(Editor’s note: This is a commentary I wrote a few years ago and post every year at this time.)
John Adams’s letter to his wife Abigail was filled with enthusiasm, but also carried a tone of foreboding. It was July 1776 and revolution was in the air among the delegates at the meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Adams recognized, as did others at the gathering, that a course of events had been set in motion that would lead either to independence and a new nation or a brutal response by the British to the revolt that may well cost the patriots their lives.
Adams wrote that the “Hopes of reconciliation… have been gradually and at last totally extinguished.” Independence from England had been declared. “This will cement the union,” Adams wrote.
The cost of independence would be great. “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,” Adams wrote. Even as he finished the letter that day British troops were landing at Staten Island.
Long Island and White Plains, New York, as well as Fort Washington, New York and Fort Lee, New Jersey would fall before the end of the year. The lone bright spot of the 1776 campaign would be General Washington’s bold Christmas crossing of the Delaware River and the defeat of the Hessians in Trenton.
Still, Adams was a devout patriot who remained optimistic about the outcome. That July day he wrote, “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.”
He must have had confidence in the ultimate outcome because he wrote that Independence Day would be the “most memorable… in the history of America.”
Adams accurately predicted the tone of future celebrations when he said that Independence Day should be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews (shows), games, sports, guns, bells, bonfire and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”
Today we know that to be the case as we prepare to mark another Independence Day with the modern-day versions of just what Adams wrote about. There are parades and fireworks and sports galore.
Of course many of us have now changed the name of the day of celebration to The Fourth of July, the day regarded as America’s birthday.
But Adams’s letter that I have just quoted from was dated July 3rd, 1776. The day before, July 2nd, the Continental Congress adopted Richard Henry Lee’s motion for independence.
Two days later, on July 4th, the Continental Congress would approve the actual document, the Declaration of Independence.
John Adams was right about it being time for the colonies to unite and split from England. He was right about the cost of independence in “toil, blood and treasure.” But Adams believed the celebrations by future generations of the historic day when this great nation was born would be not on July 4th, but two days earlier.
He wrote to Abigail it would be “The Second day of July 1776 (that) will be the most memorable… in the history of America.”