Author’s Note: During my tenure as the first Supreme Court Archivist-Legal Historian to the Supreme Court of Missouri, I authored an in-house history column. Reproduced below is my July Fourth column from 2013.
On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife Abigail.
“My dear Friend,” [Mr. Adams often began his letters to Mrs. Adams with these words of endearment], “[T]he Second of July, 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival.”
My, could Mr. Adams turn a phrase! And yet we celebrate our independence from the Crown and the Parliament at Westminster on July Fourth. Why the Fourth of July? This Day in History explores in brief, why July Fourth is celebrated as Independence Day.
It was mid-June 1776. The colonies were divided over independence. Caesar Rodney of Delaware, (the real father of our country), was suffering from cancer of the mouth. He had begged leave of the Second Continental Congress to return home to Delaware for the purpose of putting down a Loyalist uprising – a request which Congress granted. At the time of his request, Caesar Rodney was a Brigadier General in the Revolutionary Army. (In the film version of the Broadway musical 1776 (1972), which I commend to all, Mr. Rodney, in extreme pain from cancer, and thought to be dying, (he died on June 26, 1784), begged leave of Congress so that he might return home in time to die in his bed. The Congress wished Caesar Rodney well as he parted the hall. None more than Mr. John Adams was pained to see his friend leave. Nonetheless, Mr. Adams understood the realities and extended his hand to Caesar. Fellow delegate Thomas McKean (also spelled M’Kean) of Delaware accompanied Caesar Rodney on the ride home, returning to Philadelphia a few days later.) Now back to the historical record.
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Congress remained fractured over the issue of independence. There was a very real concern over whether or not the colonies would become free and independent states. In late June, Mr. McKean wrote to Rodney. In his letter, McKean informed Rodney that the Delaware delegation remained tied:1 vote for independence (M’Kean); and 1 vote against (Mr. George Read). (In the end, however, Mr. Read voted for independence, and signed his name to the Declaration of Independence). At the time M’Kean dispatched his messenger to Rodney, a cloud hung over the birth of the United States of America. Caesar Rodney’s presence in Independence Hall was needed, and so too, was his vote for independence.
With great effort, on July 1, 1776, Caesar Rodney traveled 70 miles from southern Delaware (part by carriage, and part on horseback), reaching Philadelphia on July 2nd, just as voting had begun. His spurs muddy, Caesar entered Independence Hall. Welcomed back by Members of Congress; perhaps none was more glad to see him than John Adams. Mr. Rodney thereupon took his seat. On that fateful date [July 2, 1776], Caesar Rodney broke the tie within the Delaware delegation casting his vote “aye.” He was a traitor and proud of it. (56 Members of Congress signed the Declaration of Independence. Historians differ as to when the signing of the Declaration of Independence began. According to legal historian Wilfred Ritz, about 34 delegates signed on July 4, 1776, the remaining delegates signing on or after August 2nd.
But were we free? What actually transpired in Congress on July 2nd?
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A Vote to Approve a Proposed Declaration
On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to approve Mr. Jefferson’s proposed Declaration of Independence. On that same day, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published the following: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and the Independent States.” The story in the Evening Post was premature. Over July 2 and 3, Congress edited Mr. Jefferson’s work, as the gentleman-poet from Virginia sat at his desk ceding to the demands of Congress. By the night of July 3rd, all that remained was the final vote.
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A Note On the 57th Member of Congress: Mr. Dickinson
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania was a delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress. That said, you won’t find his name on the Declaration of Independence. A firm believer that the Continental Congress should complete the Articles of Confederation and secure foreign alliances before severing ties with Great Britain, Mr. Dickinson either absented himself or abstained from voting on July 2nd, thereby allowing Pennsylvania to vote aye for independence.
A proposal had been brought forth on the floor of Congress that read: “for our national security and protection.” The proposal bound the Members of Congress: No man could remain in Congress without signing the Declaration of Independence. Mr. Dickinson rose to his feet, and addressing the Congress said: “My conduct this day, I expect will give the finishing blow to my once too great and, my integrity considered, now too diminished popularity.” Thereupon, Mr. Dickinson resigned from Congress. Leaving Independence Hall, John Dickinson would first serve his new country in its quest for independence as a Brigadier in the Pennsylvania Militia; and later as a private under Caesar Rodney in the Delaware Militia. He was right: his conduct diminished his popularity among the troops, but not among those with whom he had served in Congress.
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In Congress, July Fourth.
On July 4, 1776, Congress voted in favor of Mr. Jefferson’s magnum opus (actually a bill of indictment against King George III and Parliament). We were traitors – albeit free! Most of the country on July 4, 1776 did not know that the Second Continental Congress had declared the thirteen colonies to be free and independent states. Two days later, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published in full the Declaration of Independence. But what of the British Crown? Did King George III, and Parliament know what we had done? The answer is, “No.” On August 2, 1776, members of the Second Continental Congress began signing engrossed copies of the Declaration of Independence. Eight days later, on August 10, 1776, the treasonous document made its way to the shores of Great Britain and to King George III and Parliament. Accounts of the Declaration were published in the London Chronicle over the period August 10-13th. On August 17, 1776, the Chronicle published the entire document.
Mr. Adams was right; the date of our independence would become an anniversary festival.
Every Fourth of July, amid an evening repast, I sit back and read the Declaration of Independence – one of the great intellectual documents in the history of western thought. For those who want to explore the intellectual history surrounding the Declaration of Independence, including all the drafts by Mr. Jefferson and the edits of the Continental Congress, I recommend Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company 1922).
Have a Happy, Healthy and Safe Fourth!
Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson, a native of University City, Missouri, received an A.B. cum laude in English Legal History; American Legal History; and Political Science, American National Politics with an emphasis in Constitutional Law 1976; A.M. in American Legal History with an emphasis in Constitutional Law 1977; J.D., 1985, Saint Louis University; Semichah/Rabbinic Ordination 2007, Saint Louis Beis Din/Rabbinical Court. He served as the first Supreme Court Archivist – Legal Historian to the Supreme Court of Missouri (2000-2015). In retirement, Rabbi Benson teaches Hebrew to adults in Jefferson City, officiate at life cycle events throughout Mid-Missouri. He is also a provocateur of articles appearing in the Missouri Lawyer’s Weekly; St. Louis Jewish Light; and, the Catholic Missourian.
Suggested citation: Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson, The Real Independence Day: July 2, 1776, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 4, 2020, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/07/joseph-benson-independence-day/.
This article was prepared for publication by Brianna Bell, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at email@example.com.
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