in Congress in Philadelphia were hoping against hope that some eleventh-hour formula for reconciliation might be found. They were aware of what it would mean, and how much it might personally cost them, if they were to cast their votes with those few who were now calling for an open declaration of independence. Such a move would close the door forever to any possibility of rapprochement with the Crown. Down on their necks would come the full military might on land and sea of the greatest power on earth. Even if they were truly united, they could not hope to stand up to such a force for long.
All their debates over the past weeks had indicated how utterly separated and individualistic these Thirteen Colonies actually still were. It would take a miracle of God to bring them into unity. . . . Dare they commit the Colonies they represented to such peril?
Though none of the delegates openly spoke of their personal jeopardy, it was surely on the mind of more than a few. The men who signed such a declaration would, in the quite probable event of America’s defeat, be held personally responsible. And throughout the British Empire, the penalty for instigating rebellion against the Crown was death. As Ben Franklin put it wryly, “Gentlemen, we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we will all be hanged separately.”
The yearning to be free and stay free was gaining momentum. On May 10, town meetings all over Massachusetts had unanimously voted in favor of independence. On May 15, the Virginia Convention voted for independence. And on June 7, documented evidence arrived of the treaties which George III had made with the German princes, purchasing the use of their mercenaries in America. In the face of that, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia formally proposed that Congress make a declaration of independence, stating that these united Colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states. John Adams immediately seconded the proposal. After a day’s debate, Congress adjourned for three weeks to let the doubtful representatives of the middle Colonies go home to sound out the will of their constituents.
In the meantime, Franklin, Adams, Sherman of Connecticut, Livingston of New York, and young Jefferson of Virginia hurried to draw up a draft of the proposed declaration.
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal. . . . We, therefore, the representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States. . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
Jefferson did most of the final composing, borrowing heavily from the popular phraseology of the day – except for the two phrases, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions” and “with a Firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence.” Congress insisted upon including these phrases, over Jefferson’s vehement objection, for he was a confirmed “enlightened rationalist,” soon to become privately a Unitarian.
So resentful was Jefferson at their tampering with his prose, that he sent copies of his original draft to his personal friends, that they might better appreciate his unedited effort.
June 28: The convention of Maryland voted for independence. Word reached Philadelphia that New Jersey had dismissed her old delegates and was sending new ones, who were instructed to vote for independence.
July 1: Congress entered what John Adams called “the greatest debate of all.” Dickinson of Pennsylvania spoke eloquently and at length against independence. When he had finished, there was a long and thoughtful silence. Adams kept hoping that someone “less obnoxious” than himself, who was “believed to be the author of all the mischief,” would rise to answer. But none did, and so, with great reluctance, Adams rose. And he spoke with such quiet power and conviction that not a man present remained unmoved, especially as he reached his conclusion:
“Before God, I believe the hour has come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it. And I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, Independence now, and Independence for ever!”
No one spoke. Just then, the door swung open and in strode a mud-spattered figure with two others behind him. It was Dr. John Witherspoon, at the head of the New Jersey delegation. Apologizing for being late, he said that although he had not heard the debate, he had not lacked sources of information on the various issues. “Gentlemen, New Jersey is ready to vote for independence. In our judgment, the country is not only ripe for independence, but we are in danger of becoming rotten for the want of it, if we delay any longer.”
The Congress proceeded to the vote, and nine of the thirteen Colonies voted with New Jersey that day: Pennsylvania and South Carolina votedno, and New York abstained. Delaware was split, one delegate to one.
Since Congress was, in effect, only acting as a committee on behalf of the whole country, they had agreed that any decision on the Declaration would have to be unanimous. It was decided that debate would resume the next morning, to be followed by another vote. In the meantime, to resolve the Delaware deadlock, which could well decide the outcome, an express rider was dispatched to Dover, which would become the capital of Delaware, to fetch their third delegate, Caesar Rodney.
A Patriot of deep conviction, Rodney had been summoned home on urgent business. But now the express rider arrived at his farm at two in the morning, bearing word that debate would resume in less than seven hours, after which the final vote would be taken. Quickly getting dressed and saddling his best horse, Rodney galloped off into the pitch-black, stormy night. It was eighty-nine miles to Philadelphia, over stretches of road which were difficult under the best of conditions, and this night the conditions could hardly have been worse. Streams which were normally fordable with ease had become swollen torrents, and the rain had turned one portion of the road into a quagmire so deep that Rodney had to dismount and lead his horse through it, to avoid its being crippled.
Unable to obtain a fresh change of horses until dawn, Rodney nevertheless arrived at the State House by 1:00 p.m. just as the final vote was being taken. Half-carried into the assembly room, he was barely able to speak: “As I believe the voice of my constituents and of all sensible and honest men is in favor of independence, my own judgment concurs with them. I vote for independence.”
Few knew the circumstances surrounding Rodney’s vote. Caesar Rodney had cancer of the face, so advanced that he had taken to wearing a scarf around his neck to hide the disfigurement of his jaw. He had been planning a trip to England, because he had heard of a doctor in London, who might be able to help him. But he, and every man in that room, was well aware that if they declared independence Britain would immediately declare war on America and invade the Colonies. Caesar Rodney knew that he might never see England before he died of cancer. Nonetheless, without a moment’s hesitation, he voted “aye” for independence.
The last line of the document he had just voted to approve says: “With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we pledge to one another our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
With his vote Rodney had literally pledged his life – and gave us the Declaration. Had he voted “Nay,” Delaware’s vote would have been “Nay,” for the other two delegates had once again split their vote. Lacking a unanimous vote, the issue would have been tabled.
As it was, the vote was unanimous – twelve to none, with New York abstaining. The Thirteen Colonies had just become the United States of America.
In the silence that followed the announcement of the vote, the afternoon sun cast its soft rays through the tall windows – on a brass candlestick standing on a green felt table-covering, a carved eagle over the door, a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles lying on a polished desk.
The magnitude of what they had done began to weigh upon them, and they realized that they and their countrymen were no longer Englishmen, but citizens of a fledging nation barely a few minutes old. Many stared out the window. Some had tears in their eyes. A few, like Witherspoon, bowed their heads and closed their eyes in prayer.
Two days later, as President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock would legalize the Declaration by placing his famous signature on it. Now, he broke the silence: “Gentlemen, the price on my head has just been doubled!”
A month after the vote was taken, delegates who wished to sign the Declaration of Independence began gathering in Philadelphia on August 1. That evening, Samuel Adams spoke to those who had arrived, and put into sharp spiritual focus what they had accomplished: “We have this day restored the Sovereign, to Whom alone men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and. . . from the rising to the setting sun, may his Kingdom come.”