John Adams: The Atlas of Independence

In his biography of John Adams, David McCullough describes Adams’s work during the Continental Congress of 1776:

…he had shown unflinching devotion to the cause of his country, “swim or sink, live or die.” He had never walked away from work that needed doing. He had never failed to speak his mind when it counted, to take a stand and fight for what he believed.

Benjamin Rush told a friend, “This illustrious patriot has not his superior, scarcely his equal for abilities and virtue on the whole of the continent of America.” Later Rush would say of Adams, “Every member of Congress in 1776 acknowledged him to be the first man in the House.”…

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency and unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did.1

As the author of its draft, Thomas Jefferson is usually thought of first whenever the Declaration of Independence is mentioned, but to John Adams we owe a primary debt for his untiring debate and constant advocacy for independence on the floor of Congress. McCullough states that when Adams arrived at the Second Continental Congress in February of 1776, a “Declaration of Independency” was on his list of things he was “determined to accomplish.”2 Bradley Thompson explains:

Shortly after the battles at Lexington and Concord, Adams began to argue that the time had come for the colonies to declare independence and to constitutionalize the powers, rights, and responsibilities of self-government. In May 1776, in large measure due to Adams’s labors, Congress passed a resolution recommending that the various colonial assemblies draft constitutions and construct new governments. At the request of several colleagues, Adams wrote his own constitutional blueprint. Published as Thoughts on Government, the pamphlet circulated widely and constitution makers in at least four states used its design as a working model for their state constitutions.3

Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, 6 August 1822:

…Mr. Jefferson…brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation, not even Samuel Adams was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart…

The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught I said, “l will not.” “You should do it.” “Oh! no.” “Why will you not? You ought do it.” “I will not.” “Why?” “Reasons enough.” “What can be your reasons?” “Reason first–You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second–I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.– You are much otherwise. Reason third–You can write ten times better than I can.” “Well,” said Jefferson, “if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.” “Very well.– When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.”4

Declaration of Independence: John Trumbull
The Committee presents the draft to Congress

Although no record is found that Congress, indeed, had such an opinion of Adams, Jefferson composed the draft.5 After examination and proposed alterations by the committee, on June 28, Jefferson read it aloud to Congress. It was then tabled until the final vote on independence had been taken.6 Thompson writes:

Adams’s greatest moment in Congress came in the summer of 1776. On July 1, Congress considered final arguments on the question of independence, and John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, argued forcefully against it.When no one responded to Dickinson, Adams rose and delivered a rhetorical tour-de-force that moved the assembly to vote in favor of independence. Years later, Thomas Jefferson recalled that so powerful in “thought & expression” was Adams’s speech, that it “moved us from our seats.” He was, Jefferson said, “our Colossus on the floor.”

The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independence is Mr. John Adams … I call him the Atlas of American independence. He it was who sustained the debate, and by force of his reasoning demonstrated not only the justice, but the expediency of the measure.

Richard Stockton (attributed), New Jersey delegate
to the Second Continental Congress, circa 17767


James Grant states, “No record was made of his arguments; the surviving record is one of the admiration and gratitude of his fellow members.”8 David McCullough gives this description:

No transcription was made, no notes were kept. There would be only Adams’s own recollections, plus those of several others who would remember more the force of Adams himself than any particular thing he said. That it was the most powerful and important speech heard in the Congress since it first convened, and the greatest speech of Adams’s life, there is no question.9

On July 2nd, the Thirteen Colonies voted unanimously to declare their Independence from Great Britain.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776:

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….

…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 in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.10

For the rest of July 2nd until the fourth, Congress debated over final editing of the Declaration.11 It was adopted on July 4, 1776.

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 26 April 1777:

Posterity! You will never know, how much it cost the present Generation, to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make a good Use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.12

John Adams portrait superimposed on flag: The Federalist Papers on Facebook.
1, 2, 5, 9David McCullough, John Adams, (Simon & Schuster, New York: 2001) 163, 89, 120, 127.
3C. Bradley Thompson, “John Adams.”
4Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, 6 August 1822:
Declaration of Independence, John Trumbull: Public Domain. See: key to identification of members.
6, 11Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind, (Simon & Schuster, New York: 1997) 196, 198; 198.
8James Grant, John Adams: Party of One, (Farrar, Straus and Girous, New York: 2005) 174.
10Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776:
12Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 26 April 1777:
John Adams’ signature in SVG, Raeky: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version


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