Making History

Monday, July 1, was heavy and hot, and a full-scale summer storm passed through the city late in the morning. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania rose to speak. He knew he was endangering the respect in which he was broadly held, his “popularity,” but he once again counseled caution: Slow down, separation from Britain is “premature,” to declare independence now would be “to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” When he sat down, “all was silent except for the rain that had begun spattering against the windows.”

Then John Adams rose. He wished he had the power of the ancient orators of Greece and Rome, he said; surely they had never faced a question of greater human import.

Declaration of IndependenceHe made, again, the case for independence. Now is the time, the facts are inescapable, the people are for it, we are not so much declaring as acknowledging reality. “Looking into the future [he] saw a new nation, a new time, all much in the spirit of lines he had written in a recent letter to a friend: ‘. . . We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.’ “ Outside the wind picked up and the storm struck hard with thunder and lightning. Storms had in the past unnerved Adams, but he spoke steadily, logically and compellingly for two hours.

After nine hours of debate, the voting commenced. The yeses were in the majority, but there were more noes than expected. Someone moved a final vote be taken the next morning. Adams and the rest hastily agreed.

That night word reached Philadelphia that the British fleet, a hundred ships, had been sighted off New York.

The next day, July 2, the final voting began. It went quickly. This was a pivotal moment in the political history of man. A creative, imaginative, historically conscious person in the middle of a thing so huge and full of consequence will try to notice things, to keep them forever in his eyes and pass them on. Here is a thing John Adams would never forget:

At 9 in the morning, just as the doors to the Congress were to be closed, “Caesar Rodney, mud spattered, ‘booted and spurred,’ made his dramatic entrance. The tall, thin Rodney—the ‘oddest-looking man in the world,’ Adams once described him—had been made to appear stranger still, and more to be pitied, by a skin cancer on one side of his face that he kept hidden behind a scarf of green silk. But, as Adams had also recognized, Rodney was a man of spirit, of ‘fire.’ Almost unimaginably, he had ridden eighty miles through the night, changing horses several times, to be there in time to cast his vote.”

All of these quotes are from David McCullough’s “John Adams.” More on Mr. McCullough in a moment.

The vote was completed: 12 for independence, New York abstaining, no one opposing. “The break was made, in words at least: on July 2, 1776, in Philadelphia, the American colonies declared independence. If not all 13 clocks had struck as one, twelve had, and with the others silent the effect was the same.”

On July 3, Congress argued over the wording and exact content of the formal Declaration. An indictment of the slave trade was dropped. In all, Thomas Jefferson saw roughly 25% of what he’d written wind up on the floor.

On July 4, discussion ended, debate was closed, a vote on the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was called, and the results were as on July 2. Congress ordered the document be printed. They’d sign it in a month. For now, John Hancock and one other, Charles Thompson, fixed their signatures.

Those present thought the great day had been July 2—the vote for independence itself. John Adams, who’d emoted over the 2nd in letters to Abigail, didn’t even mention the 4th, and Thomas Jefferson famously went shopping that afternoon for ladies’ gloves.
But on the morning of July 5, the people of Philadelphia started getting their hands on independently printed copies of the Declaration, and the impact was electric: My God, look what they said yesterday—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” And on the 6th, a local newspaper carried the text of what had been agreed upon on the 4th. And so the celebration of the Fourth of July as one of the signal moments in the history of human freedom, was born. And so we mark it still.

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David McCulloughOn David McCullough: Almost all the details in the above come from his “John Adams” and “1776”. He is America’s greatest living historian. He has often written about great men and the reason may be a certain law of similarity: He is one also. His work has been broadly influential, immensely popular, respected by his peers (Pulitzer Prizes for “Truman” and “John Adams,” National Book Awards for “The Path Between the Seas” and “Mornings on Horseback”) and by the American public. It is not often—it is increasingly rare—that the academy shares the views of the local dry cleaner, the student flying coach and the high school teacher, but all agree on Mr. McCullough, as they did half a century ago on, say, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. He is admired by normal people and esteemed by the intellectual establishment.

Why? Here are a few reasons. He has the eye of a gifted reporter and the depth of a historian. He sees and explains the true size of an incident or endeavor, he factors in, always, the fact that we are human, and he captures the detail that is somehow so telling—it was a scarf of green silk, not soft muslin, that Rodney wore to the vote on American independence. He writes like a dream, of course. He is broad gauged and has range—the Johnstown flood, the building of the Panama Canal, the founders.

Mr. McCullough betrays no need to be contrarian but is only too happy to knock down history’s clichés, to wit George III, the mad doofus, who was in fact “tall and rather handsome” and played both the violin and piano. “His favorite composer was Handel, but he adored also the music of Bach.” He rendered “quite beautiful architectural drawings,” assembled a distinguished art collection, collected books that in time constituted “one of the finest libraries in the world,” loved astronomy, was nonetheless practical, and had a gift for putting people at their ease. He impressed even crusty old Samuel Johnson, who after meeting him called him “the finest gentleman I have ever seen.” As for the famous madness, he suffered not during the American Revolution but later in life from what appears to have been “prophyria, a hereditary disease not diagnosed until the twentieth century.”

One can’t know if Mr. McCullough is correct in his judgment here, or fully so. One can know he inspected the available data, pondered it, and attempted a fair-minded assessment. He is reliable. (Of how many can that be said?) And he loves America. His work has gone to explaining it to itself, to telling its story.

Almost two years ago, I was lucky enough to tour Mount Vernon with a dozen people including him. (If I were David McCullough I would know the date and time. But I know the weather.) At the bottom of a stairway leading to the second floor, we chatted for a moment, and I asked him how he accounted in his imagination for the amazing fact of the genius cluster that founded our nation. How did so many gifted men, true geniuses, walk into history at the same time, in the same place, and come together to pursue so brilliantly a common endeavor? “I think it was providential,” he said, simply.

Well, so do I. If you do too, it’s part of what you’re celebrating today.

Later, after dusk, an unforgettable moment. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, led by Gay Gaines, retiring after three years as one of its greatest regents—she’d worked herself like a rented mule to solidify and expand the operation—gave us dinner on a long table on the piazza, the veranda overlooking the unchanged Potomac. It is where President and Mrs. Washington dined. It was hot, and now dark, and David McCullough rose to speak of Washington, of his courage and leadership. A storm had been gathering all day. Now it broke, and as he spoke of Valley Forge there was, literally, a sudden roar of thunder, and lightning lit the clouds over the river. Mr. McCullough continued, with his beautiful voice, and we all got a chill: What kind of moment is this? What could we possibly have done to deserve it?

Nothing of course. Some gifts are just given.

That’s what Mr. McCullough’s work has been, a gift, one big enough for a nation. So thanks today to the memory of John and Tom and George, and old Ben, and John Dickinson, and Caesar Rodney too. Good work, gentlemen. You too, David.