The sign and seal of justice.

AuthorMadan, Rafael Alberto
PositionP. 156-205
  1. The formation of a "Confederation of the Colonies"--this proposal carefully and expressly conditioned upon each colonial legislature's retaining full power to form its own government and "regulat[e its own] internal concerns." (90) This resolution ultimately produced the Articles of Confederation, approved on March 1, 1781, when Maryland finally acceded to

them, after having refused to join in a political union until Virginia should agree to give up her northwestern county, Illinois County, from which ultimately were carved the States of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, northeastern Minnesota, Ohio (or nearly all of it), and Wisconsin. (91) For the common good, (92) on January 2, 1781, the Virginia General Assembly adopted resolutions (93) offering cession, to the United States, of what became (with a few additional parcels) the Northwest Territories. The cession ultimately was effected by further act (October 20, 1783) of the Virginia General Assembly, (94) and a deed of conveyance by the Virginia delegates to the Confederation Congress, accepted by it on March 1, 1784. (95) Further to this instruction, (96) on Friday, June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia (who later became the sixth President of the Confederation Congress and, later still, Senator from that Commonwealth) rose in the Second Continental Congress and, immediately seconded by John Adams of Massachusetts, dutifully moved as follows:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation. (97) Mr. Lee's first resolution was debated the next day, and on the tenth; whereupon further debate was postponed to July 1, 1776. (98) "[I]n the mean while, that no time be lost, in case the Congress agree [to the resolution,] a committee [of five was appointed] to prepare a [formal] declaration to the effect of the ... resolution"; that is, to proclaim the independence officially and offer reasons for it. (99) This committee was composed of Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston of New York (who, in the end, declined to sign it). Because he was a Virginian and Mr. Adams thought (among other things) that "a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business," (100) Mr. Jefferson was chosen to prepare a rough draft (101)--a task he finished in about two weeks, after which Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams made myriad changes to it. (102) On Friday, June 28, 1776, the committee submitted its stirring draft to the Second Continental Congress. (103)

The vigorous debate (principally between Col. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Mr. Adams)--among the most momentous in history--on Mr. Lee's resolution of independence, resumed on Monday, July 1, (104) and lasted for much of that day. After a straw vote, (105) action thereon was postponed to the following day, during which it passed without objection (New York, once again, abstaining) at about 10:00 a.m. (106) Commenting on this pivotal second vote, by which the resolution of independence from Great Britain actually was adopted, on July 3 an obviously moved John Adams wrote to his wife:

Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony "that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do." You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell'd Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days. ... It is the Will of Heaven, that the two Countries should be sundered forever. It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dread full [sic]. If it is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us.--The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings. ([107]) The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extreamly [sic] addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great.--I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter. But I must submit all my Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the Faith may be, I firmly believe. (108) 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 and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. 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 ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph [sic] in that Days Transaction, even altho [sic] We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not. (109) Over the next two days, the Continental Congress debated and amended the draft declaration. Late Thursday morning (New York, again, abstaining), acting "with a Firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence" and "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world," the Second Continental Congress adopted the amended draft without objection, as authenticated by the signature of John Hancock, its President, and attested by Secretary Thomson. (110) On July 19 (New York finally having assented to independence on July 9 (111)), Congress ordered the Declaration to be engrossed on parchment, with the heading altered from "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled" to the now-familiar "[t]he unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America," and that every delegate sign. (112) The engrossed Declaration was opened for signature on August 2, 1776. (113) On that day,

John Hancock, the President of the Congress, was the first to sign the sheet of parchment measuring 24 1/4 by 29 3/4 inches. He used a bold signature centered below the text. In accordance with prevailing custom, the other delegates began to sign at the right below the text, their signatures arranged according to the geographic location of the states they represented. New Hampshire, the northernmost state, began the list, and Georgia, the southernmost, ended it. Eventually 56 delegates signed, although all were not present on August 2. Among the later signers were Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Lewis Morris, Thomas McKean, and Matthew Thornton, who found that he had no room to sign with the other New Hampshire delegates. A few delegates who voted for adoption of the Declaration on July 4 were never to sign in spite of the July 19 order of Congress that the engrossed document "be signed by every member of Congress." Nonsigners included John Dickinson, who clung to the idea of reconciliation with Britain [(though he served bravely as an officer in the ensuing war, laboring gallantly for the independence whose proclamation he had so eloquently sought to defeat)], and Robert R. Livingston, one of the Committee of Five, who thought the Declaration was premature. (114) In later years, of course, Thursday, July 4, 1776, would acquire almost-mythical status (and the vote of July 2--John Adams's predictions notwithstanding--strangely would be all-but forgotten). (115) But on the day itself, soon after the vote on the formal Declaration, the Second Continental Congress

proceeded directly to other business [such as appointment of a committee to devise a seal for the United States, discussed immediately below]. Indeed, to all appearances, nothing happened in Congress on July 4, 1776. Adams, who had responded with such depth of feeling to the events of July 2, recorded not a word of July 4. Of Jefferson's day, it is known only that he took time off to shop for ladies' gloves and a new thermometer that he purchased at John Sparhawk's London Bookshop for a handsome 3 pounds, 15 shillings. (116) The three principal draftsmen of the Declaration, Messrs. Jefferson, Franklin, and (John) Adams officially constituted the first committee to devise a seal for the United States in Congress Assembled; Mr. Pierre-Eugene du Simitiere of Pennsylvania (a Swiss) assisted them as a technical consultant. (117) This committee proposed a seal in large part based on powerful and unambiguously Biblical and religious themes. For the reverse (i.e., the face of the seal not containing the first committee's proposed arms of the United States), Mr. Jefferson initially recommended to the committee a depiction of the "Children of Israel in the...

To continue reading

Request your trial