Yes, yes, July 4 is when we officially celebrate American independence, commemorating the day 56 men pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the cause of liberty. But John Adams for a moment believed the more momentous occasion was July 2, when the delegates of the Continental Congress cast the fateful vote to draft the Declaration of Independence that would sunder America’s ties with Great Britain. Adams, along with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, formed the drafting committee.
Those were heady days, the culmination of years of argument, abuse, and violence, with plenty more to come. Adams, standing at the center of history, took time to take stock and convey his thoughts to his beloved wife Abigail in two letters he wrote the morning and evening of July 3.
What’s great about these letters is how wrong and how right Adams was. July 2? Annexing Canada? No and not bloody likely. Yet they’re well worth reading today, with the benefit of hindsight, if for no other reason than to marvel at the man’s prescience. It isn’t difficult to feel in the final paragraphs Adams’ excitement and trepidation at what was to come.
Philadelphia July 3d. 1776
Had a Declaration of Independency been made seven months ago, it would have been attended with many great and glorious effects. We might, before this hour, have formed alliance with foreign states. We should have mastered Quebec, and been in possession of Canada.
You will, perhaps, wonder how such a declaration would have influenced our affairs in Canada; but, if I could write with freedom, I could easily convince you that it would, and explain to you the manner how. Many gentlemen in high stations, and of great influence, have been duped, by the ministerial bubble of commissioners, to treat; and, in real, sincere expectation of this event, which they so fondly wished, they have been slow and languid in promoting measures for the reduction of that province. Others there are in the colonies, who really wished that our enterprise in Canada would be defeated; that the colonies might be brought into danger and distress between two fires, and be thus induced to submit. Others really wished to defeat the expedition to Canada, lest the conquest of it should elevate the minds of the people too much to hearken to those terms of reconciliation which they believed would be offered to us. These jarring views, wishes, and designs, occasioned an opposition to many salutary measures which were proposed for the support of that expedition, and caused obstructions embarrassments, and studied delays, which have finally lost us the province.
All causes, however, in conjunction, would not have disappointed us, if it had not been for a misfortune which could not have been foreseen, and perhaps could not have been prevented—I mean the prevalence of the smallpox among our troops. This fatal pestilence completed our destruction. It is a frown of Providence upon us, which we ought to lay to heart.
But, on the other hand, the delay of this declaration to this time has many great advantages attending it. The hopes of reconciliation which were fondly entertained by multitudes of honest an well meaning, though short-sighted and mistaken people, have been gradually, and at last totally, extinguished. Time has been given for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independence, and to ripen their judgment, dissipate their fears, and allure their hopes, by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets – by debating it in assemblies, conventions, committees of safety and inspection – in town and country meetings, as well as in private conversations; so that the whole people, in every colony, have now adopted it as their own act. This will cement the union, and avoid those heats, and perhaps convulsions, which might have been occasioned by such a declaration six months ago.
But the Day is past. 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, shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forever.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm; but I am not. 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. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of light and glory; I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph, although you and I may rue, which I hope we shall not.