Was America’s independence really on July 4? Or was it actually on July 2? Or maybe May 15? Here, William Bodkin looks at John Adams’ life in 1776 and explains why American Independence Day may not really be on July 4…
The beginning of July brings with it the United States of America’s foremost holiday, Independence Day, on July Fourth. Some contrarians like to note, however, that the U.S. celebrates on the Fourth because it is the date written on the Declaration of Independence, while actual independence occurred on July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution declaring independence.
But to be a real contrarian, one could argue that “Independence Day” came not even in the month of July, but on May 15, 1776. No less an authority than the Second President of the United States, John Adams, would likely agree, since he called a resolution the Congress passed on May 15, 1776 the “most important resolution that was ever taken in America.”
What was the May 15 resolution? It was the preamble to a resolution that the Congress had previously passed on May 10, 1776. It read:
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 has been given or is likely to be given to the humble Petitions of the Colonies for Redress of their Grievances and Reconciliation with Great Britain: but on the Contrary, the whole Force of the Kingdom, aided by foreign Mercenaries, is to be exerted for our Destruction
And Whereas it is irreconcileable to Reason and good Conscience, for the People of these Colonies to take the oaths and affirmations, necessary for the Support of any Government under the Crown of Great Britain and it is necessary that the Exercise of every Kind of Authority under the Said Crown should be totally Suppressed, and all the Powers of Government under the Authority of the People of the Colonies, exerted for the Preservation of internal Peace, Virtue and good order, as well as to defend our Lives, Liberties, and Properties, from the hostile Invasions, and cruel Depredations of our Enemies. Therefore, Resolved that it be recommended to the several Assemblies and Conventions, to institute such Forms of Government as to them Shall appear necessary, to promote the Happiness of the People.
WHY MAY 15?
The prose is unmistakably Adams: bombastic and strident. The May 15 resolution indicts Great Britain’s King George III for his treatment of the colonies and sets forth the remedy that colonial citizens could institute new governments to promote the happiness of its people. But why May 15, 1776? The answer lies in the ongoing battle of wills between those colonial leaders, like Adams, who were vociferously promoting Independence, and those, like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who opposed it.
On May 10, 1776 Adams and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution meant to support pro-independence colonists working to overthrow the colonial government of Pennsylvania, which, like its representative Dickinson, opposed Independence. Pennsylvania was a pivotal colony, as it strongly influenced the votes of the other middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, and Delaware). Since it opposed independence, writing and voting on a Declaration was close to impossible. As pro-independence militias prepared to march, Adams maneuvered to get the May 10 resolution passed. The May 10 resolution stated:
Resolved, That it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.
Dickinson saw through Adams’ scheme. Instead of opposing it, however, he embraced it, arguing that the resolution could not possibly apply to his colony. Pennsylvania had a working representative government in place, one firmly committed to the rights of its citizens (but not independence from Great Britain). The resolution passed, with the understanding that Pennsylvania was exempt.
But the Congress also agreed to the appointment of a three member committee to draft a preamble to the resolution made up of Adams, Lee and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. May 10 was a Friday. Adams worked through the weekend, and on Monday, May 13, he returned with a draft of the May 15 resolution. The preamble clearly, unmistakably defined a “non-working” colonial government as one that was loyal to the King and his government. James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued against it, claiming that the Continental Congress was overreaching and that there would be uprisings in the streets of Philadelphia, where, of course, the Congress was assembled. Dickinson, who had so effectively thwarted the intent of the May 10 resolution, was absent from the Congress. Wilson’s arguments were in vain.
A PLACE IN HISTORY
Adams, as always, was uniquely aware of his role in this unfolding history. Following passage of the May 15 Resolution, he wrote to his wife Abigail:
[Great Britain] has at last driven America, to the last Step, a compleat Seperation from her, a total absolute Independence, not only of her Parliament but of her Crown, for such is the Amount of the Resolve of the 15th.
Confederation among ourselves, or Alliances with foreign Nations are not necessary, to a perfect Seperation from Britain. That is effected by extinguishing all Authority, under the Crown, Parliament and Nation as the Resolution for instituting Governments, has done, to all Intents and Purposes. Confederation will be necessary for our internal Concord, and Alliances may be so for our external Defence.
I have Reasons to believe that no Colony, which shall assume a Government under the People, will give it up. There is something very unnatural and odious in a Government 1000 Leagues off. A whole Government of our own Choice, managed by Persons whom We love, revere, and can confide in, has charms in it for which Men will fight.
May 15, 1776 was an important day in America’s walk toward independence, but was it the definitive one? Perhaps, but Adams was perhaps more effusive in his assessment of July 2, 1776 and the passing of the resolution declaring independence, stating in a letter to his wife Abigail that
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.
And while Adams was right about the annual celebrations commemorating American Independence, he was, of course, off by two days, due in no small part to Thomas Jefferson’s peerless prose in the Declaration of Independence, which defined the Americans’ struggle for the wider world and served as a foundational document for the burgeoning republic. Adams’ assessments of the events as they unfolded were not wrong, they simply serve to illustrate the difficulty, if not outright futility, of assessing history as it unfolds to determine which day will be viewed by subsequent generations as the definitive one of an era.
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1. Letter, John Adams to James Warren, May 15, 1776. Papers of John Adams, Digital Collection, Volume 4 (www.masshist.org/digitaladams ).
3. Was May 15, 1776 Independence Day? Hysteriography, William Hogeland’s commentaries on populism, liberalis, and conservatism in American history, politics, and poetics (http://williamhogeland.wordpress.com)(“Hogeland”).
4. The Resolutions and Recommendations of Congress, Continental Congress May 10, 1776 (www.digitalhistory.uh.edu, Digital History ID 3940).
7. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 17 May 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. (http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/).
8. Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. (http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/).