Philadelphia was unusually hot during the summer of 1776. The temperature was in the 90s and the humidity was oppressive.
Unlike today, there was no air conditioning, no iced drinks and no relief from the heat for the members of a fledgling, somewhat disorganized and contentious body called the Continental Congress.
During this period, as disorganized as it may have seemed and surrounded by the punishing summertime heat, the Continental Congress did something that changed the course of human history.
However, that wasn’t its original intent.
The Continental Congress wasn’t formed with the idea of establishing independence from Great Britain or, for that matter, with the notion of creating a new country.
Almost all of the representatives to the Congress began their service loyal to the British Crown and their sovereign, George III. To them, the Congress was a means to more forcefully gain proper recognition from Britain, its king and it’s Parliament. But events, as we all know, sometimes have a way of going where you don’t expect them to go.
Over the years, there had been a gradual change in the American colonies toward a whole new concept of what it meant to be an American. It was a sense of nationhood that found its voice in Philadelphia. The resolution for independence from Great Britain was introduced on June 7 and was just a few lines long. The rules, the only time this was ever required, called for a “yes” vote from all 13 colonies. One “no” vote meant the resolution would fail, and with it the cause of independence. That, by the way, is the only unanimous vote Congress has ever required.
However, to many the resolution seemed stark, and the Congress decided that a “declaration” should be written to lay out the case for independence in precise and compelling terms. Besides, the resolution’s proponents were practical politicians and they knew they didn’t have the support of all of the colonies.
They needed more time to sway the wavering colonies. A committee was formed, made up of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Philip Livingston and Thomas Jefferson, but the logical choice to write it was the Congress’ most prolific writer, Jefferson.
The vote on the Resolution for Independence was held July 2. As noted by the Congress’ amateur meteorologist, Jefferson, the weather changed suddenly. The heat and humidity receded, and a cool breeze swept over the city. It was no doubt to the great relief of not just the Congress, but the entire population of Philadelphia as well.
However, as some noted at the time, perhaps this was also a signal of the remarkable change that was about to occur.
The Declaration was a lot more than just a case for the independence of the American colonies. It also stated certain assumptions. Namely that liberty was not given by any government, but rather was an inherent right of humankind.
It also said that governments exist only through the consent of the governed. These were radical concepts in 1776.
No government or popular movement anywhere had ever been based on such a philosophy. It’s easy in our comfortable 21st century existence to overlook just how momentous this act was or the risk that followed every member of the Continental Congress from that point on. America was made up of 13 British colonies, and these individuals, this small group of men, were leaders in treason. No colony in the history of the world had ever successfully rebelled against the mother country. With only a modest and ill-equipped land force, and no Navy, they were taking on a major world power. One that had a massive army and the world’s largest and most effective Navy. Their odds weren’t good. But this didn’t deter them. Perhaps it should have, but it didn’t. Many at various times during the Revolutionary War would be on the run or lose their property, and they always would be at risk of being captured and executed.
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, we have the comfort of knowing that they overcame these odds, as well as their own doubts, to fight for what at times must have seemed a hopeless cause.
But they stood behind their vision, risking all, to bring about the greatest continuing “experiment” in popular democracy the world has ever known. Happy Birthday America.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.