The day started as did most days in Philadelphia in July, hot and humid. As the sun flared above the horizon the citizens of the small town slowly went about their daily chores never realizing the significance this day, July 2nd 1776 would hold for generations to come.
At the Pennsylvania State House the caretaker opened the shutters at the back of the room allowing the musty night air to flow out and the hot, humid air outside to flow in. Carefully he checked the fifty or so desks resting neatly in uniformed rows, making sure each had enough paper and pens for the coming days work. He did not want a repeat of John Adams half hour tirade about the lack of sufficient pen and paper to get the day’s work done. He tried not to giggle when he remembered Ben Franklin’s reply, “John there may not be enough pen and paper in all the colonies, nay the world, to satisfy your voracious appetite when it comes to putting pen to paper.” Thank God for Benjamin Franklin. Then he looked up at the great clock quietly resting over John Hancock’s desk. The two large hands indicating it was 7:30. Today’s session was scheduled to begin at 10 o’clock sharp which usually meant delegates started showing up around 11:30. The caretaker sighed and shook his head sadly as he slowly exited the room, closing the large double doors behind him.
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams slowly made their way down the crowded cobblestones streets, heading towards State House. Franklin walked with a noticeable limp, Philadelphia’s high humidity causing his gout to flare up painfully. Both had not slept well and both were in exceptionally bad moods. Adams was worried about today’s vote, fearful they would not get the necessary “Yeas” to declare independence from England. He was growing weary of the constant debates over every single line in Tom Jefferson’s Declaration. Franklin, seeing the concerned look on his friends face managed to smile through the pain and slap Adams good naturedly on the back. “Think positively Mr. Adams, Cesar Rodney arrived early this morning.” Adams eyes lit up and his mind began to race but then a trouble look crept over his tired face. “Is he feeling any better?” Franklin shook his head. “No, he is much worse. I’m surprised he was able to make the trip at all. I’m afraid our friend won’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labors” The two continued silently through the crowded marketplace, their thoughts on their sick friend and the daunting task they knew was ahead of them.
As Franklin and Adams enter the congressional chambers in State House, they both could see Jefferson and Dickenson, standing in a corner by a window, STILL arguing over Richard Henry Lee’s Articles of Independence. Franklin shook his head, “John I swear Mr. Dickenson can argue a point almost as long as you.” Before Adams is able to reply John Hancock rises and taps his gavel loudly, the sharp sound echoing across the noisy room.
“Settle down everyone. Settle down. It’s going to be another hot one today and we still have a lot of work to do before we can go home.” “Or to the tavern.” A voice shouts out from the back. As laughter fills the chamber Hancock, without missing a beat, replies, “And you will be buying Mr. Morris.” The laughter grows louder as the delegates take their seats.
The debate over independence roared on through the hot and sweltering afternoon. Patience was in short supply as tempers flared. Finally around 3 o’clock the great debate ends as Pennsylvania yields and gives its consent to the resolution for independence. An hour and a half later the resolution officially passes 12-0 New York, as always, abstaining. As cheers erupt around the room John Adams looks solemnly over at an equally solemn John Hancock. Hancock stands and slowly walks over to Adams. “What have we done Mr. Adams?” As Adams stands and wipes the sweat from his brow a sly smile crossing his face. “I think what we have done here today will be remembered for generations to come. Let us hope they will be “fond” memories.”
The great chamber was now still and silent, lit only by the flickering glow of the oil lamps. No longer did the speeches made by the day’s great orators echo through these hallowed halls, their great words replaced by the sounds of the evening breeze whistling through the chambers open shutters. Suddenly the two large doors slowly creaked open and a tired man carrying a lamp shuffles in. The caretaker holds the light higher as he walks to the center of the room and looks out to the debris filled chamber. He sighs when he sees the desks and chairs strewn about; the mountains of paper littering the floor and the half filled mugs of ale and beer scattered everywhere. As he makes his way towards the windows in the back the sound of distant thunders rumbles through the room. He places the lamp down on a nearby table and closes the shutters one by one before carefully extinguishing all the lamps. Slowly he heads back towards the front stopping by a desk with several sheets of paper neatly stacked on top. Gently he reaches down and picks the top sheet up. The caretaker lifts his spectacles as he strains to read the writing. He notices that most of the first paragraph has been scratched out and rewritten making it almost impossible to read. But the second paragraph was virtually untouched and written bolder than the rest.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” he reads aloud in a hoarse voice. “That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
While he doesn’t understand some of the words he does understand the meaning behind them. Slowly a smile spreads across his face as he carefully places the paper back down. So this is what they have been yelling and screaming about for the last two months; this is what all the commotion has been all about. As lightning flickers across the room the caretaker looks up at the great clock, the two large hands indicating it is 7:30. He pauses a moment and thinks that it’s been a very long day….but assuredly a good one. He picks up his lamp and makes his way back to the large doors, steps out of the chamber and gently closes them behind him.
The night did not bring much relief from the blistering heat and high humidity of the day. Even the late evening thunderstorm which passed through the city so violently only served to add to the already unbearable humidity. Adams tossed and turned uncomfortably in bed before finally getting up around 1:30. He walked over to his desk and lit the small lamp. With a frustrated yawn he sits and begins writing to his dear wife Abigail:
“Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other
Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.”
You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days. On July 2, 1776 the Association known as United Colonies of America officially became the United States of America.”
He added in a second letter later that night:
“But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, 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 Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”
On a hot, sweltering July day 234 years ago 55 men, in fear of their lives, put differences aside and came together to give birth to a new nation. Later that day they all stood proud of what they had done. For one brief moment they truly were the first citizens of the United States of America. Then they all went to the local tavern and got rip roaring drunk.
In ending, Frank and I wish that you all have a happy and safe Fourth of July.
Copyright 2010 by Ira Schwartz. All rights reserved. Used with permission.