Nearly a month after the conflicts at Lexington and Concord, delegates gathered together in the city of Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Their goal was to resume where the First Continental Congress had left off the following year, and although independence may have been on the minds of many, it was still a subject that had yet to be openly discussed by the Congress.
Who were these men who put aside their lives and came together to alter the course of America’s history? Some of them you know, some you don’t. For instance, three future presidents were in attendance; George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adam’s cousin Samuel was also in attendance as was Benjamin Franklin. Are you aware that there were at least two physicians in attendance as well; Benjamin Rush and Josiah Bartlett?
People look back on this event almost as if it were something out of a Hollywood movie, but they fail to realize the solemnity under which these men gathered together; the Colony of Massachusetts had openly engaged in armed conflict with the King’s men and their actions may very well draw the ire of the King upon all the Colonies. Yet at the same time, they too had suffered under the increasingly oppressive laws passed by Parliament. People read about Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to hold the world upon his shoulders for eternity; well these men also had heavy burdens on their shoulders; as the choices they made would affect the future of the American Colonies.
Prior to adjourning the previous October, the First Continental Congress had sent a petition to King George III hoping to avoid a full blown conflict with Britain. When the Second Continental Congress met the following spring they had yet to receive the King’s response. It was highly unlikely that the Colonies petition would do any good, as a letter written by John Adams to a friend had been intercepted by the Kings men in which Adams declared that there had been enough talk of peace and reconciliation; that the Colonies should have already raised a Navy and taken British sailors prisoners. When word of this reached the King it was enough to convince him of the insincerity of their petition, and he refused to even read it. The delegates were essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place; either acquiesce to whatever laws were passed by Parliament, or go to war to defend their rights.
In June, the Virginia delegation, headed by Richard Henry Lee, received authorization from their State Legislature to propose independence, and towards the end of June Lee read the following to the delegates of the Convention:
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.
Even after all the Colonies had endured at the hands of King George and Parliament, the idea of an independent America was one which many were not ready to consider. Yet the Congress had heard Lee’s resolution and assigned a Committee of Five to draft such a declaration. This committee, possibly at the suggestion of John Adams, chose a young Thomas Jefferson to be the principle author of that document. Jefferson reluctantly accepted the task at hand, not knowing that what he was about to write would contain the most oft repeated political phrase ever written by man.
When people hear the name Thomas Jefferson, I wonder what passes through their minds. Do they say, yeah, I’ve heard of him, and that’s all they think? Are they aware that Jefferson could read and write in Greek and Latin; that he was an inventor and an avowed collector of Native American artifacts?
I don’t think people today can even get their heads around the intelligence of some of our Founding Fathers. I look at the scribblings I write and compare them to the garbled English I see people use on the social media site Facebook and I wonder what kind of education those people got. Then I look at the things some of our Founders wrote, and compare it to what I write and I am ashamed to even think that I come close to the knowledge and writing skill they possessed.
At the top of my list of Founding Fathers is Thomas Jefferson; the knowledge that this one man possessed is absolutely mind boggling. James Madison, the so-called Father of our Constitution, wrote the following about Jefferson in a letter to Samuel Harrison Smith, “He was certainly one of the most learned men of the age. It may be said of him as has been said of others that he was a “walking Library,” and what can be said of but few such prodigies, that the Genius of Philosophy ever walked hand in hand with him.”
Over a century later, when President John F. Kennedy hosted 49 Nobel Prize winners at the White House, he is said to have commented, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
When Jefferson wrote something, he pondered each word, each sentence carefully; there was no wasted effort and no superfluous phrasing; he said what needed to be said, and he said it in such a way that it almost rang of poetry. I can only imagine how our Declaration of Independence may have sounded had they chosen anyone but Jefferson to write it.
When Jefferson sequestered himself away for the task assigned to him, he sought, not only to write a simple declaration stating that the Colonies sought independence and a list of the grievances against the King of England, he sought to write a formal declaration on the nature of our rights and the reasons for which governments exist, and those by which governments can be altered or torn down.
Even so, when Jefferson presented his first draft to the Committee of Five, they edited it down by nearly one fourth; as they felt some of what he had written would cause some delegates to the Congress to oppose it.
For instance, in his original draft Jefferson stated, “…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…”, thereby laying the blame for slavery at the feet of the King of England. Regardless of what was edited out, and how the sentence structure was altered, a final document was prepared and ready for the Congress to receive or reject.
I wonder if people today think about what took place in the days immediately preceding the voting to seek independence; do they think the delegates just unanimously decided, “Hey, we’ve had enough of old King George. Let’s write up a quick document declaring our independence and get on with it.” Is that what people think took place? I often think that is exactly what people think.
There were many in attendance who did not want independence, and when it came time to vote on Jefferson’s document they voted against it. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania voted against it, as did James Duane, Robert Livingston and John Jay of New York. Carter Braxton, Robert Morris, George Reed and Edward Rutledge opposed it, but voted in favor to give the impression of unanimous consent.
Many an impassioned argument was heard by the members in attendance; both for and against independence. One of the most memorable ones, at least for me, came from John Adams, who stated, “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote. It is true, indeed, that in the beginning we aimed not at independence. But there’s a Divinity that shapes our ends…Why, then, should we defer the Declaration?…You and I, indeed, may rue it. We may not live to see the time when this Declaration shall be made good. We may die; die Colonists, die slaves, die, it may be, ignominiously and on the scaffold.
“Be it so. Be it so.
“If it be the pleasure of Heaven that my country shall require the poor offering of my life, the victim shall be ready…. But while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country.”
In closing out this segment I would like to leave you with a few final words. I could have provided a few sundry quotes from the Declaration of Independence, but that would not do what Jefferson accomplished true justice. You need to find some time alone and sit down and read what Jefferson wrote and let it sink down into your hearts. You need to feel the soundness of his reasoning and let the truth of his words rise up in your breasts until you too understand the foundation upon which everything America was to stand for would be built.
And at the same time you must remember the solemnity of the occasion when the delegates were called upon to vote for or against Jefferson’s creation. Thirty five years after the vote was taken, and independence gained, Dr. Benjamin Rush sat down to write about that memorable day in a letter to John Adams, stating, “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”
That, above all things, is what you must remember about the day which saw 56 delegates vote to make America a free country; that they did so at the risk of everything they had. What they did showed the degree to which they were willing to stand up for their beliefs and a level of courage that is, if you ask me, relatively non-existent in this country today.
For better or worse the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence had burnt all bridges, there was no going back to the way things were; they would either gain their independence or they would die on the battlefields or the gallows.
Stay tuned for Part 5…