The rains pelted down. Caesar Rodney from the Delaware delegation was missing and his vote for the new republic was sorely needed. British warships were just off shore…
Monday, July 1, 1776, began hot and steamy in Philadelphia and before the morning was ended a full-scale storm would break….
John Adams: 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.
Dickinson: 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:
Thomas Jefferson:…[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….
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. ~ Excerpt from David McCullough’s book John Adams.