When I was an editorial page editor, I looked to better writers than I for material to run on national holidays. For Independence Day, I turned to Jim Bishop, an author and syndicated columnist with whom I shared a connection.
I was a journalism student and then a graduate and alumnus of St. Bonaventure University. He was the recipient of an honorary degree from Bonas, the founder of a journalism award there that honored his mentor, Mark Hellinger, and the donor of many of his notes and manuscripts to Friedsam Memorial Library. And, yes, I saw the inside of the library a couple of times.
So, in honor of the day and in homage to a great writer, I give you an excerpt from “The Birth of the United States,” by Jim Bishop:
“At 6 a.m. Thomas Jefferson noted in his diary that the temperature stood at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. It would rise to 72 degrees at 9 a.m. and, at the same hour, tempers within the State House would begin to boil. For the first time, Clerk Thomson would have copies engrossed by Printer Dunlap. He would pass them out to each provincial delegation, and the gentlemen would hurry to hunt passages which were disagreeable. The big room would be locked again, as Hancock seldom tired of explaining, to keep the horseflies out and the disagreements within.
“Before the president rapped for order, the delegations were busy trying to reconstruct words and phrases that had vanished or been altered so that they could proceed with the work at hand. For once, no one was late. Jefferson, dejected and silent, sat over his copy drawing lines through passages, seldom looking up to listen to a speaker. John Adams bustled happily from table to table, trying to hold acrimony to a minimum, acrimony he hoped would vanish in the afternoon. No one took a poll to find out which members were present on this historic day, or even to list the absentees. There were about fifty men in the room – give or take a few – including John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who was present to add his vote to Benjamin Franklin’s for independence and liberty. The members sensed that the passage of the Lee resolutions had made the thirteen Colonies an independent nation or conglomerate of nations. They looked upon the Declaration of Independence as their explanation to the world why they chose liberty. …
“Thus, when John Hancock asked if the Congress wanted to consider letters and entreaties first, the members shouted no. They had worked on the Declaration of Independence yesterday, and they wanted to finish it this morning. There was a letter from George Washington, but it could wait. Hancock again resolved the body into the Committee of the Whole and stepped down to sit with Massachusetts Bay as Benjamin Harrison left the Virginia delegation to preside. Clerk Thomson stood to read the part of the Declaration which had been approved, and addressed himself to the remainder of the document. …
“Thomas Jefferson was a hot, busy redhead most of the day. When Congress shouted, ‘We will expunge,’ he wrote ‘alter.’ He was busy underlining, writing alterations in the margins, and bracketing words and phrases as the day dragged itself on leaden feet to a conclusion. His copy of the Declaration was so ink-marked and tracked that in sections it became illegible. …
“Hancock knew that adjournment would be late today. Congress was approaching the supper hour when the final changes were made. The Declaration of Independence was ready to be voted back from the Committee of the Whole to the Congress for a vote. A motion was made, seconded, and carried as Harrison left the presiding officer’s chair and gave it to John Hancock. The president was not going to make a speech; he said that he was prepared to accept the will of the Congress and Clerk Thomson would call the roll from north to south. This was the moment for the enormous silence; the time when men brave and timid, excited and fearful, prepared themselves to take a long and irrevocable step in the name of the people of thirteen Colonies.
“’New Hampshire!’ bawled Thomson. Josiah Bartlett, physician and lawyer, a plain man in brown breeches and waistcoat, stood to say, ‘New Hampshire votes aye for the resolution.’
“‘Massachusetts!’ John Adams, swinging circuitously like a pealing chime, said, ‘Massachusetts votes aye for the Declaration.’
“And so it went. Rhode Island voted ‘Aye.’ So did Connecticut. New York, waiting for orders to vote on the measure, answered: ‘New York, at this time, abstains from voting.’ New Jersey, which had recently unhorsed its Royalist governor, Benjamin Franklin’s estranged son, voted ‘Aye.’ So did Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland.
“When Delaware voted ‘Aye!’ with Caesar Rodney bouncing and beaming, the Declaration of Independence became a fact. It was the seventh vote of thirteen. There was no pause; no cheer. The poll continued. Virginia voted ‘Aye.’ So did North Carolina and South Carolina. The last ‘Aye!’ came from Button Gwinnnett, representing the youngest colony, Georgia. New York asked for the right to vote when fresh instructions arrived. The chair granted the request.
“The deed was at last done. …”
It’s a good read, “The Birth of the United States” (William Morrow and Company Inc., 1976, ISBN: 0-688-03006-8). So, of course, is the Declaration itself.
[Editor’s note: This blog was first published July 4, 2011]