Friday, July 4, 2014
The Greatest Debate of All
The air was heavy and sticky with humidity. The sky was ominous. A summer storm was brewing and would soon break.
The town clock struck 10, and the doors of the hall clicked shut, locking in delegates from the 13 American Colonies.
It was Monday, July 1, 1776. The Continental Congress had reconvened.
The business of the morning was the greatest debate of all. The debate of independence.
John Hancock rapped the gavel, and Richard Henry Lee's motion for independence was once again read aloud.
Immediately John Dickinson took the floor. A delegate from Pennsylvania, Dickinson led the staunch, though scant, opposition. Earnestly he spoke against a premature separation from England. To separate now would be like braving the sea in a paper boat.
Standing rather alone against popular opinion, he presented his views with candor, eloquence, zeal and courage. In preparing his closing remarks he had counted the cost. Cost for himself. Cost for the Colonies. Unpopularity and ending of an illustrious political career juxtaposed with guilt. Guilt from remaining silent about what he believed.
The inevitable and dire costs of liberty were all too familiar to these men. The colonies had been engaged in a war for over a year. Men had died. Families were torn asunder. Loyalty was a dirty word.
The cost was great.
The object is great which we have in view, and we must expect a great expense of blood to obtain it. But we should always remember that a free constitution of civil government cannot be purchased at too dear a rate. (John Adams)
Silence reigned as Mr. Dickinson sat down. No one spoke. No one answered.
The silence inside was belied by the storm outside. Rain pelted the windows. Thunder. Lightening. Raging winds.
But then, a short and stocky lawyer from Braintree, MA rose from his seat, determined to speak.
John Adams may have wished in that moment that he had been endowed with oratorical skills. The subject before them was maybe the most vital subject any of them would ever have to decide on.
His voice steady against the tumultuous storm raging outside, John Adams once again made the case for independence. He was logical and positive, not particularly graceful or elegant or fluent. But he spoke with a power of thought and conviction that compelled the delegates to action.
"Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measures in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world."
It was the most important speech of John Adam's career. It was assuredly the most influential speech in the Continental Congress on this matter of independence.
He spoke for over an hour, sustaining the debate, and by the force of his reasoning demonstrating not only the justice, but the expediency of the measure. (Richard Stockton)
The preliminary vote that afternoon was not a decisive victory. Nine colonies voted for independence. The remaining four colony delegations were against or divided in their stance.
Nerves were high as the Congress was convened until the next morning. Would independence be a reality?
The final vote for liberty was cast on the morning of July 2, 1776.
12 colonies for independence.
A momentous day. A forever break.
"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 the continent to the other from this time forward forevermore."
The terminology and wording of the Declaration of Independence would be debated for a couple days, and then passed on July 4, 1776. The signatures of the delegates would not be affixed to the document until Friday, August 2.
Printed copies of the Declaration began to circulate, all with the date July 4, 1776, listed at the top. The deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams on July 4, 1826, may even have helped to promote the idea of July 4 as an important date to be celebrated.
Celebrations of the Fourth of July became more common as the years went on and in 1870, almost a hundred years after the Declaration was written, Congress first declared July 4 to be a national holiday.
The words and the deeds done in the July of that summer, have, like John Adams implied, affected the lives and liberties of millions born and unborn.
Our liberty is owed to their courage to stand up for what they believed-whether for or against independence. Our entire way of life is owed to their willingness to lay down their lives for our successive freedom. Our every day is owed to their momentous day.
It is because of this debate and vote that we can even have debates about Hobby Lobby and the definition of marriage and gun control. It is because of this debate and this vote, that we have free speech and freedom to worship and freedom to assemble and freedom to vote.
We're free, but freedom wasn't.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the government.