The horse was weary, the rider pale, his frame draped in a muddy cloak, that July morning. Inside the Philadelphia State House, a vote was being called — a vote long in the making, and one which would reverberate the world over.
In England over a century before, the seeds of this moment had been planted by men who embodied the spirit of liberty: jurists like Sir Edward Coke, statesmen like William Pitt and Edmund Burke, and theorists like John Locke. And once the flame of liberty began to burn, it could not be extinguished — not in England, and not in the colonies.
Far from it: it was raised a torch, a beacon, its light bathing the colonies. A year before that rider dismounted in Philadelphia, a fiery Patrick Henry inspired Virginia’s embrace of independence, his voice raising to a crescendo as he concluded with the words that ring down to this present day: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
And now, on a July morning in Philadelphia, as Charles Thompson counted the delegates taking their seats, he cast his eye upon a few dozen men, their names yet largely unknown; men who would change the world.
Caesar Rodney had been in Dover when the news arrived: the
Delaware delegation was deadlocked at the Second Continental Congress, its other two delegates divided on the question of independence. Patriotic lore holds that Rodney, who later died of cancer, was already in its throes, and was confined to bed when he received the news. Upon receiving word, Rodney arose, saddled his horse, and rode through the night to Philadelphia, pressing onward through a violent thunderstorm, urging his horse forward eighty miles along the washed-out roads.
The day before, the Continental Congress had met in a committee of the whole, and nine colonies had cast their lot with the cause of independence. Nine was enough — on paper. But in the broader sense, nine colonies could never have been enough. Perhaps Franklin’s admonition rang in the delegates’ ears: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we will all hang separately.” The vote was postponed until the following day.
|Caesar Rodney, Delegate,
Second Continental Congress
And so it transpired that the roll was being called when a haggard man arrived at the State House — Caesar Rodney of the muddy cloak, still drenched from his ride, making his way into the hall, providing Delaware with the decisive vote for independence as John Hancock called for the yeas and the nays. The other holdouts declared for independence as well, save New York, whose delegation received similar instructions a week later.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” — the inspired words of Thomas Jefferson now proclaimed for all the world to hear.
In time, some of the days and events would run together. That decisive vote was taken on the second, not the fourth, of July, the latter being the day the text went to print. The famous reading from the steps of the State House, at the culmination of which bells pealed across the city, took place July 8th. Signatures would not be affixed until the second of August.
But when the bells rang out for liberty, or whether the famed Liberty Bell was among them, is nothing more than trivia. What matters is what the Second Continental Congress did that summer in Philadelphia — that they, in the scriptural text inscribed upon the Liberty Bell, came together to “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Two hundred thirty-six years later, we still carry the torch of liberty. As we celebrate Independence Day, I hope that we will reflect upon the courage and resolve of those who won our freedom, and the sacrifices of those who have fought to preserve it. May we always stand with them, and ever hold that torch high! Happy Independence Day!