July 2, 1776. Delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies represented in the Second Continental Congress voted to formally “dissolve the political bands” that bound them to Great Britain.
Just 24 hours before that historic vote, the severing of those ties was in doubt.
On Monday, July 1, Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole to continue debating the resolution for independence proposed nearly a month before by Virginia representative Richard Henry Lee.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania rose and spoke eloquently — although ultimately not persuasively — in favor of pursuing peaceful attempts to reconcile with the crown.
John Adams spoke next. Refuting Dickinson’s call for calm, he reminded his colleagues of the convincing case for an unqualified declaration of independence.
When the speeches ended, delegates cast their votes; each colony cast one vote, regardless of the number of delegates present at the proceeding. Pennsylvania’s representatives were specifically instructed to oppose any call for separation from England and they voted accordingly. South Carolina joined Pennsylvania, voting no on the Lee resolutions.
New York’s delegation was also forbidden by their colonial government from voting in favor of independence, so New York abstained.
Tiny Delaware’s delegation was split — one representative in favor of independence (Thomas McKean) and one opposed (George Read) — so no vote was recorded for that colony.
The delegations of the remaining nine colonies approved the declaration of independence.
Dissolving the committee of the whole, the resolution would now be put before the Congress for a binding vote.
Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, although personally opposed to passage of Lee’s resolution calling for independence, believed that the colonies should present a unified front in the fight for freedom from British tyranny. Accordingly, he moved that the formal vote be postponed until Tuesday, July 2.
As the next day’s business got underway, representatives were surprised and pleased to hear that South Carolina had reversed her position and would vote yes on the declaration of independence. Next, the Pennsylvania contingent reported that John Dickinson and Robert Morris would demur, allowing their colleagues from Pennsylvania to vote 3-2 in favor of the resolution.
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