History tells us that Thomas Jefferson authored perhaps the greatest document of all time, the Declaration of Independence. What is less well-known is the fact that another of America’s founding fathers, John Adams, was instrumental in it being officially adopted by the Second Continental Congress.
Jefferson, who would go on to become America’s third president, and Adams its second, became bitter political enemies later on in a battle for the White House. Yet during the time of the Continental Congress, Jefferson praised Adams for being the Declaration’s “ablest advocate and defender against multifarious assaults.”
Upon the Second Continental Congress convening in Philadelphia, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution (seconded by Adams) on June 7, 1776, calling for independence from England and a plan of confederation for the colonies. On June 11, Adams and Jefferson were selected to a committee of five charged with drafting a declaration of independence should the resolution be approved. Jefferson then served as the primary writer of the document which was presented to the Congress on June 28, 1776.
This was a time of great stress for the 13 colonies and a long debate awaited. George Washington, who would have been a steadying presence, had instead been commanding the Continental Army for one year and would continue in this role for the next six. Meanwhile, on June 29, news reached Philadelphia that the British fleet had been spotted just off Staten Island. Within hours, 45 British ships anchored in New York Bay. By July 2, 130 ships had arrived with British troops coming ashore. Such an invasion required the utmost unity on the part of the colonists, yet the likes of Delaware, South Carolina and Pennsylvania could not be counted upon. Thus, America’s declaration of independence was delayed for days over fierce debate regarding the merits of a centralized federal government versus preserving the power of the 13 colonies.
Finally, on July 1, 1776, John Adams would give the greatest speech of his life during the final day of debate. Speaking of “a divinity which shapes our ends,” Adams emphasized the fact that true independence was within grasp, as true reconciliation with England was not possible. To give up the fight for freedom meant certain punishment and death, while betraying the oath to George Washington of “promising to adhere to him our fortunes and our lives for defense of liberty.” And since the war must carry on, why put off any longer the formal declaring of independence which would build strength and increase support from other nations? Of the people, Adams said, “If we are true to them, they will carry us and themselves gloriously through this struggle.” It was only necessary for the Congress to take the lead, for a declaration of independence would “inspire the people and breathe into them anew the breath of life.”
While Adams had no sense as to how long the war effort would carry on, “while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that of a free country.” Finally, Adams proclaimed that whatever the fate of the revolution, a declaration would stand for generations, “and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment, independence now, and independence forever.”
Adams’ wise truly resonated with the delegates, as on July 2, 1776, the resolution to dissolve all allegiance to the British Crown was approved by 12 of the 13 colonies (with New York abstaining). The final text of the declaration was approved by the Congress on July 4, and later on July 9, New York would finally vote to support independence and make it unanimous. England’s King George eventually acknowledged America’s Declaration of Independence on October 31, 1776.
Later, in a letter penned to his wife, Adams would show the depth of his spirit by noting that “July 2, 1776, will be the most memorable date in the history of America, commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty, and solemnized with pomp and parade … from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams passed away. During his final moments, he acknowledged his longtime friend and rival with the words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Ironically, the 90-year-old Adams was unaware that the 83-year-old Jefferson had died several hours earlier on the same date, leaving only one signer to the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, still alive.
how fitting that the man who wrote the Declaration and the man most responsible for its formal adoption should both pass away on its fiftieth anniversary in existence.
Mark Figley is a political activist and guest columnist from Elida. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Reach him a firstname.lastname@example.org.