Fourth of July should have been the second: all the delegates agreed that a Declaration of Independence, if needed, should not be hastily written.
In June of 1776, the American colonies were seething with revolt. King George II and the British Parliament had forced the colonies to endure "repeated injuries and usurpations" leading to the establishment of "an absolute tyranny," as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration.
There were four primary grievances.
* First and foremost was taxation without representation. As free British subjects, the colonists objected to being burdened by special taxes placed on them from 3,000 miles away.
* Parliament overrode the protests, even dissolving the Virginia House of Burgesses, making the colonists feel like second-class citizens.
* England also dictated a monopoly of American exports and imports, exploiting the colonists by charging higher prices, which resulted in exorbitant British profits.
* Perhaps the last straw was the quartering of English troops in American homes to repress any actions against the Crown.
Such violations of the rights cherished by Americans led to a series of violent incidents. British troops had fired into an unarmed crowd in Boston. To protest the hated tax on tea, colonists, disguised as Indians, raided and heaved overboard a shipload of this key import in what became known as the Boston Tea Party In retaliation, England blocked all shipping in and put of the harbor, strangling New England trade. This led to the battles of Lexington and Concord.
As the Continental Congress debated in Philadelphia, a strong moderate faction was anxious to avoid war and was pushing for reconciliation with England. After all, Great Britain was the major power of the day The moderates didn't think the lowly colonists could win, and the congressional representatives were primarily landed gentry who had much to lose in the event of war.
Matters came to a head on June 7, 1776, when Richard Henry Lee, following instructions from the Virginia Assembly laid before the Continental Congress a resolution calling for the colonies to be "free and independent states, absolved of all allegiance to the British Crown."
The resolution set off a ferocious debate, with moderates arguing that the timing was wrong, since the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware were undecided on the issue. The delegates agreed to postpone further debate to July 1. However, a committee was appointed to draft a declaration of independence since all the delegates agreed that such a document, if needed, should not be hastily written.
The committee consisted of Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The aging Franklin was incapacitated by an attack of gout, and neither Sherman nor Livingston was an experienced writer. The drafting fell to Adams and Jefferson. Jefferson, who was 33 at the time, deferred to the older Adams, who was known as the Father of the Revolution.
However, Adams refused. When Jefferson asked why Adams pointed out that a Virginian. would be better received than a hothead from Massachusetts. He also admitted that his personality rubbed many people the wrong way When Jefferson demurred politely Adams won him over by gruffly saying, "You can write 10 times better than I can."
Jefferson poured himself into the task in his rented quarters at Market and Seventh streets in Philadelphia. After incorporating minor changes from fellow committee members, Jefferson submitted his document to Congress on June 28. It was read and tabled. On July 1, Congress returned to the debate on the resolution for independence.
John Dickenson of Pennsylvania spoke for the moderates. To abandon the protection of Great Britain, he declared, "would be like destroying our house in winter and exposing a growing family before we have got another shelter."
When the vote was cast, four states did not vote for independence, and it began to look as if the cause might divide and destroy the colonies rather than unite them. Wiser heads moved to postpone the question to the following day.
That night there was frenzied activity The Delaware delegation was split and an express rider was dispatched to Dover to urge Caesar Rodney the missing delegate, to come and cast his pro-independence vote. Southern delegates converged on Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, cajoling and pressuring him to avoid a split among the colonists. Other states threw the Pennsylvania delegates off balance by pointing out that in the state's recent elections, pro-independence candidates had easily won.
The next morning, Rodney came galloping up to Independence Hall after an 80-mile ride through pelting rain. Rutledge reversed South Carolina's position. The anti-independence delegates from Pennsylvania absented themselves, providing a 3-2 majority from that state favoring separation from Britain.
New York remained the only holdout. That state's delegation abstained, even though the delegates themselves favored independence; they had not received instructions in favor of the vote from their state's assembly. New York approved the vote on July 9.
With all the obstacles removed on July 2, the vote for independence carried by the end of the day
On July 3, Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence was scrutinized and debated, word for word, by the entire Congress. Some sentences were deleted as being too critical of the English people. One entire paragraph was struck--it contained Jefferson's slashing attack on the slave trade and was opposed by Georgia and South Carolina, the only southern states to still permit the importation of slaves, and the northern states that had a financial interest in transporting the slaves.
The debate continued into the next day and in spite of heavy editing, the final document reflected the spirit and genius of Jefferson.
"The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, two days after the actual vote for independence.
John Adams, the country's second president, wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail: "The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival."
Adams was half right. Because the Declaration took two days to edit, the country celebrates its independence on the Fourth of July a testimony to the power of the written word.