SAN JOSE, Calif., July 4, 2012 — Though we choose this day to celebrate, July 4, 1776 is not our nation’s birthday as much as it is the date of our conception. 1776 is the year we chose to fight for our freedoms, to break away from British rule and taxation.
Our nation’s true birthday is the day General Washington received the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781; and even then, independence was not completely realized until the Treaty of Paris between Great Britain and France recognized the new government of the United States of America.
So why do we celebrate the Fourth of July as our nation’s birthday?
July 4, 1776, is the historic day on which delegates of the Second Continental Congress formally voted to accept the Declaration of Independence. However, there would not have been such a historic vote that day without an earlier vote by the delegates on July 2. On that day they made an even more fundamental decision when they voted to support Richard Henry Lee’s resolution that the colonies were “United Colonies” and “of Right, ought to be free and independent states.”
These bold words, however, would not by themselves buy the independence for which the Founding Fathers were willing to die. The British had no intention of granting independence.
The British would not give up their precious colonies without a serious fight. The decision to declare independence led to a war with the most powerful nation on earth; a nation that would ultimately deploy tens of thousands of masterfully trained, firmly disciplined, superbly equipped soldiers, the men of the most powerful and fearsome military force on the planet at that time.
Most of the delegates to the Second Continental Congress were quite aware of this, and certainly understood that if they voted to separate from Great Britain, it could bring disaster down upon all their heads. To support Lee’s resolution was an outright act of treason against the Crown, and treason would not go unpunished.
It would take many years of sacrifice and suffering before independence would be realized. In fact, the suffering during the first months of fighting with the King’s troops would later be viewed as pleasant compared to what would later be unleashed upon the colonies.
Between June and July, 1776, the British government tasked General Howe with mounting a serious counterattack against the colonies. Howe had been forced to abandon Boston in mid-March, evacuating British forces to Nova Scotia after the Continental Army captured Dorchester Heights and installed captured British cannon upon the hills overlooking Boston Harbor.
By summer, Howe had reassembled the British forces and commanded a massive war fleet consisting of 30 battleships carrying 1200 cannons ready to invade at New York Harbor.
The British government had dispatched 30,000 soldiers and 10,000 sailors to secure the colonies. At the time, it represented the largest military deployment in British history. It reflected the determination of the British government to maintain its hold over the colonists.
At the same time that Howe was massing his forces around New York, British forces were also invading the South under the command of General Henry Clinton. The British had no intention of losing a war with a rag-tag band of rebels.
On Friday, June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, put forth a proposal to the Continental Congress that had earlier been approved unanimously by the Virginia convention with the support of President Edmund Pendleton. When Lee rose to the floor of Congress, he shared almost verbatim the contents of the resolution previously shared with the Virginia delegates in late May.
Lee’s proposal challenged Congress to make a serious decision either to pursue business as usual, or to make a dramatic break with the mother country.
The Lee Resolution called on the delegates to make one of the most important decisions of their lives. In reality, it seemed too big of a decision for them to make on their own. They decided to delay a vote and seek support from the voters and political leaders back home in their respective colonies.
The consequences of this decision would alter the course of history. The delegates agreed to delay voting on the resolution until designated representatives in Philadelphia could travel back to their home colonies to make sure that the representatives of the people in all 13 colonial bodies were willing to consent to such a bold and dangerous initiative.
The plan called for Congress to reconvene on July 1 to consider the Lee Resolution. On this day, John Adams would write, “This morning is assigned the greatest debate of all, a declaration that these colonies are free and independent states … and this day or tomorrow is to determine its fate. May heaven prosper the newborn republic.”
That determination would not come on July 1. Further debate followed when the matter was reopened on the floor of Congress. John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, represented those delegates who favored reason over a “premature” separation from the mother country. Many delegates supported some effort at reconciliation, even as British troops were invading New York.
John Adams, who represented those who favored independence, spoke against such caution, painting a vision of a new nation. He saw clearly, without illusion, the consequences of such a momentous decision:
“The object is great which we have in view, and we must expect a great expense of blood to obtain it. But we should always remember that a free constitution of civil government cannot be purchased at too dear a rate, as there is nothing on this side of Jerusalem of equal importance to mankind.”
The vote on the Lee Resolution was split and Congress adjourned for the day. However, delegates who had been absent on the first day were present in Congress the next day, July 2, and the delegates finally approved Lee’s momentous resolution.
So, the actual “heavy lifting,” or weighty decision making, had been completed by July 3, when the delegates took up debate on the formal language of a written document which would be a more formal declaration of the intent that had been announced with the vote for Lee’s resolution. The drafting of that document would be undertaken by the famous committee of five. They would produce a Declaration of Independence.
On July 4, 1776, the delegates of the Continental Congress formally voted to accept the Declaration of Independence. Their vote has been viewed by some as simply “blowing smoke” that they thought would drift away with the wind. Those who make this argument claim that the vote was not formally binding, and not entirely official until the Declaration was written and accepted in a unanimous vote by the Congress. This was an exacting process, and critical to the success of the entire enterprise. After arguing over specific wording (it is reported that Jefferson’s original draft was edited over 80 times) and adding in some of the wording of Lee’s resolution, the delegates ultimately came to unanimous agreement on the final document.
“The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. 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.”
Interestingly enough, Adams recorded no such words regarding July 4, even though he was a sparkplug within the committee of five that drafted the Declaration of Independence.
To Adams, the vote for Lee’s resolution was at the heart of the effort that led to the road to Independence. Whether the vote on the 2nd was more important than the vote on the 4th, those days signaled the birth pains of Freedom. They were the days Lincoln looked back upon when he declared, “our fathers brought forth … a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” in his Gettysburg Address.
Those days in July, 1776 represent a fulcrum in history. Liberty was conceived, a new nation was imagined, and brave men decided that they would be willing to fight and die for Freedom.
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