adams and independence -- 4/24/23

Today's selection -- from John Adams by David McCullough. On May 15, 1776, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution authored by John Adams that was tantamount to a declaration of independence, and he justifiably thought that posterity would remember it as that climactic event. Instead, a document authored by Thomas Jefferson and approved on July 2 got that honor.
"On … Friday, May 10, came what many in Congress knew to be a critical juncture. Adams had decided the time was ripe to make his move.

"With Richard Henry Lee, he put forth a resolution recommending that the individual colonies assume all powers of government -- to secure 'the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and Amer­ica in general.' Not only was it passed, but with surprising unanimity. It awaited only a preamble which, as drafted by Adams, was a still more radical statement. This brought on three days of fierce debate, during which Adams repeatedly took the floor, supported by Richard Henry Lee, while James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued in opposition. A deci­sion that could clear the way to independence had at last arrived.

Congress Voting Independence by Robert Edge Pine

"In contrast to the resolution, Adams's preamble put aside any possi­bility of reconciliation and all but declared the colonies immediately independent:

Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; and whereas, no answer whatever to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain has been or is likely to be given; but the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; and whereas it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience, for people of these colonies to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain ... it is [therefore] necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as the defense of their lives, liberties, and proper­ties, against hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.

"'Why all this haste?' James Duane demanded, according to notes that Adams kept. 'Why all this driving?'

"Samuel Adams, who rarely spoke in Congress, rose from his place. 'I wonder the people have conducted so well as they have,' he said.

"James Wilson responded, 'Before we are prepared to build a new house, why should we pull down the old one, and expose ourselves to all the inclemencies of the season?' 

"John Dickinson was absent, apparently indisposed, a victim of exhaustion.

"What John Adams said was not recorded. But as the constant battler on the floor, with all that he had written, his work on committees, his relentless energy, industry, and unyielding determination, he had emerged a leader like no other, and when the breakthrough came at last on Wednesday, May 15, it was his victory more than anyone’s in Congress.

"The preamble was approved. When an exasperated James Duane told Adams it seemed ‘a machine for the fabrication of independence,’ Adams replied that he thought it ‘independence itself.’ He was elated. Congress, he wrote, had that day ‘passed the most important resolution that was ever taken in America.’

"Others agreed. Even ‘the cool considerate men think it amounts to a declaration of independence,’ wrote Caesar Rodney enthusiastically."



David McCullough


John Adams


Simon & Schuster Paperbacks


Copyright 2001 by David McCullough


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