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Mid storms and lightning
By Edward Southerland
Jul 16, 2016
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The early hours were hot and muggy in Philadelphia on the first of July, but before the morning had turned to noon, dark roiling clouds and cool gusts of winds had rumbled into America’s largest city, pelting it with rain and slicing the sky with shards of summer lightning. It was welcome relief from the enervating heat.

The ominous weather was a fitting backdrop for the vote scheduled to take place in the State House that day. The Second Continental Congress was to address the motion laid before it three weeks earlier by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, calling for independence from Great Britain and the rule of King George III. The tumultuous clouds that had rolled into Philadelphia that morning might well portend the storm of war that would follow the adoption of such a resolution.

The debate on independence had commenced on June 8, a Saturday, and had run long into the night. John Adams of Massachusetts, along with Lee and another Virginian, George Wythe had had carried the burden of argument for the proponents. In opposition stood John Dickinson and James Wilson of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina.

Dickinson and his adherents had argued for restraint. They said there was no need to rush into something that could not be retracted. There was still hope of reconciliation they said. Independence, and the war it would surely bring, was not the answer. The congress should not act until the “voice of the people” demanded it.

One of the quartet warned that some colonies “might secede from the union” if action were taken in haste. “The sensible part of the house opposed the motion. No reason could be assigned for pressing into this measure but the reason of every madman,” wrote Rutledge after the debate.

Adams, more than any other, was the leader of the independence movement in the congress, and in rebuttal he held that “the people wait for us to lead the way.” The time for action was now, he said; it was critical “to lose no time.” Waiting would serve only to make the action more difficult and perhaps more costly and protracted. There was a time for talk, and a time for action. And the time for action was now.

The President of the Congress, John Hancock, had called the delegates back into session on Monday, June 10, and at the urging of those opposed to the resolution, had announced that the final vote on the measure would be put forward for twenty days, until July 1. The time was to allow members from the Middle Atlantic colonies to return home, gage the tenor of the public, and send for instructions from their legislatures. Now those twenty days had past, and the time of decision was at hand.

For John Adams the choice was clear and unclouded, even by the prospect of war. During the recess he had written to a former delegate, now the President of Georgia, Archibald Bulloch. “We are in daily expectation of an armament before New York, where, if it comes, the conflict may be bloody.... The object is great that 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 this side of Jerusalem of equal importance to mankind.”

At ten o’clock President Hancock brought the congress to order, and the debate resumed. John Dickinson, the tall, gaunt, pale Pennsylvanian who so opposed the irrevocable division got to his feet. He acknowledged the popular acceptance of the idea of independence. He well knew his stand, against it on principal, would, “I expect, ... 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.” When he sat down the hall was silent save for the drumming of the raindrops on the windows.

Adams rose to answer. With the skill of the excellent lawyer he was, he put forth the cause for independence quietly and solemnly while the wind rose, lightning rent the sky, and the storm outside lashed the morning. For two hours he spoke, at one point reluctantly going over part of his argument again, at the insistence of some delegates who had arrived late.

Others followed Dickinson and Adams. For nine hours the debate continued until a trial vote was called. All knew accord was imperative; the colonies must stand together. Nine stood squarely for independence. The Pennsylvania delegation, siding with Dickinson four to three, voted no. New York abstained and little Delaware, short one delegate—Caesar Rodney, a strong supporter of independence was gravely ill and not in Philadelphia that day—was deadlocked one to one.
 
South Carolina voted no, but although he stood opposed, Rutlege indicated that South Carolina might change its vote, and he moved to postpone the final tally until the next day. As the delegates stepped into the night, they learned that a British fleet of a hundred ships had appeared off the coast of New York. Heads bent into the storm, they went back to their lodgings to await the morrow.
 
The final vote came the next morning, July 2. Moments before the doors to the hall were closed, Caesar Rodney arrived, having ridden eighty-miles, with seven changes of horse, to break his delegation’s tie and move Delaware to the “for” column. New York still abstained, but South Carolina had changed its vote, and now said yes to the Lee resolution. 
Dickinson and Robert Morris, realizing their cause was lost, had stayed away, and the Pennsylvania delegation now voted three to two for independence. It was done. Now it must be won.

And now was the time for all, even those opposed, to stand together in the great endeavor. Robert Morris noted, “I think an individual that declines the service of his country because its councils are not comfortable to his ideas, makes a bad subject.” And John Dickinson, worn and ill from the trials of the last weeks, marched off with Pennsylvania troops to defend New Jersey from the on coming British.

Those in opposition had not carried the day, but they would not work against the country in time of trial. They would stand together to face the storms and lightning. Would that we had such men in the times of hazard we face today.