New York Abstains, John Dickinson is Absent
On the night of July 1, 1776, after a steamy heat-and-storm-laden day, the Continental Congress took a break from debating declaring independence from Britain. Nine colonies, a majority, voted for independence, but there was a desperate need for a unanimous vote. That night, came the dreadful news of 100 British warships off the shores of New York City. The final vote came the next day, on July 2nd. New York abstained (and we thank them). John Dickinson of the divided Philadelphia delegation was absent. We thank him too.
This has been my traditional Independence Day post for several years now. Taken from David McCullough’s John Adams, I never tire of rereading it.
A thought: Those were the days – [August 2, 1776 – the actual signing of the Declaration of Independence]
Even those in Congress who had been so ardently opposed, now, by word or deed, committed themselves to the “Glorious Revolution.”
Today, the birth of America could not happen.
Begin transcript snippet of John Adams:
Monday, July 1, 1776:
…began hot and steamy in Philadelphia and before the morning was ended a full-scale storm would break….
This morning is assigned the greatest debate of all,…A declaration, that these colonies are free and independent states,…May heaven prosper the newborn republic.
At ten o’clock, with the doors closed, John Hancock sounded the gavel. Richard Henry Lee’s prior motion calling for independence was again read aloud;…Immediately, [John] Dickinson, gaunt and deathly pale, stood to be heard. With marked earnestness, he marshaled all past argument and reasoning against “premature” separation from Britain.
My conduct this day, I expect, will give the finishing blow to my once great…and now too diminished popularity….But thinking as I do on the subject of debate, silence would be guilt.
Then he sat down and all was silent except the rain…No one spoke, no one rose to answer him, until Adams at last “determined to speak”….Outside the wind picked up. The storm struck with thunder, lightning, and pelting rain. He spoke on steadily, making the case for independence as he had so often before. He was logical, positive, sensitive to the historic importance of the moment, and looking into the future, saw a new nation, a new time,…
To [Thomas] Jefferson, Adams was “not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent,” but…
[Adams] spoke with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats….when later that evening a preliminary vote was taken, four colonies unexpectedly held back, refusing to proclaim independence. Pennsylvania stood with John Dickinson and voted no. The New York delegates abstained, saying they favored the motion but lacked specific instructions. South Carolina, too,…voted no, while Delaware, with only two delegates present, was divided. The missing Delaware delegate was Caesar Rodney, one of the most ardent of the independence faction. Where he was or when he might reappear was unclear, but a rider had been sent racing off to find him.
…Edward Rutledge [moved] that a final vote be postponed until the next day, implying that for the sake of unanimity, South Carolina might change its mind, Adams and others immediately agreed. For while the nine (9) colonies supporting independence made a clear majority, it was hardly the show of solidarity that such a step ought to have.
That night, at the City Tavern and at the lodging houses of the delegates, it was extremely tense. The crux of the matter was the Pennsylvania delegation, for in the preliminary vote three of the seven Pennsylvania delegates had gone against John Dickinson and declared in the affirmative, and it was of utmost interest that one of the three, along with Franklin and John Morton, was James Wilson, who, though a friend and ally of Dickinson, had switched sides to vote for independence. The question now was how many of the rest who were in league with Dickinson would on the morrow continue to “vote point blank against the known and declared sense of their constituents.”
To compound the tension that night, word reached Philadelphia of the sighting off New York of a hundred British [war] ships, the first arrivals of a fleet that would number over four hundred.
Tuesday, July 2:
…it appears that just as the doors to Congress were about to be closed at the usual hour of nine ‘clock, Caesar Rodney, mud-spattered, “booted and spurred,” made his dramatic entrance….Almost unimaginable, he had ridden eighty miles through the night, changing horses several times, to be there in time to cast his vote.
Yet more important even than the arrival of Rodney were two empty chairs among the Pennsylvania delegation. Refusing to vote for independence but understanding the need for Congress to speak with one voice, John Dickinson and Robert Morris has voluntarily absented themselves from the proceedings, thus swinging Pennsylvania behind independence by a vote of three to two. What private agreements had been made the night before, if any, who or how many had come to the State House that morning knowing what was afoot, no one recorded.
Outside, more rain threatened, and at about ten came another cloudburst….New York continued to abstain, but South Carolina, as hinted…joined the majority to make the decision unanimous in the sense that no colony stood opposed….
July 2, 1776:
So, it was done, the break was made…on July 2 , 1776, in Philadelphia, the American colonies declared independence. If not all thirteen clocks had struck as one, twelve had, and with the other silent, the effect was the same.
…in the privacy of two long letters to Abigail [his wife] [Adams wrote]: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 this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.
Lest she [Abigail] judge him [Adams] overly “transported,’ he said he was well aware of the…toil and blood and treasure that it will cost us to maintain this declaration.
Wednesday, July 3, 1776:
…But there could be no pause. There was too much still to be done. Congress had to review and approve the language of the drafted declaration before it could be made official. Deliberation of a different kind commenced at once, continuing through the next morning,…when mercifully the temperature had dropped ten degrees, broken by the storm of the previous day. For Thomas Jefferson it became a painful ordeal, as change after change was called for and approximately a quarter of what he had written was cut entirely. Seated beside Benjamin Franklin, the young Virginian looked on in silence. He is not known to have uttered a word in protest, or in defense of what he had written. Later he would describe the opposition to his draft as being like “the ceaseless action of gravity weighing upon us night and day.”
By July 3:
… 9,000 troops led by General William Howe had landed on Staten Island, where hundreds of Tories were on hand to welcome them. Howe himself had gone ashore on July 2, the very day that Congress had voted for independence, and in the days following, up the Narrows between Staten Island and Long Island came ever more British sails, including an armada of 130 warships and transports from England….
Thursday, July 4:
In later years the excessive summer heat of Philadelphia would frequently figure in accounts of Thursday, July 4, 1776. In fact, the day, like the one before, was pleasantly cool and comfortable. In Congress, discussion of the Declaration appears to have continued through the morning until about eleven o’clock, when debate was closed and the vote taken. Again, as on July 2, twelve colonies voted in the affirmative, while New York abstained. Again, John Dickinson was absent. It all went very smoothly. Congress ordered that the document be authenticated and printed. But it would be another month before the engrossed copy was signed by the delegates. For now, only the President, John Hancock, and the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson, fixed their signatures.
With passage of the declaration of Independence thus completed, and having thereby renounced allegiance to the King and proclaimed the birth of a new United States of America, the Congress proceeded directly to other business. Indeed, to all appearances, nothing happened in Congress on July 4, 1776.
Friday, July 5, 1776:
…printer John Dunlap had broadside editions available and the delegates were busy sending copies to friends.
Saturday, July 6, 1776:
…the Pennsylvania Evening Post carried the full text on its first page.
Monday, July 8, 1776:
The great day of celebration came Monday,…at noon in the State House Yard, when the declaration was read aloud before an exuberant crow. With drums pounding, five battalions paraded through the city and “on the common, gave us the feu de joie [thirteen cannon blasts], notwithstanding the scarcity of powder,”…Bells rang through the day and into the night. There were bonfires at street corners. Houses were illuminated with candles in their windows. In the Supreme Court Room at the State House, as planned, a half dozen Philadelphians chosen for the honor took the King’s Arms down from the wall and carried it off to be thrown on top of a huge fire and consumed in an instant, the blaze lighting the scene for blocks around.
Friday, August 2, 1776:
The actual signing of the document would not take place until Friday, August 2, after a fair copy had been elegantly engrossed on a single, giant sheet of parchment by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Nothing was reported of the historic event. As with everything transacted within Congress, secrecy prevailed. To judge by what was in the newspapers and the correspondence of the delegates, the signing never took place.In later years, Jefferson would entertain guests at Monticello with descriptions of black flies that so tormented the delegates, biting through their silk hose, that they had hurried the signing along as swiftly as possible. But at the time Jefferson wrote nothing of the occasion, nor did John Adams. In old age, trying to reconstruct events of that crowded summer, both men would stubbornly and incorrectly insist that the signing took place July 4.
Apparently there was no fuss or ceremony on August 2. The delegates simply came forward in turn and fixed their signatures…Like the others, Adams and Jefferson each signed with his own delegation, Adams on the right, in a clear and firm, plain hand, Jefferson at lower center with a signature more precise and elegant, but equally legible.
The fact that a signed document now existed, as well as the names of the signatories, was kept secret for the time being, as all were acutely aware that by taking up the pen and writing their names, they had committed treason, a point of considerably greater immediacy now, with the British army so near at hand.
“The Declaration of Independence has produced a new era in this part of America,” wrote Benjamin Rush, [a signer]…”The militia of Pennsylvania seem to be actuated with a spirit more than Roman. Near 2,000 citizens of Philadelphia have lately marched to New York.”…
Even those in Congress who had been so ardently opposed, now, by word or deed, committed themselves to the “Glorious Revolution.”
…32,000 fully equipped, highly trained thoroughly professional British and German (Hessian) soldiers – more than the entire population of Philadelphia – were ashore on Staten Island, supported by ten ships-of-the-line and twenty frigates, making in all the largest, most costly British overseas deployment ever until that time.By contrast, the American army gathered in defense of New York, digging in on Manhattan and Long Island…Nathanael Greene, wrote to tell John Adams that in reality the American force might number 9,000; and as Adams knew, they had no naval support – not a single available warship or transport.
When on July 12:
… with the wind and tide in their favor, the British sent two men-of-war up the Hudson River to demonstrate who had control, there was nothing to stop them. As the huge ships passed upstream, American militia stood gawking onshore, which evoked an angry general order from Washington declaring such “unsoldierly conduct” could only give the enemy a low opinion of the American army.
Early on Thursday, August 22:
… an exceptionally clear, bright day in New York, the British commenced their invasion of Long Island….wave after wave,…small boats…transports…15,000 English, Scottish, and Hessian troops were rowed across the Narrows from Staten Island to land without opposition on the broad shoreline near Gravesend, eight miles to the rear of the American stronghold on Brooklyn Heights.Contrary to basic military doctrine, Washington had divided his forces between Manhattan and Long Island. Expecting a second, larger British landing on Manhattan, he remained there, while on Long Island his battalions braced themselves for the assault. But for days the British command under General William Howe made no move in force,…
… not until August 27:
… when a furious battle was fought to the southwest of Brooklyn Heights….Washington was by then on the scene with reinforcements….But the inexperienced Americans were outnumbered, outflanked, and overwhelmed in only a few hours.
Through the night, under the cover of darkness, rain, and fog, Washington’s army had been ferried across the mile-wide East River, through powerful currents, in every conceivable kind of small boat, most of them manned by Massachusetts fisherman – some 9,000 to 10,000 troops…all moving with utmost silence.
[End John Adams text.]
These words from David McCullough (page 163), writing of John Adams:
Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency and unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did. Had it come later, the course of events could have gone very differently.
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