Contrary to popular belief, American independence wasn't born in a single day of fireworks and parades. It unfolded over a crucial month in 1776, culminating in a document that defied an empire. This lesser-known story deserves to be unearthed, for it reveals the true spirit and sacrifice behind the birth of a nation.
This article is going to tell the tale of American Independence Day which has been over simplified to a single day, and quite frankly the wrong day.
The Lee Resolution
The journey towards independence began not on July 4th, but a month earlier, on June 7th, 1776. This is when Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, boldly proposed the Lee Resolution in the Continental Congress. This pivotal document declared,
“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.”
The resolution was thought to be premature and on June 11, 1776 the Lee Resolution was postpone by a vote of seven to five (New York didn’t vote). Before the Continental Congress went on their three week recess, the committee of five was formed to draft a public Declaration of Independence.
On June 30th the Continental Congress reconvened and the Lee Resolution was put to a vote. New York again abstained. The New York delegates were waiting for instructions from their newly elected state legislature. Eleven colonies voted in favor of independence. The delegates from Delaware were split. One was in favor, one was against, and the third was not present. The Continental Congress insisted that the vote must be unanimous.
Caesar Rodney’s Midnight Ride
Unanimity was required. This is where Caesar Rodney, the third delegate for Delaware, entered the scene. Performing his duty as a general in Delaware, Rodney received news of the stalled vote on July 1st. He knew the fate of independence hung in the balance.
In an act of selfless dedication, Rodney mounted his horse and rode eighty grueling miles through a thunderstorm and the dark of night, arriving at Independence Hall just as voting began on July 2nd. Still in his riding boots and spurs, Rodney cast the deciding vote, tipping the scales in favor of independence.
Rodney's sacrifice went beyond the immediate. He was battling cancer, and signing the Declaration of Independence meant severing ties with his doctor in England. Yet, he chose the future of his nation over personal comfort.
The Declaration of Independence
After the passage of the Lee Resolution on July 2nd, 1776, the Committee of Five presented a draft of the public Declaration of Independence. The Continental Congress debated the specifics of the Declaration of Independence for the remainder of July 2nd and through July 3rd. On July 4th 1776 the Declaration of Independence was approved.
Two hundred copies were ordered from John Dunlap. These copies, known as the Dunlap Broadsides, only included the names of the President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, and the Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson. There are twenty-six copies of the Dunlap Broadside know to exist today.
Fifty-six men signed the Declaration of Independence, but not on July 4th. According to records, only forty-nine delegates were present on July 4th and New York was still waiting for instructions from home. The New York delegates did not receive permission to vote in favor of independence until July 15th. It is quite possible that President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, and the Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thompson may have been the only two people who signed on July 4th.
August 2nd, 1776
August 2nd 1776 was not a celebratory day within the Continental Congress. This was the day the 56 delegates signed their name to the most treasonous document in history. This was the day these men pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in the name of Independence. This was the day these men signed their own death warrant.
In the eerily silent Independence Hall, the Secretary called the delegates names. One at a time they rose and solemnly walked to the front of the room and signed their names to the Declaration of Independence.
When Eldridge Gerry was called upon, the silence was broken with a bit of gallows humor. Gerry, for whom gerrymandering was later named, stood a mere five feet four inches tall and only weighed a hundred pounds. When he, the smallest man present was called, Colonel Benjamin Harrison, the largest man present said,
“I shall have a great advantage over you Mr. Gerry when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
This morbid bit of humor shows that these men knew the seriousness of their actions.
These men present on August 2nd may not have been all of the same men present a month earlier for the votes on July 2nd and 4th. It is possible delegates could have been replaced by the state legislatures. Whither they were present for the votes or not, these are the men signing their lives away.
July 2nd: A Day to Remember, a Legacy to Honor
American independence, therefore, was not a singular event confined to July 4th. It was a month-long saga of deliberation, sacrifice, and unwavering resolve, culminating in the signing of the Declaration of Independence on August 2nd.
John Adams, a Founding Father and future president, understood this truth. He famously wrote to his wife Abigail,
"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."
Adams championed July 2nd as the true Independence Day, even declining invitations to celebrations held on July 4th. His conviction stemmed from the recognition that the vote on July 2nd marked the turning point, the collective decision to break free from a monarchy and forge a new destiny.
A Call To Remember
By understanding the full journey, stretching from the Lee Resolution's bold declaration on June 7th to the solemn signing on August 2nd, we honor the sacrifices made and the principles that shaped our nation. It is a story that transcends fireworks and barbeques, reminding us of the courage, conviction, and unity that gave birth to a democracy.
Recognizing the significance of July 2nd does not diminish the importance of July 4th. The official adoption of the Declaration of Independence remains a crucial milestone, a day of public declaration and resounding affirmation of independence. However, it is essential to view these dates not as isolated moments, but as interconnected chapters within the broader narrative of American independence.
Therefore, let us celebrate both the symbolic power of July 4th and the quiet determination exhibited on July 2nd. Let us educate future generations about the entire timeline, from the initial spark of the Lee Resolution to the final flourish of the pen on August 2nd. By doing so, we ensure that the true story of American independence, with its complexities and sacrifices, continues to resonate through the ages.
Furthermore, acknowledging the full timeline presents an opportunity to:
Deepen historical understanding: Studying the entire month allows for a more nuanced appreciation of the political maneuvering, debate, and compromise that led to independence.
Honor unsung heroes: Figures like Caesar Rodney whose role is often overshadowed by July 4th festivities, deserve their place in the spotlight.
Spark meaningful discussions: Exploring the diverse perspectives and motivations of the Founding Fathers can lead to engaging conversations about leadership and the cost of freedom.
In conclusion, remembering the complete story of American independence is not just an act of historical accuracy, but a tribute to the enduring spirit of a nation built on freedom and sacrifice. Let us keep the fires of knowledge burning bright, illuminating every chapter of this extraordinary journey for generations to come.