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We were about one third Tories, and [one] third timid, and one third true blue.


—John Adams


PHILADELPHIA, the provincial capital of Pennsylvania on the western bank of the Delaware River, was a true eighteenth-century metropolis, the largest, wealthiest city in British America, and the most beautiful. Visitors wrote in praise of its “very exactly straight streets,” its “many fair houses and public edifices,” and of the broad, tidal Delaware, alive in every season but winter with a continuous traffic of ships great and small. Though more than a hundred miles from the open sea, it was America’s busiest port, with wharves stretching nearly two miles along the river. The topgallants of huge merchantmen loomed over busy Water Street and Front Street. Cutters, shad boats, and two-masted shallops tied up, moved in and out, in company with the great, flat-bottomed Durham boats built to carry pig iron from the Durham Works upstream. Shipbuilding was a thriving industry; seagoing trade, the city’s lifeblood. Ships outbound carried lumber and wheat, Pennsylvania’s chief exports. Inbound ships brought European trade goods and from the West Indies, sugar, molasses, spices, and, increasingly now, European armaments and supplies for war. With no means for producing arms or gunpowder, the colonies were dependent on clandestine shipments from Europe by way of the Caribbean, and particularly the tiny Dutch island of St. Eustatius.

One vessel reportedly docked at Philadelphia with 49,000 pounds of gunpowder.

Because of Pennsylvania’s reputation for religious tolerance, and an abundance of good land available to the west, Philadelphia was the principal port of entry to America. The incoming tide of English, Welsh, Scotch-Irish, and Palatine Germans had been growing steadily. In numbers, if not in influence, Presbyterians and Baptists had long since surpassed the Quakers of the Quaker City.

Fifty years earlier, when young Benjamin Franklin arrived from Boston with a single “Dutch” (German) dollar in his pocket, Philadelphia had been a town of 10,000 people. By 1776 its population was approaching 30,000. Larger than New York, nearly twice the size of Boston, it was growing faster than either.

As conceived by its English Quaker founder, William Penn, in 1682, the plan of Philadelphia was a spacious grid, which to a man like John Adams, accustomed to the tangle of Boston’s narrow streets, seemed a sensible arrangement. “I like it,” Adams had declared in his journal at the time of the First Congress, when, newly arrived and filled with curiosity, he set off with his walking stick, resolved to learn his way about.

Front Street is near the river, then 2nd Street, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th [he recorded]. The cross streets which intersect these are all equally wide, straight and parallel to each other, and are named for forest and fruit trees, Pear Street, Apple Street, Walnut Street, Chestnut Street, etc.

The main thoroughfare was High Street, commonly called Market Street, as it was the location of the immense public market. Most streets near the waterfront had brick footwalks and gutters and were lit at night by whale oil lamps, except when the moon was full. Marly of the principal streets were lined with trees. “This is the most regular, neat, and convenient city I ever was in and has made the most rapid progress to its present greatness,” declared an English visitor. But it was the public buildings and churches that made the greatest impression. The State House, where Congress met; and nearby Carpenters’ Hall, which had been the setting for the First Congress; “noble” Christ Church, as Adams called it, with its magnificent Palladian window and landmark spire; the new hospital; the new poorhouse; the new Walnut Street Prison, were all unusually handsome and substantial. Silas Deane of Connecticut thought the poorhouse, or “Bettering House,” equal to anything of its kind anywhere. “All this is done by private donation and chiefly by the people called Quakers,” he informed his wife. To another Connecticut delegate, Oliver Wolcott, the massive new jail more resembled a prince’s palace than a house of confinement.

Public-spirited Philadelphians inspired by Benjamin Franklin had established the first volunteer fire company in the colonies, the first medical school, and a library. Franklin himself, Philadelphia’s first citizen, was the most famous American alive—printer, publisher, philosopher, scientist, and, as inventor of the lightning rod, “the man who tamed the lightning.” It was Franklin also who had led the way in establishing the American Philosophical Society, “for the promoting of useful knowledge,” with the result that Philadelphia had become the recognized center of American thought and ideas. Other eminent members of the Philosophical Society included John Bartram, who west of town, on the banks of the Schuylkill River, had created the first botanical garden in America; Dr. Benjamin Rush, an enterprising young physician and champion of humanitarian reform; and David Rittenhouse, clockmaker, optician, instrument-maker and self-taught astronomer who, to study the transit of Venus in 1769, had erected an incongruous-looking observation platform that still stood on the grounds of the State House.

Topics of “consideration” at the Philosophical Society, as set forth in Franklin’s initial proposal were, in the spirit of the age, all-embracing:

all philosophical [scientific] experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter, and multiply the conveniences or pleasure of life … all new-discovered plants, herbs, trees, roots, and methods of propagating them…. New methods of curing or preventing diseases…. New mechanical inventions for saving labor…. All new arts, trades, manufacturers, etc. that may be proposed or thought of.

As it was, Philadelphia manufacturers and artisans produced more goods than in any city in America—boots, wigs, hardware, fancy carriages, Franklin stoves, mirror glass, and no end of bricks for a city where nearly everything was built of brick. Thomas Affleck produced furniture as fine as any made in the colonies, all in the fashionable style of the English cabinetmaker Chippendale. John Behrent on Third Street advertised what may have been the first piano made in America, “a just finished extraordinary instrument by the name of a pianoforte, made of mahogany, being of the nature of a harpsichord.”

With twenty-three printing establishments and, by 1776, seven newspapers—more newspapers even than in London—Philadelphia was the publishing capital of the colonies. It was not only that Franklin’s immensely popular Poor Richard’s Almanack emanated from Philadelphia, but political pamphlets of such far-reaching influence as John Dickinson’s Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, Thomas Jefferson’s spirited Summary View of the Rights of British America, and now, Common Sense, which was selling faster than anything ever published in America.

Shops in nearly every street offered an array of goods and enticements such as most delegates to Congress could never find at home, everything from French brandy and Strasburg snuff to fancy chamber pots, artificial teeth, or ordinary pins of the kind John Adams purchased in “great heaps” to send home to Abigail. John Sparhawk, proprietor of the London Bookstore on Second Street, in addition to volumes on medicine and law, sold scientific instruments, swords, spurs, and backgammon tables.

There were as many as thirty bookshops and twice the number of taverns and coffeehouses, with names like Blue Anchor, Bunch of Grapes, Tun Tavern, Conestoga Wagon, Rising Sun, Half Moon, and each had its own clientele. The Free Masons convened at the staid old Indian King on Market Street. The London Coffee House, at the southwest corner of Front and Market, in the commercial center, was the favorite of the leading merchants and sea captains, indeed the place where much of the city’s business was transacted, while the new, larger City Tavern on the west side of Second Street, between Walnut and Chestnut, had become the great gathering place for members of Congress. Adams, recording his first arrival in Philadelphia in August 1774, had written that “dirty, dusty, and fatigued as we were, we could not resist the importunity to go to the [City] Tavern,” which, he decided, must be the most genteel place of its kind in all the colonies. It was there, at the City Tavern, a few days later, that Adams had first met George Washington.

Distilleries and breweries were thriving. Adams found the local beer so much to his liking that he temporarily abandoned his usual hard cider. “I drink no cider, but feast on Philadelphia beer,” he acknowledged to Abigail.

To anyone unaccustomed to city life, the crowds and noise seemed overwhelming, and worst were market days, Wednesdays and Saturdays, when German-speaking country people came rolling into town in huge farm wagons loaded with produce, live chickens, pigs, and cattle. The “thundering of coaches, chariots, chaises, wagons, drays and the whole fraternity of noise almost continually assails our ears,” complained a visiting physician. Delegate Stephen Hopkins from Rhode Island one day counted seventy farm wagons on Market Street.

Swarms of people moved up and down the sidewalks and spilled into the streets. At no point on the American continent could so many human beings be seen in such close proximity or in such variety. Sailors, tradesmen, mechanics in long leather aprons, journeymen printers, house-painters, sail-makers, indentured servants, black slave women, their heads wrapped in bright bandannas, free black stevedores and draymen, mixed together with Quaker merchants and the elegants of the city in their finery, everyone busy about something, and everyone, it seemed to visitors, unexpectedly friendly and polite.

Few delegates to Congress ever became accustomed to the bustle and noise; or to the suffocating heat of a Philadelphia summer; or to the clouds of mosquitoes and horseflies that with the onset of summer rose like a biblical scourge. Prices were high. Lodgings of even a modest sort were difficult to find. Conditions for the poor appeared little better than in other American cities. Misery, too, was on display. Delegates to Congress were frequently approached by beggars and, as in every city of the time, the scars and mutilations of disease and war were not uncommon among the passing crowds. Further, Philadelphia was notorious for its deadly epidemics of smallpox. During the most recent outbreak, in 1773, more than 300 people had died.

In his initial eagerness to see everything, Adams had made a tour of the new hospital. Led below ground to view the “lunaticks” locked in their cells, he saw to his horror that one was a former client from Massachusetts, a man he had once saved from being whipped for horse stealing. Afterward, upstairs, Adams walked between long rows of beds filled with the sick and lame, a scene of “human wretchedness” that tore at his heart. But if bothered by pigs loose in the streets, or the stench of rotting garbage and horse manure, he wrote nothing of it. Besides, like others, he found that to the west, toward the Schuylkill River, the city rapidly thinned out, beginning at about Sixth Street. By Eighth, beyond the hospital and the potter’s burial ground, one was in open country. To a man who thought nothing of walking five to ten miles to “rouse the spirits,” it was a welcome prospect. There were fields with wild strawberries in summer and scattered ponds, which in winter were filled with skaters, the most accomplished of whom, doffing their hats, performed something called the “Philadelphia Salute,” a bow much like in a minuet.

One fair afternoon, as if to clear their heads, Adams and two or three others climbed the bell tower of Christ Church, up a series of dimly lit, narrow ladders, past the great bells in their yokes, to a point a hundred feet aboveground, where a trap door led to the open air of the arched lantern, above which rose the church spire. Steadying themselves on a slightly canted roof, they looked over the whole of the city, the long sweep of the river, and the farmland of New Jersey to the east. The breeze at that height was like nothing to be felt in the streets below.

With the rest of the Massachusetts delegation, Adams had moved into a lodging house kept by a Mrs. Sarah Yard on the east side of Second Street, across from City Tavern. A tally of his expenses shows charges for room and board of 30 shillings a week in Pennsylvania currency, not including firewood and candles, which were extra.

“My time is too totally filled from the moment I get out of bed until I return to it, [with] visits, ceremonies, company, business, newspapers, pamphlets, etc., etc., etc.,” he had reported excitedly to Abigail.

On Sundays, the one day of respite from Congress, he was at church most of the day, attending services twice, even three times. With numerous denominations to choose from (everything except Congregational), he tried nearly all—the Anglican Christ Church, the meetinghouses of the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, the German Moravians—and passed judgment on them all, both their music and the comparative quality of their preaching. The Reverend Thomas Coombe of Christ Church was “sprightly” and distinct. “But I am not charmed,” wrote Adams. “His style was indifferent.” Indifference was a quality Adams found difficult to tolerate. The Methodist preacher was another matter. “He reaches the imagination and touches the passions very well.”

One Sunday, “led by curiosity and good company,” which included George Washington, Adams crossed a “Romish” threshold, to attend afternoon mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Fifth Street, an experience so singular that he reflected on it at length both in his journal and in a letter to Abigail. Everything about the service was the antithesis of a lifetime of Sabbaths at Braintree’s plain First Church, where unfettered daylight through clear window glass allowed for no dark or shadowed corners, or suggestion of mystery. For the first time, Adams was confronted with so much that generations of his people had abhorred and rebelled against, and he found himself both distressed and strangely moved. The music, bells, candles, gold, and silver were “so calculated to take in mankind,” that he wondered the Reformation had ever succeeded. He felt pity for “the poor wretches fingering their beads, chanting Latin, not a word of which they understood,” he told Abigail.

The dress of the priest was rich with lace—his pulpit was velvet and gold. The altar piece was very rich—little images and crucifixes about—wax candles lighted up. But how shall I describe the picture of our Savior in a frame of marble over the altar at full length upon the Cross, in the agonies, and the blood dropping and streaming from his wounds ?

Yet Adams stayed through all of the long service. The music and chanting of the assembly continued through the afternoon, “most sweetly and exquisitely,” and he quite approved of the priest’s “good, short, moral essay” on the duty of parents to see to their children’s temporal and spiritual interests. The whole experience, Adams concluded, was “awful and affecting”—the word “awful” then meaning full of awe, or “that which strikes with awe, or fills with reverence.”

For one accustomed also to the plainest of domestic comforts and daily fare—and who loved to eat—the scale of Philadelphia hospitality in the opening weeks of the First Congress had been memorable. Not even in New York had he seen such display of private wealth, or dined and imbibed so grandly. At a great dinner for Congress in the banqueting hall at the State House, on September 16, 1774, a total of thirty-one toasts had been raised before the affair ended. There were further elegant receptions and dinners at the homes of the Mifflins, the Shippens, the Powels, Cadwalladers, and Dickinsons, extended gatherings presided over and attended by many of the most beautiful, fashionably dressed women of Philadelphia.

“I shall be killed with kindness in this place,” he told Abigail. “We go to Congress at nine and there we stay, most earnestly engaged until three in the afternoon, then we adjourn and go to dinner with some of the nobles of Pennsylvania at four o’clock and feast on ten thousand delicacies, and sit drinking Madeira, claret and burgundy ‘til six or seven.” Even plain Quakers, he reported, served ducks, hams, chickens, beef, creams, and custards.

“A most sinful feast again,” he recorded after another occasion, this in the splendor of a great four-story mansion on Third Street, the home of Mayor Samuel Powel, whose wealth and taste could be measured in richly carved paneling, magnificent paintings, a tea service in solid silver that would have fetched considerably more than the entire contents of the Adams household at Braintree.

“Dined with Mr. [Benjamin] Chew, Chief Justice of the Province,” he began still another diary entry.

Turtle and every other thing. Flummery, jellies, sweet meats of twenty sorts. Trifles, whipped syllabubs, floating islands… and then a dessert of fruits, raisins, almonds, pears, peaches—wines most excellent and admirable. I drank Madeira at a great rate and found no inconvenience in it.

Within the walls of Congress, he was at first dazzled by the other delegates, who, he decided, comprised an assembly surpassing any in history. Of the fifty-four in attendance, nearly half were lawyers and most had received a college education. Several, like Washington, were known to be men of great wealth, but others, like Roger Sherman of Connecticut, had humbler origins. He had begun as a shoemaker.

As observant of people as ever, Adams recorded his impressions in

vivid, fragmentary notes of a kind kept by no other member of Congress.

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was a “tall, spare… masterly man”;

Roger Sherman spoke “often and long, but very heavily”; James Duane of New York had a “sly, surveying eye,” but appeared “very sensible.” Joseph Galloway, a leading Philadelphia attorney and speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly who would later resign from Congress and ultimately seek refuge with the British army, struck Adams at first meeting as having an air of “design and cunning.

John Dickinson, another prominent Philadelphian, was “a shadow… pale as ashes”; Adams doubted he would live a month. Caesar Rodney of Delaware was “the oddest looking man in the world… slender as a reed—pale—his face is not bigger than a large apple. Yet there is sense and fire, spirit, wit, and humor in his countenance.”

Adams was amazed by the range and variety of talents. “The art and address of ambassadors from a dozen belligerent powers of Europe, nay, of a conclave of cardinals at the election of a Pope… would not exceed the specimens we have seen.” Here were “fortunes, abilities, learning, eloquence, acuteness” equal to any. “Every question is discussed with moderation, and an acuteness and minuteness equal to that of Queen Elizabeth’s privy council.”

But after a month of such “acuteness and minuteness” over every issue at hand, irrespective of importance, Adams was “wearied to death.’’ The business of Congress had become tedious beyond expression, he told Abigail.

This assembly is like no other that ever existed. Every man in it is a great man—an orator, a critic, a statesman, and therefore every man upon every question must show his oratory, his criticism, and his political abilities.

The consequence of this is that business is drawn and spun out to immeasurable length. I believe if it was moved and seconded that we should come to a resolution that three and two make five, we should be entertained with logic and rhetoric, law, history, politics, and mathematics concerning the subject for two whole days, and then we should pass the resolution unanimously in the affirmative.

Certain members began to irritate him. The perpetual round of feasting became only another burden of his “pilgrimage.” Even Philadelphia lost its charm. For all its “wealth and regularity,” Adams decided, Philadelphia was no Boston. Yet on departure from the First Congress in late October of 1774, after a stay of two months, he had written wistfully of the “happy, peaceful, the elegant, the hospitable, and polite city of Philadelphia,” wondering if he would ever be back.

By the time he returned for the Second Continental Congress, in late spring 1775, a month after Lexington and Concord, Philadelphia had become the capital of a revolution. Troops were drilling; lavish entertaining was out of fashion. Congress was in the throes of creating an army, appointing a commander-in-chief, issuing the first Continental money. With several other delegates, Adams spent a day inspecting defenses on the Delaware.

“There are in this city three large regiments raised, formed, armed, trained, and uniformed under officers consisting of gentlemen of the very first fortune and best character in the place,” Adams reported to Abigail’s uncle, Isaac Smith, a prosperous Boston merchant whom Adams greatly admired. “All this started up since [the] 19th [of] April [since Lexington and Concord]. They cover the common every day of the week, Sundays not excepted.”

The deliberations of Congress, meantime, had been moved from Carpenters’ Hall to the larger, grander State House on the south side of Chestnut Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets. Built some forty years before, it comprised a handsome main edifice, two stories tall with a bell tower and arcaded wings joining smaller “offices” at either end, all of it done in red brick. High on the exterior west wall of the main building, a large clock proclaimed the hour.

Congress convened in the Assembly Room on the first floor, to the left of the Chestnut Street entrance. An ample chamber, measuring forty by forty feet, it was notably devoid of decoration, “neat but not elegant,” with whitewashed walls and flooded with daylight from high windows on both the north and south sides. On a low platform at the east end of the room stood a single, tall-backed chair for the president. There were two woodstoves and on the east wall, twin fireplaces, one on either side of the president’s chair. Seats for the delegates, fifty or so Windsor chairs, were arranged in a semicircle facing the president’s chair, these interspersed with work tables covered with green baize cloths and clustered according to region: New England on the left, middle colonies in the center, southern colonies on the right.

The Pennsylvania Assembly, having given up its space, had moved across the hall to the more elaborate Supreme Court Room, where the royal coat-of-arms hung. At the rear of the hall, a broad stairway led to the banqueting room that extended a hundred feet, the full length of the building.

Outside to the rear was the State House Yard, an open public green the size of a city block and enclosed the whole way around by a seven-foot brick wall. The Rittenhouse observation platform stood off to one side, and at the center of the far wall a huge single-arched wooden gate, twice the height of the wall, opened onto Walnut Street. In good weather, as a place for the delegates to stretch their legs and talk privately, the yard was ideal. Many days more business was transacted there than inside. And with the yard serving also now as a place to store cannon and barrels of gunpowder, the war was never far from consciousness.

All sessions of Congress were conducted in strictest secrecy behind closed doors because of the number of British agents in and about Philadelphia and the need to convey an impression of unity, that all members were perfectly agreed on the results of their deliberations. Consequently, like others, Adams could report comparatively little in his letters home, except that the hours were longer than ever, the issues of greater urgency, the strain worse on everybody.

His health suffered. His eyes bothered him to the point that he had difficulty reading. He wrote of the frustrations of “wasting, exhausting” debates. America was “a great, unwieldy body,” he decided. “Its progress must be slow. It is like a large fleet sailing under convoy. The fleetest sailors must wait for the dullest and slowest.”

Yet he would not give up or let down. “I will not despond.”

A sweltering, fly-infested summer of 1775 was followed by an autumn of almost unceasing rains. Dysentery broke out in the military camps. Adams, though suffering from rheumatism and a violent cold, worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, in committee meetings from seven to ten in the morning, then to the full Congress till late afternoon, then back to committees from six to ten at night.

Politics were no less perplexing than ever. “Politics are a labyrinth without a clue,” he wrote, but he had come to understand the makeup of Congress. He knew the delegates now as he had not before, and they had come to know him. That he was repeatedly chosen for the most important committees was a measure of his influence and of the respect others had for his integrity, his intellect, and exceptional capacity for hard work. He was the leading committeeman of the Massachusetts delegation perhaps indeed of the whole Congress.

By October, at the time of Abigail’s shattering ordeal with sickness and death at home, Adams was writing to say they must prepare themselves, “minds and hearts for every event, even the worst.” Since his first involvement in the “Cause of America,” he had known the crisis would never be settled peaceably and this, he told her in confidence, had been a source of much “disquietude.”

The thought that we might be driven to the sad necessity of breaking our connection with G[reat] B[ritain], exclusive of the carnage and destruction which it was easy to see must attend the separation, always gave me a great deal of grief.


POSSIBLY IT WAS HIS FIRST or second day back in Philadelphia, in early February 1776, after the long wintry journey from home, that Adams, in his room at Mrs. Yard’s, drew up a list of what he was determined to see accomplished. Or as appears more likely, from its placement in his diary, the list had been composed earlier, somewhere en route. Undated, it included, “An alliance to be formed with France and Spain”; “Government to be assumed by every colony”; “Powder mills to be built in every colony and fresh efforts to make saltpetre [for the making of gunpowder].” And, on the second of the two small opposing pages in the diary, he wrote, a “Declaration of Independency.”

Independence had been talked about privately and alluded to in correspondence, but rarely spoken of directly in public declamation, or in print. To Adams independence was the only guarantee of American liberty, and he was determined that the great step be taken. The only question was when to make the move. If a decision were forced on Congress too soon, the result could be disastrous; independence would be voted down. But every day that independence was put off would mean added difficulties in the course of the larger struggle. Abigail, in one of her letters, aptly offered some favorite lines from Shakespeare:

There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted,, all the voyage of their life Is bound in the shallows and in miseries… And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.

But just when to catch the tide was the question. By Adams’s estimate, Congress was about equally divided three ways—those opposed to independence who were Tories at heart if not openly, those too cautious or timid to take a position one way or the other, and the “true blue,” as he said, who wanted to declare independence with all possible speed. So as yet the voices for independence were decidedly in the minority. Indeed, the delegates of six colonies—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina—were under specific instructions not to vote for independence.

The opposing argument hung on the lingering possibility of a last-minute reconciliation with Britain. Were not the likes of Edmund Burke speaking out in Parliament for American rights, it was said. Supposedly a peace commission was on the way from London. To Adams such talk was a phantom. “The Ministry,” he wrote, “have caught the colonies as I have often caught a horse, by holding an empty hat, as if it was full of corn….” But throughout the middle colonies, as in parts of the South, great numbers of people had no wish to separate from the mother country. In Philadelphia such sentiment ran strong, and not just among the city’s numerous Tories. “The plot thickens…. Thinking people uneasy,” observed a local attorney. “The Congress in equilibria on the question of independence or no…. I love the cause of liberty, but cannot heartily join in the presentation of measures totally foreign to the original plan of resistance.”

To many staunchly pacifist Quakers any step that led nearer to all-out war was anathema. To them George III was “the best of kings,” and they spoke of those who called themselves patriots as “the violent people.”

The mood of the city had become extremely contentious. “The malignant air of calumny has taken possession of almost all ranks and societies of people in this place,” wrote Christopher Marshall, an apothecary and committed patriot (though a Quaker) who had become one of Adams’s circle of Philadelphia friends.

The rich, the poor, the high professor and the prophane, seem all to be infected with this grievous disorder, so that the love of our neighbor seems to be quite banished, the love of self and opinions so far prevails…. The [Tory] enemies of our present struggle… are grown even scurrilous to individuals, and treat all characters who differ from them with the most opprobrious language.

In Congress the strain was showing. From Virginia had come word that the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, having escaped to the safety of a British man-of-war, had called on all slaves to rebel, promising them their freedom if they joined the King’s forces. On New Year’s Day he had ordered the bombardment of Norfolk. Southern delegates were outraged. At the same time the bad news from Canada had had much the same effect witnessed by Adams in the wayside taverns en route from Massachusetts. “There is a deep anxiety, a kind of thoughtful melancholy,” he reported to Abigail. Writing again, he stressed that the events of war were always uncertain. Then, paraphrasing a favorite line from the popular play Cato by Joseph Addison—a line that General Washington, too, would often call upon—Adams told her, “We cannot insure success, but we can deserve it.”

With sickness widespread in Philadelphia there was much hacking and coughing in Congress and many a long, sallow look. When some of the delegates protested that smoke from the wood stoves in the chamber was the cause of such poor health, the stoves were removed. Other ailments struck. Thomas Lynch of South Carolina suffered a stroke, from which he would not recover. Smallpox reappeared in the city, putting everyone further on edge. In March one of New England’s most prominent delegates, Samuel Ward of Rhode Island, would die of the disease.

On February 27, word arrived that Parliament, in December, had prohibited all trade with the colonies and denounced as traitors all Americans who did not make an unconditional submission. The punishment for treason, as every member of Congress knew, was death by hanging.

A vast British armada was reported under way across the Atlantic and there were ominous rumors of the King hiring an army of German mercenaries. It was the New Englanders who held firm for independence, though two of the Massachusetts delegation, John Hancock and Robert Treat Paine, exhibited nothing like the zeal of either Samuel Adams or Elbridge Gerry. There were many, too, among the other delegations, who could be counted on, though unfortunately several of the most important were absent. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia would not appear at Philadelphia until the middle of March. Caesar Rodney of Delaware would be away until April. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia would not arrive for another three months, not until the middle of May. Meanwhile, time was wasting and a great deal needed doing.

Present nearly every day, notwithstanding his years and infirmities, was Benjamin Franklin, who, at age seventy, was popularly perceived to be the oldest, wisest head in the Congress, which he was, and the most influential, which he was not. Franklin wanted independence and considered Congress lamentably irresolute on the matter, as he told Adams. Franklin had no expectation of new terms from Britain and from long experience in London, as an agent for Pennsylvania, he knew the King and the Foreign Ministry as did no one else in Congress. But Franklin had no liking for floor debate. He was patient, imperturbable, and at times sound asleep in his chair. Never would he argue a point. Indeed, it was rare that he spoke at all or ventured an opinion except in private conversation, which to Adams, who was almost incapable of staying out of an argument, was extremely difficult to comprehend. “He has not assumed anything,” Adams wrote in frustration, “nor affected to take the lead; but has seemed to choose that the Congress pursue their own sentiments, and adopt their own plans.” That Franklin was quietly proposing to equip the Continental Army with bows and arrows must have left Adams still more puzzled.

For Adams any sustained equivalent of Franklin’s benign calm would have been impossible. Knowing his hour had come and that he must rise to the occasion and play a leading part, he would play it with all that was in him.

Among the opposition there were only two whom he disliked, Benjamin Harrison and Edward Rutledge. Harrison, an outspoken Virginia planter, six feet four inches tall and immensely fat, was a fervent champion of American rights who liked to say he would have come to Philadelphia on foot had it been necessary. To Adams, nonetheless, he was a profane and impious fool. Rutledge, the youngest member, was dandified, twenty-six years old, and overflowing with self-confidence. At first, Adams judged him “smart” if not “deep,” but the more Rutledge talked, the more he expressed disagreement with Adams, the more scathing Adams’s assessment became, to the point where, in his diary, he appeared nearly to run out of words. “Young Ned Rutledge is a perfect Bob o’ Lincoln, a swallow, a sparrow, a peacock, excessively vain, excessively weak, and excessively variable and unsteady—jejune, inane, and puerile.”

Yet Adams remained pointedly courteous to both men, as to others of the anti-independence faction. Among the surprises of the unfolding drama, as tensions increased, was the extent to which the ardent, disputatious John Adams held himself in rein, proving when need be a model of civility and self-restraint, even of patience.

In later years Adams would recall the warning advice given the Massachusetts delegation the day of their arrival for the First Congress. Benjamin Rush, Thomas Mifflin, and two or three other Philadelphia patriots had ridden out to welcome the Massachusetts men, and at a tavern in the village of Frankford, in the seclusion of a private room, they told the New Englanders they were “suspected of having independence in view.” They were perceived to be “too zealous” and must not presume to take the lead. Virginia, they were reminded, was the largest, richest, and most populous of the colonies, and the “very proud” Virginians felt they had the right to lead.

According to Adams, the advice made a deep impression, and among the consequences was the choice of George Washington to head the army. But Adams also wrote that he had “not in my nature prudence and caution enough” always to stand back. Years before, at age twenty, he had set down in his diary that men ought to “avow their opinions and defend them with boldness,” and he was of the same mettle still.


THE BULWARK OF THE OPPOSITION of the “cool faction,” was the Pennsylvania delegation, and the greatly respected John Dickinson was its eloquent floor leader. Cautious, conservative by nature, Dickinson was, as Adams had noted, a distinctive figure, tall and exceptionally slender, with almost no color in his face. Because of his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, an early pamphlet on the evils of British policy, Dickinson had become a hero. He was “the Farmer,” his name spoken everywhere, though he was hardly the plain man of the soil many imagined. Born to wealth and raised on an estate in Delaware, he had trained in the law at London and made his career in Philadelphia, where he had risen rapidly to the top of his profession. Married to a Quaker heiress, he lived in grand style, riding through the city in a magnificent coach-and-four attended by liveried black slaves. His town house, catercornered to the State House on Chestnut Street, was then undergoing extensive alterations and thought to be too large and showy even by his wife, who preferred their nearby country seat, Fairhill.

Dickinson had wished to make a good first impression on Adams, and he succeeded. As a dinner guest at Fairhill during the First Congress, Adams was charmed. Dickinson “has an excellent heart, and the cause of his country lies near it,” Adams had written. As for his initial concern that the rigors of Congress might be too much for someone of such delicate appearance, Adams had learned better. Though afflicted with the gout, Dickinson had since assumed command of a Philadelphia battalion with the rank of colonel. He had become the politician-soldier of the sort Adams so often imagined himself, yet it was with a determination no less than Adams’s own that Dickinson kept telling Congress that peaceful methods for resolving the current crisis were still possible and greatly preferable. He was not a Tory. He was not opposed to independence in principle. Rather, he insisted, now was not the time for so dangerous and irrevocable a decision.

Adams had come to believe that Dickinson’s real struggle was with his mother and his wife, both devout Quakers who bedeviled him with their pacifist views. “If I had such a mother and such a wife,” Adams would reflect years later, recalling Dickinson’s predicament, “I believe I should have shot myself.”

Outraged by Dickinson’s insistence on petitions to the King as essential to restoring peace, even after Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, Adams had strongly denounced any such step. Like many other delegates, he had been infuriated by Congress’s humble petition of July 8, 1775, the so-called Olive Branch Petition, that had been Dickinson’s major contribution. From the day he saw with his own eyes what the British had done at Lexington and Concord, Adams failed to understand how anyone could have any misconception or naive hope about what to expect from the British. “Powder and artillery are the most efficacious, sure and infallible conciliatory measures we can adopt,” Adams wrote privately.

In a speech on the floor of Congress, Dickinson warned the New England delegates that they would have “blood … on their heads” if they excluded the possibility of peace. Adams, springing to his feet, responded so vehemently that when he left the chamber Dickinson came rushing after, to confront him outside.

“What is the reason, Mr. Adams, that you New England men oppose our measures of reconciliation ?” Dickinson angrily demanded, according to Adams’s later account of the scene. “Look, ye! If you don’t concur with us in our pacific system, I, and a number of us, will break off from you in New England and we will carry on the opposition by ourselves in our own way.”

Though infuriated by Dickinson’s “magisterial” tone, Adams replied calmly that there were many accommodations he would make in the cause of harmony and unanimity. He would not, however, be threatened.

Venting his “fire” in a private letter, Adams portrayed Dickinson as a “piddling genius” who lent a “silly cast” to deliberations. The letter was intercepted by British agents and widely published in Tory newspapers, with the result that Dickinson refused to speak when, one morning on their way to the State House, he and Adams passed “near enough to touch elbows,” as Adams recorded that day.

He passed without moving his hat or head or hand. I bowed and pulled off my hat. He passed haughtily by….But I was determined to make my bow, that I might know his temper.

We are not to be on speaking terms, nor bowing terms, for the time to come.

Others refused to speak to Adams, so great was the respect for Dickinson in Congress and in the city. A British spy in Philadelphia named Gilbert Barkley reported to his contact in London, “The Quakers and many others look on him [Adams], and others of his way of thinking, as the greatest enemies of this country.” For weeks Adams was ostracized, “avoided like a man infected with leprosy,” he would remember. He felt as he had after the Boston Massacre trials, “borne down” by the weight of unpopularity. Benjamin Rush would write sympathetically of Adams walking the streets of Philadelphia alone, “an object of nearly universal scorn and detestation.”

Such was the support for Dickinson and the Olive Branch Petition that Adams and his colleagues were left no choice but to acquiesce. The petition was agreed to—only to be summarily dismissed by George III, who refused even to look at it and proclaimed the colonies in a state of rebellion.

Still, Dickinson and the anti-independents clung to the hope of a resolution to the crisis, insisting reconciliation was still possible, and so the wait for the peace commissioners had continued.


WHAT NEITHER JOHN DICKINSON nor John Adams nor anyone could have anticipated was the stunning effect of Common Sense. The little pamphlet had become a clarion call, rousing spirits within Congress and without as nothing else had. The first edition, attributed to an unnamed “Englishman” and published by Robert Bell in a print shop on Third Street, appeared January 9, 1776. By the time Adams had resumed his place in Congress a month later, Common Sense had gone into a third edition and was sweeping the colonies. In little time more than 100,000 copies were in circulation. “Who is the author of Common Sense?” asked a correspondent from South Carolina in the Philadelphia Evening Post. “He deserves a statue of gold.”

Written to be understood by everyone, Common Sense attacked the very idea of hereditary monarchy as absurd and evil, and named the “royal brute” George III as the cause of every woe in America. It was a call to arms, an unabashed argument for war, and a call for American independence, something that had never been said so boldly before in print. “Why is it that we hesitate ?… The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth… for God’s sake, let us come to a final separation…. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

The British spy, Barkley, reported its publication as he did such other vital news items as the arrival of shipments of gunpowder from the West Indies, or the sailing from Philadelphia of armed sloops and brigantines flying “what they call the American flag.”

The anonymous author was revealed to be a down-at-the-heels English immigrant, Thomas Paine, who had landed at Philadelphia a year earlier with little more than a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin. Paine had been encouraged in his efforts by Benjamin Rush, who was himself the author of a pamphlet on the evils of slavery, and it was Rush who provided the title.

Friends in Massachusetts reported to Adams that because of Common Sense the clamor for a declaration of independence was never greater. “This is the time… we have never had such a favorable moment,” wrote one. In a letter to Abigail, referring to the copy he had sent her, Adams said he expected Common Sense to become the “common faith,” and on learning that in Boston, he, Adams, was presumed to be the author, he felt flattered. Writing to a former law clerk, he declared himself innocent, saying he could never have achieved a style of such “strength and brevity.” But Adams was not without misgivings. The more he thought about it, the less he admired Common Sense. The writer, he told Abigail, “has a better hand at pulling down than building.”

That Paine had attempted to prove the unlawfulness of monarchy with analogies from the Bible, declaring monarchy to be “one of the sins of the Jews,” struck Adams as ridiculous. Paine had assured his readers that in a war with Britain, Americans, being such experienced seamen and willing soldiers and having such an abundance of war materiel at hand, would readily triumph. Adams had no illusions about the prospect of war with Britain. Almost alone among the members of Congress, he saw no quick victory, but a long, painful struggle. The war, he warned prophetically in a speech on February 22, could last ten years. What was more, as he confided to Abigail’s uncle, Isaac Smith, he thought “this American contest will light up a general war” in Europe.

But it was Paine’s “feeble” understanding of constitutional government, his outline of a unicameral legislature to be established once independence was achieved, that disturbed Adams most. In response, he began setting down his own thoughts on government, resolved, as he later wrote, “to do all in my power to counteract the effect” on the popular mind of so foolish a plan.

Meanwhile, for all the gloom and discord at the State House, Congress was making decisions. On February 26 there was enacted an embargo on exports to Britain. On March 2, Silas Deane was appointed a secret envoy to France to go “in the character of a merchant” to buy clothing and arms, and to appraise the “disposition” of France should the colonies declare independence. Oliver Wolcott, Deane’s fellow delegate from Connecticut, sensed the approach of a moment that could “decide the fate of this country.” Adams busily jotted notes:

Is any assistance attainable from F[rance]? What connection may we safely form with her. 1st. No political connection. Submit to none of her authority…. 2nd. No military connection. Receive no troops from her. 3rd. Only a commercial connection.

In the hope that the Canadians could be persuaded to join the American cause as “the 14th colony,” Congress organized a diplomatic expedition to Montreal with Benjamin Franklin at its head, and despite his age and poor health, Franklin departed on what was to be an exceedingly arduous and futile mission.

Adams joined in floor debate day after day, arguing a point, pleading, persuading, and nearly always with effect. No one spoke more often or with greater force. “Every important step was opposed, and carried by bare majorities, which obliged me to be almost constantly engaged in debate,” he would recall.

But I was not content with all that was done, and almost every day, I had something to say about advising the states to institute governments, to express my total despair of any good coming from the petition or of those things which were called conciliatory measures. I constantly insisted that all such measures, instead of having any tendency to produce a reconciliation, would only be considered as proofs of our timidity and want of confidence in the ground we stood on, and would only encourage our enemies to greater exertions against us.

Rarely did he prepare his remarks in advance other than in his mind, so that once on his feet he could speak from what he knew and what he strongly felt. He had tried writing his speeches but found it impossible. “I understand it not,” he would tell Benjamin Rush. “I never could write declamations, orations, or popular addresses.”

He had no liking for grand oratorical flourishes. “Affectation is as disagreeable in a letter as in conversation,” he once told Abigail, in explanation of his views on “epistolary style,” and the same principle applied to making a speech. The art of persuasion, he held, depended mainly on a marshaling of facts, clarity, conviction, and the ability to think on one’s feet. True eloquence consisted of truth and “rapid reason.” As a British spy was later to write astutely of Adams, he also had a particular gift for seeing “large subjects largely.”

He would stand at his place, back straight, walking stick in hand, at times letting the stick slip between thumb and forefinger to make a quick tap on the floor, as if to punctuate a point. The “clear and sonorous” voice would fill the room. No one ever had trouble hearing what Adams had to say, nor was there ever the least ambiguity about what he meant. Nothing of what he or anyone said in the course of debate was officially recorded. But in later writings Adams recalled stressing certain points repeatedly:

We shall be driven to the necessity of declaring ourselves independent and we ought now to be employed in preparing a plan for confederation of the colonies, [here might come the sharp tap of the stick] and treaties to be proposed to foreign power [tap]… together with a declaration of independence [tap]….

Foreign powers can not be expected to acknowledge us, till we have acknowledged ourselves and taken our station among them as a sovereign power [tap], an independent nation [tap].

On March 14, Congress voted to disarm all Tories. On March 23, in a momentous step, the delegates resolved to permit the outfitting of privateers, “armed vessels,” to prey on “the enemies of the United Colonies,” a move Adams roundly supported. In the advocacy of sea defenses he stood second to none. The previous fall he had urged the creation of an American fleet, which to some, like Samuel Chase of Maryland, had seemed “the maddest idea in the world.” The fight began on the floor, and on October 13, to the extent of authorizing funds for two small swift-sailing ships, Congress founded a navy. By the end of the year Congress had directed that thirteen frigates be built. Adams was appointed to a naval committee that met in a rented room at Tun Tavern, and it was Adams who drafted the first set of rules and regulations for the new navy, a point of pride with him for as long as he lived.

Knowing nothing of armed ships, he made himself expert, and would call his work on the naval committee the pleasantest part of his labors, in part because it brought him in contact with one of the singular figures in Congress, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who was nearly as old as Franklin and always wore his broad-brimmed Quaker hat in the chamber. Adams found most Quakers to be “dull as beetles,” but Hopkins was an exception. A lively, learned man, he had seen a great deal of life, suffered the loss of three sons at sea, and served in one public office or other continuously from the time he was twenty-five. The old gentleman loved to drink rum and expound on his favorite writers. The experience and judgment he brought to the business of Congress were of great use, as Adams wrote, but it was in after-hours that he “kept us alive.”

His custom was to drink nothing all day, nor ‘til eight o’clock in the evening, and then his beverage was Jamaica spirits and water…. He read Greek, Roman, and British history, and was familiar with English poetry…. And the flow of his soul made his reading our own, and seemed to bring to recollection in all of us all we had ever read.

Hopkins never drank to excess, according to Adams, but all he drank was promptly “converted into wit, sense, knowledge, and good humor.”

There was more to be done by sea and land than anyone knew, Adams kept saying. When on March 25 word arrived that the British had abandoned Boston, setting off jubilant celebration in Philadelphia, he lost no time in advocating the immediate fortification of Boston Harbor. “Fortify, fortify, and never let them in again,” he urged a friend at home. On April 6, in another decisive step, Congress opened American ports to the trade of all nations except Britain.

Half measures would not answer, Adams knew. The tentative attitude of Dickinson and the “Quaker interests” was becoming more and more difficult to tolerate. Adams’s sense of urgency grew greater by the day. “The middle way is no way at all,” he wrote to General Horatio Gates. “If we finally fail in this great and glorious contest, it will be by bewildering ourselves in groping for the middle way.”

“This story of [peace] commissioners is as arrant an illusion as ever hatched in the brain of an enthusiast, a politician, or a maniac,” he told Abigail in a letter in which he confided that he had been busy at something, “about ten sheets of paper with my own hand,” that he would have to tell her about later.

Adams’s Thoughts on Government, as it would be known, was first set forth in a letter to a fellow congressman, William Hooper, who, before returning home to help write a new constitution for North Carolina, had asked Adams for a “sketch” of his views. When another of the North Carolinians, John Penn, requested a copy, this, too, Adams provided, in addition to three more copies, all written out by hand, for Jonathan Sergeant of New Jersey and Virginians George Wythe and Richard Henry Lee, who with Adams’s consent, had the letter published as a pamphlet by the Philadelphia printer John Dunlap.

For Adams the structure of government was a subject of passionate interest that raised fundamental questions about the realities of human nature, political power, and the good society. It was a concern that for years had propelled much of his reading and the exchange of ideas with those whose judgment he most respected, including Abigail, who had written to him the year before, “I am more and more convinced that man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or few is ever grasping….

The great fish swallow up the small [she had continued] and he who is most strenuous for the rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which human nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.

Adams had accused Thomas Paine of being better at tearing down than building. In what he wrote in response, he was being the builder, as best he knew. To do this he had had “to borrow a little time from my sleep.” He was exhausted, he acknowledged, but he seems also to have sensed the importance of what he had done.

“It has been the will of Heaven,” the essay began, “that we should be thrown into existence at a period when the greatest philosophers and lawgivers of antiquity would have wished to live….

a period when a coincidence of circumstances without example has afforded to thirteen colonies at once an opportunity of beginning government anew from the foundation and building as they choose. How few of the human race have ever had an opportunity of choosing a system of government for themselves and their children ? How few have ever had anything more of choice in government than in climate?

He was looking beyond independence, beyond the outcome of the war, to what would be established once independence and victory were achieved. Much as he foresaw the hard truth about the war to be waged, Adams had the clearest idea of anyone in Congress of what independence would actually entail, the great difficulties and risks, no less than the opportunities. When arguing cases in court, he liked to draw on the fables of La Fontaine and to quote the line “in every thing one must consider the end.”

The happiness of the people was the purpose of government, he wrote, and therefore that form of government was best which produced the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number. And since all “sober inquirers after truth” agreed that happiness derived from virtue, that form of government with virtue as its foundation was more likely than any other to promote the general happiness.

The greatest minds agreed, Adams continued, that all good government was republican, and the “true idea” of a republic was “an empire of laws and not of men,” a phrase not original with Adams but that he had borrowed from the writings of the seventeenth-century philosopher James Harrington. A government with a single legislative body would never do. There should be a representative assembly, “an exact portrait in miniature of the people at large,” but it must not have the whole legislative power, for the reason that like an individual with unchecked power, it could be subject to “fits of humor, transports of passion, partialities of prejudice.” A single assembly could “grow avaricious… exempt itself from burdens… become ambitious and after some time vote itself perpetual.” Balance would come from the creation of a second, smaller legislative body, a “distinct assembly” of perhaps twenty or thirty, chosen by the larger legislature. This “Council,” as Adams called it, would be given “free and independent judgment upon all acts of legislation that it may be able to check and correct the errors of the others.”

The executive, the governor, should, Adams thought, be chosen by the two houses of the legislature, and for not more than a year at a time. Executive power would include the veto and the appointment of all judges and justices, as well as militia officers, thus making the executive the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Essential to the stability of government and to an “able and impartial administration of justice,” Adams stressed, was separation of judicial power from both the legislative and executive. There must be an independent judiciary. “Men of experience on the laws, of exemplary morals, invincible patience, unruffled calmness and indefatigable application” should be “subservient to none” and appointed for life.

Finally and emphatically, he urged the widest possible support for education. “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

Little that Adams ever wrote had such effect as his Thoughts on Government. Yet he felt it was too rough, “crude” in execution. He regretted insufficient time to write “more correctly.”


FROM ABIGAIL CAME LONG LETTERS filled with news from home—of family, of politics, of her day-to-day struggle to manage expenses, cope with shortages, and keep the farm going, a responsibility for which little in her background had prepared her. “Frugality, industry, and economy are the lessons of the day,” she confided to a friend, “at least they must be so for me or my small boat will suffer shipwreck.” To John she pleaded repeatedly for more news of his health and his outlook, and filled pages with her own feelings for all that was transpiring at Philadelphia.

She was particularly curious about the Virginians, wondering if, as slaveholders, they had the necessary commitment to the cause of freedom. “I have,” she wrote, “sometimes been ready to think that the passion for liberty cannot be equally strong in the breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow creature of theirs.” What she felt about those in Massachusetts who owned slaves, including her own father, she did not say, but she need not have—John knew her mind on the subject. Writing to him during the First Congress, she had been unmistakably clear: “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the province. It always seemed a most iniquitous scheme to me—[to] fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”

It had been two weeks now since she had seen the British fleet sail out of Boston, and she viewed the approach of spring very differently than she had only a month before. Her world had been transformed. She was experiencing an uncommon “gaiety de coeur, “she wrote. “I think the sun shines brighter, the birds sing more melodiously.” She longed to hear word of independence declared. Her spirit took flight at the thought:

—and by the way in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands.

Borrowing a line from a poem by Daniel Defoe that she knew he would recognize (for he had used it, too), she wrote, “Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.

If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of yours as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why then not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as vassals of your sex. Regard us then as being placed by providence under your protection and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

She was not being entirely serious. In part, in her moment of springtime gaiety, she was teasing him. But only in part.

Adams responded in a light spirit. “I cannot but laugh,” he began.

We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.

Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and in practice you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight.

Others wrote from Massachusetts to question why it was taking so long to accomplish what everyone at home was demanding. “People can’t account for the hesitancy they observe,” said James Warren, while his wife, Mercy Otis Warren, who was a playwright and a woman Adams particularly admired, lectured him on the ideal republican government she foresaw for the future union of the colonies.

Replying to James Warren on April 16, Adams could hardly control his anger. “Have you seen the privateering resolves? Are not those independence enough for my beloved constituents? Have you seen the resolves opening our ports to all nations? Are these independence enough ? What more would you have ?’’

But writing again to Warren, Adams tried to explain the concern and hesitation over independence. “All great changes are irksome to the human mind, especially those which are attended with great dangers and uncertain effects. No man living can foresee the consequences of such a measure.”

The future was exceedingly dangerous, Adams felt certain. His mind was much on eventualities, given what he knew of human nature.

We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments. But there is great danger that those governments will not make us happy. God grant they may. But I fear that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise not sense. By - meanness, not greatness. By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls….

There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect, and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular government, this is our only way.

To Mercy Warren, Adams counseled, “Patience! Patience! Patience!”

A week or so after denouncing the tyranny of men, Abigail wrote to say that in her loneliness and with so much riding on her shoulders, she scarcely knew which way to turn. “I miss my partner and find myself unequal to the cares which fall upon me… I want to say many things I must omit. It is not fit to wake the soul by tender strokes of art, or to ruminate upon happiness we might enjoy, lest absences become intolerable.”

She wished he would burn her letters, she said in postscript.

Sometimes he wrote to her from Congress itself. (“When a man is seated in the midst of forty people, some of whom are talking, and others whispering, it is not easy to think what is proper to write,” he would tell her.) On April 18 she asked if he would be home in May or June, and to say she thought of him only “with the tenderest affection.” He, on April 23, went on about his Philadelphia barber who more than anyone helped him maintain a sense of proportion. “He is a little dapper fellow … a tongue as fluent and voluble as you please, wit at will, and… never… at a loss for a story to tell… while he is shaving and combing me … he contributes more than I could have imagined to my comfort in this life.”

But having received her letter, Adams became about as tender as he would allow on paper.

Is there no way for two friendly souls to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off. Yes, by letter. But I want a better communication. I want to hear you think, or to see your thoughts.

The conclusion of your letter makes my heart throb more than a cannonade would. You bid me burn your letters. But I must forget you first.

She followed at length, this time with thoughts on his concerns, writing that “a people may let a King fall, yet still remain a people, but if a King let his people slip from him, he is no longer a King. And as this is most certainly our case, why not proclaim to the world in decisive terms our own importance?”

“I think you shine as a stateswoman,” he responded exuberantly, and in another letter wrote:

Your sentiments of the duties we owe to our country are such as become the best of women and the best of men. Among all the disappointments and perplexities which have fallen my share in life, nothing has contributed so much to support my mind as the choice blessing of a wife….

I want to take a walk with you in the garden—to go over to the common, the plain, the meadow. I want to take Charles in one hand and Tom in the other, and walk with you, Nabby on your right hand and John on my left, to view the corn fields, the orchards…

Alas, poor imagination! How faintly and imperfectly do you supply the want of [the] original and reality!


SPRING HAD ARRIVED. Days of warm April rain and intermittent sunshine followed one after another. Trees were leafing out. In the enclosed backyards of the city, cherry blossoms burst into flower, followed by a profusion of lilacs in bloom.

Behind the closed doors of Congress the current of events seemed also to turn with the season as the delegates of three southern colonies, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, received instructions freeing them to vote for independence. Even among the opposition, there was growing agreement on the need for unanimity, “harmony,” a healing of disputes. “It is a true saying of a wit,” wrote Carter Braxton of Virginia, referring possibly to Benjamin Franklin, “we must hang together or separately.”

Then, on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 8, Philadelphia heard the muffled but unmistakable thunder of cannon from thirty miles down the Delaware, as two heavily armed British ships, the frigate Roebuck and sloop-of-war Liverpool, tried to run the river defenses, a blockade of armed gondolas. The crash of cannon went on for two days before the ships turned back. No great damage was done, and to many it all seemed, as said in the Pennsylvania Gazette, “a most interesting spectacle.” Thousands rushed by carriage and horseback to watch from the shoreline. But it had also been vivid proof that the war was no abstraction and could in fact come to Philadelphia in all its fury, a thought many had preferred not to face. The British fleet that evacuated Boston, it was now known, had sailed to Halifax, where presumably it was waiting for reinforcements before returning to attack New York.

By sundown May 9, the excitement down the river had ended. On the day after, Friday, May 10, came what many in Congress knew to be a critical juncture. Adams had decided the time was ripe to make his move.

With Richard Henry Lee, he put forth a resolution recommending that the individual colonies assume all powers of government—to secure “the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.” Not only was it passed, but with surprising unanimity. It awaited only a preamble which, as drafted by Adams, was a still more radical statement. This brought on three days of fierce debate, during which Adams repeatedly took the floor, supported by Richard Henry Lee, while James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued in opposition. A decision that could clear the way to independence had at last arrived.

In contrast to the resolution, Adams’s preamble put aside any possibility of reconciliation and all but declared the colonies immediately independent:

Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; and whereas, no answer whatever to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain has been or is likely to be given; but the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; and whereas it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience, for people of these colonies to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain … it is [therefore] necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties, against hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies.

“Why all this haste?” James Duane demanded, according to notes that Adams kept. “Why all this driving?’

Samuel Adams, who rarely spoke in Congress, rose from his place. “I wonder the people have conducted so well as they have,” he said.

James Wilson responded, “Before we are prepared to build a new house, why should we pull down the old one, and expose ourselves to all the inclemencies of the season ?”

John Dickinson was absent, apparently indisposed, a victim of exhaustion.

What John Adams said was not recorded. But as the constant battle on the floor, with all that he had written, his work on committees, his relentless energy, industry, and unyielding determination, he had emerged a leader like no other, and when the breakthrough came at last on Wednesday, May 15, it was his victory more than anyone’s in Con gress.

The preamble was approved. When an exasperated James Duane told Adams it seemed “a machine for the fabrication of independence, Adams replied that he thought it “independence itself.” He was elated Congress, he wrote, had that day “passed the most important resolution that was ever taken in America.”

Others agreed. Even “the cool considerate men think it amounts to declaration of independence,” wrote Caesar Rodney enthusiastically.

Most telling was the immediate effect in Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia itself, where popular opinion took a dramatic turn in support of independence.

At his lodgings two days later, Adams sat quietly writing to Abigail:

When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental of touching some springs, and turning some wheels, which have had and will have such effects, I feel an awe upon my mind which is not easily described.

“I have reasons to believe,” he added, “that no colony which shall assume a government under the people, will give it up.”


THE DAYS HAD BECOME as warm as summer. “Fine sunshine,” recorded Adams’s Philadelphia friend Christopher Marshall one day after another. “Uncommonly hot… uncomfortable both to horse and man,” registered Josiah Bartlett, who, returning to Congress from the cool of New Hampshire, was astonished to see fields of winter rye in New Jersey already full grown by the middle of May.

Thomas Jefferson, on reaching Philadelphia, decided, “as the excessive heats of the city are coming fast,” to find lodgings “on the skirts of town where I may have the benefit of circulating air.” He moved to spacious quarters in a new brick house at the southwest corner of Seventh and Market, in what was nearly open country. They were larger, more expensive accommodations than most delegates had—a suite of two rooms, bedroom and parlor on the second floor, with ample windows for “circulating air”—and unlike most delegates, he would reside alone, separate from the rest.

Jefferson had arrived on May 14 after a pleasant week’s journey by horseback from the Piedmont of Virginia, accompanied by a single servant, a fourteen-year-old slave named Bob Hemings. Jefferson’s road to Philadelphia, the reverse of Adams’s, had been north by northeast, through the red-clay countryside of Virginia to Noland’s Ferry on the Potomac, then on into Maryland, winding past miles of prosperous-looking farms that became still more prosperous-looking as he crossed into Pennsylvania.

On resuming his seat in Congress, at the climax of debate over Adams’s preamble, Jefferson had felt as nearly unsuited for the business at hand as for the stifling city climate. “I’ve been so long out of the political world that I am almost a new man in it,” he wrote his college friend and confidant John Page. He worried about his ill wife at home. Given the choice, he would have preferred to be at Williamsburg, where a new Virginia constitution was being drafted. Of more immediate concern than the doings of Congress, it would appear from what he wrote Page, were some books, a two-volume French history of the Celts and a book on English gardens that he hoped Page would purchase for him from an estate sale.

At thirty-three Thomas Jefferson was the youngest of the Virginia delegates. He had not attended the First Congress, when Washington and Patrick Henry had been part of the delegation, and the Virginians with their liveried servants and splendid horses had ridden into the city like princelings. His role in the Second Congress had been on the whole modest. If he was conspicuous, it was mainly because of his height. At six feet two-and-a-half inches, he stood taller than all but a few and towered over someone like John Hancock, who at five feet four was perhaps the shortest man in the assembly. Standing beside John Adams, Jefferson looked like a lanky, freckled youth.

With eight years difference in their age, Adams was Jefferson’s senior, both in years and political experience. The differences in physique, background, manner, and temperament could hardly have been more contrasting. Where Adams was stout, Jefferson was lean and long-limbed, almost bony. Where Adams stood foursquare to the world, shoulders back, Jefferson customarily stood with his arms folded tightly across his chest. When taking his seat, it was as if he folded into a chair, all knees and elbows and abnormally large hands and feet. Where Adams was nearly bald, Jefferson had a full head of thick coppery hair. His freckled face was lean like his body, the eyes hazel, the mouth a thin line, the chin sharp.

Jefferson was a superb horseman, beautiful to see. He sang, he played the violin. He was as accomplished in the classics as Adams, but also in mathematics, horticulture, architecture, and in his interest in and knowledge of science he far exceeded Adams. Jefferson dabbled in “improvements” in agriculture and mechanical devices. His was the more inventive mind. He adored designing and redesigning things of all kinds. Jefferson, who may never have actually put his own hand to a plow, as Adams had, would devise an improved plow based on mathematical principles, “a moldboard of least resistance,” and find equal satisfaction in arriving at the perfect shape for a stone column or silver goblet.

Jefferson was devoted to the ideal of improving mankind but had comparatively little interest in people in particular. Adams was not inclined to believe mankind improvable, but was certain it was important that human nature be understood.

In contrast to Adams’s need to fill pages of his diaries with his innermost thoughts and feelings, Jefferson kept neat account books. In an invariably precise hand, he recorded every purchase, every payment for meals, wines, books, violin strings, the least item of clothing. Unlike Adams, who, except for books, indulged himself in no expenditures beyond what were necessary, Jefferson was continually in and out of Philadelphia shops, buying whatever struck his fancy.

In the spirit of science, Jefferson maintained letter-perfect records of weights, measurements, and daily temperature readings. (Adams is not known even to have owned a thermometer.) “Nothing was too small for him to keep account of,” one of his plantation overseers would remember of Jefferson. Yet he kept no personal diary, and for all the hours given to what he called “pen and ink work,” Jefferson rarely ever revealed his inner feelings in what he wrote. He had nothing like Adams’s fascination with human nature and, quite unlike Adams, little sense of humor. “He is a man of science,” a close observer would later write of Jefferson. “But… he knows little of the nature of man—very little indeed.”

It was Jefferson’s graciousness that was so appealing. He was never blunt or assertive as Adams could be, but subtle, serene by all appearances, always polite, soft-spoken, and diplomatic, if somewhat remote. With Adams there was seldom a doubt about what he meant by what he said. With Jefferson there was nearly always a slight air of ambiguity. In private conversation Jefferson “sparkled.” But in Congress, like Franklin, he scarcely said a word, and if he did, it was in a voice so weak as to be almost inaudible. Rarely would he object to a point or disagree with anyone to his face. “Never contradict anybody,” he was advised by Franklin, whom he admired above all men, though it was advice he hardly needed. He “abhorred dispute,” as he said, shrank from the contentiousness of politics, and instinctively avoided confrontation of any kind. It was as if he were trying to proceed through life as he had designed his moldboard plow to go through the red clay of Virginia, with the least resistance possible.

Years later, still puzzling over Jefferson’s passivity at Philadelphia, Adams would claim that “during the whole time I sat with him in Congress, I never heard him utter three sentences together.”

Jefferson himself would one day advise a grandson, “When I hear another express an opinion which is not mine, I say to myself, he has a right to his opinion, as I to mine.

Why should I question it. His error does me no injury, and shall I become a Don Quixote, to bring all men by force of argument to one opinion?… Be a listener only, keep within yourself, and endeavor to establish with yourself the habit of silence, especially in politics.

Jefferson wished to avoid the rough and tumble of life whenever possible. John Adams’s irrepressible desire was to seize hold of it, and at times his was to be the path of Don Quixote.

A departure from Jefferson’s prevailing silence in Congress came late that summer when he stood in opposition to a proposal for a fast day, and in so doing appeared to cast aspersions on Christianity, to which Adams reacted sharply. Benjamin Rush reminded Adams of the incident in a letter written years later.

You rose and defended the motion, and in reply to Mr. Jefferson’s objections to Christianity you said you were sorry to hear such sentiments from a gentleman whom you so highly respected and with whom you agreed upon so many subjects, and that it was the only instance you had ever known of a man of sound sense and real genius that was an enemy to Christianity. You suspected, you told me, that you had offended him, but that he soon convinced you to the contrary by crossing the room and taking a seat in the chair next to you.

In one regard only did Jefferson’s behavior seem at odds with his usual placid way. If unwilling or unable to express anger, or passion, in his dealings with other men, he could be very different with his horse. As would be said within his own family, “The only impatience of temper he ever exhibited was with his horse, which he subdued to his will by a fearless application of the whip on the slightest manifestation of restiveness.”

As the author of the Summary View, the young Virginian had, as Adams said, achieved “the reputation of a masterly pen,” and however reticent in Congress, he proved “prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation….” That Jefferson, after attending the College of William and Mary, had read law at Wilhamsburg for five years with the eminent George Wythe, gave him still greater standing with Adams, who considered Wythe one of the ablest men in Congress. In his journal, Adams recorded a remark made by the New Yorker James Duane to the effect that Jefferson was “the greatest rubber off of dust” that Duane had ever met, and that he spoke French, Italian, and Spanish, and was working on German. The journal entry, dated October 25, 1775, was Adams’s first recorded mention of Jefferson.

Sensitive to Adams’s seniority and his importance in Congress—and possibly to Adams’s vanity—Jefferson was consistently deferential to him. Clearly, too, for all their differences, they had much in common, not the least of which was their love of words, of books, and serious scholarship. They were as widely read, as learned as any two men in Congress. A list of the favorite authors of either could have served for the other. They lad read the same law, distinguished themselves at an early age in the same profession, though Jefferson had never relished the practice of law as Adams had, nor felt the financial need to keep at it.

They were men who loved noble endeavor, who shared a disdain for indolence, and hated wasting time. Jefferson’s devotion to home, to family, and his own native ground was quite as strong as Adams’s. When Jefferson spoke of “my country,” he usually meant Virginia, as Adams referred to Massachusetts as “my country.” The one was as proudly a Virginian as the other a Yankee. The stamp of their origins was strong on booth, and neither would have acknowledged any better place on earth than his “country,” though neither, it is true, had yet seen much else. As Adams had never been farther south than Philadelphia, Jefferson had been no farther north than New York.

But in this, too, was the root of differences that ran deep and would prove long-lasting, for the reason that Massachusetts and Virginia were truly different countries. Indeed, it would be difficult for future generations to comprehend how much separated a man raised on a freeholder’s farm in coastal New England from a son of Virginia such as Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson had been born to respectable wealth achieved by his father, Peter Jefferson, a man of rugged vitality, tobacco planter and surveyor, and to an unassailable place in the Virginia aristocracy through his mother, Jane, who was a Randolph. His landholdings in Albemarle County, mostly inherited from his father, exceeded 5,000 acres. But where Adams, at his farm by Penn’s Hill, lived very much like his father, and among the people of the town, Jefferson, very unlike his father or other Virginia planters, had removed to a mountaintop, removed from contact with everyday life, to create a palatial country seat of his own design in the manner of the sixteenth-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio.

It was a bold undertaking that spoke of unusually cultivated taste and high ambition, and was made possible by the added wealth that came with his marriage to Martha Wayles Skelton, a young widow.

He had started the project at the age of twenty-five, in 1768. Still only partly built, it had the high, columned porticoes of a classic Italian villa and carried a name, Monticello, meaning “little mountain” in old Italian. He had contracted for 100,000 bricks, ordered specially made window frames from London, and in Philadelphia purchased the unexpired servitude of an indentured servant, a stonecutter, to do the columns. It was a house and setting such as John Adams had never seen or could ever have imagined as his own, any more than he could have imagined the scale of Jefferson’s domain. On his daily rounds by horseback, surveying his crops and fields, where as many as a hundred black slaves labored, Jefferson would commonly ride ten miles, as far as from Braintree to Boston, without ever leaving his own land. Further, he owned another 5,000-acre plantation to the southwest in Bedford County, an inheritance from his wife’s father.

Jefferson had been raised and educated as the perfect landed gentleman of Virginia. He knew no other way. His earliest childhood memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave and in countless ways he had been carried ever since by slaves, though they were never called that, but rather “servants” or “laborers.” It was not just that slaves worked his fields; they cut his firewood, cooked and served his meals, washed and ironed his linen, brushed his suits, nursed his children, cleaned, scrubbed, polished, opened and closed doors for him, saddled his horse, turned down his bed, waited on him hand and foot from dawn to dusk.

By 1776, with the addition of the land inherited from his father-in-law, Jefferson reckoned himself a wealthy man and lived like one. With the inheritance also came substantial debts and still more slaves, but then in Virginia this was seen as a matter of course. The whole economy and way of life were built on slaves and debt, with tobacco planters in particular dependent on slave labor and money borrowed from English creditors against future crops. John Adams, by contrast, had neither debts nor slaves and all his life abhorred the idea of either.

In keeping with his background, Adams was less than dazzled by the Virginia grandees. In Virginia, he would say, “all geese are swans.” Jefferson, for his part, knew little or nothing of New Englanders and counted none as friends. A man of cultivated, even fastidious tastes, Jefferson was later to tell his Virginia neighbor James Madison that he had observed in Adams a certain “want of taste,” this apparently in reference to the fact that Adams was known on occasion to chew tobacco and take his rum more or less straight.

Jefferson had been slower, more cautious and ambivalent than Adams about resolving his views on independence. As recently as August 1775, less than a year past, Jefferson had written to a Tory kinsman, John Randolph, of “looking with fondness towards a reconciliation with Great Britain.” He longed for the “return of the happy period when, consistently with duty, I may withdraw myself totally from the public stage, and pass the rest of my days in domestic ease and tranquillity, banishing every desire of afterwards even hearing what passes in the world.’’ But in the same letter he declared that “rather than submit to the right of legislating for us assumed by the British parliament and which late experience has shown they will so cruelly exercise, [I] would lend my hand to sink the whole island in the ocean.” His commitment now in the spring of 1776 was no less than Adams’s own. And it was because of their common zeal for independence, their wholehearted, mutual devotion to the common cause of America, and the certainty that they were taking part in one of history’s turning points, that the two were able to concentrate on the common purpose in a spirit of respect and cooperation, putting aside obvious differences, as well as others not so obvious and more serious than they could then have known.

Adams considered Jefferson his protege at Philadelphia; Jefferson, impressed by Adams’s clarity and vigor in argument, his “sound head,” looked upon him as a mentor. They served on committees together, and as the pace quickened in the weeks after Jefferson’s arrival, they were together much of the time. As would be said, each felt the value of the other in the common task.


IF THERE WAS “a tide in the affairs of men,” as Abigail had reminded John, now was “the flood.” “Every post and every day rolls in upon us independence like a torrent,” he wrote on May 20.

Despite drenching rain, an open-air public meeting that day at the State House Yard drew a throng of thousands who listened as the May 15 resolve was read aloud, then voiced a demand vote for a new Pennsylvania constitution and a new legislature.

At week’s end, on Friday, May 24, General Washington arrived for two days of meetings with Congress to report his heightened concern for the situation at New York, where a British attack was expected any time. The King, it was now known, had hired some 17,000 German troops to fight in America. At New York, Washington had at most 7,000 men fit for duty.

Three days later came word that on May 15, the Virginia convention at Williamsburg had resolved unanimously to instruct the Virginia delegation at Philadelphia “to declare the United Colonies free and independent states.” An exultant John Adams wrote to Patrick Henry that the “natural course and order of things” was coming to pass at last. “The decree is gone forth, and it cannot be recalled, that a more equal liberty than had prevailed in other parts of the earth must be established in America.”

On Friday, June 7, at the State House, Richard Henry Lee rose to speak. Sunshine streamed through the high windows. Lee, slim and elegant, was a spirited orator who was said to practice his gestures before a mirror. In a hunting accident years before, he had lost the fingers of his left hand, which he kept wrapped in a black handkerchief, and this, with his lithe figure and aquiline nose, gave him a decidedly theatrical presence. The importance of the moment was understood by everyone in the room.

Resolved [Lee began]:… That these United Colonies are, and of a 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.

Adams immediately seconded the motion and the day following, Saturday, June 8, the debate began. Speaking in opposition, John Dickinson, James Wilson, Robert Livingston, and Edward Rutledge declared, according to notes kept by Jefferson, that while “friends of the measure,” they opposed any declaration of independence until “the voice of the people” drove them to it. Further, should Congress proceed before hearing the “voice,” then certain colonies “might secede from the union.” It was the threat Dickinson in his anger had used earlier against Adams, but whether it was Dickinson speaking now, Jefferson did not record. Nor did he record what Adams, Lee, and George Wythe said, only that they declared public opinion to be ahead of Congress: that “the people wait for us to lead the way,” that the European powers would neither trade nor treat with the colonies until they established independence, that “the present [military] campaign may be unsuccessful, and therefore we had better propose an alliance while our affairs wear a hopeful aspect.” And that it was essential “to lose no time.”

Intense debate continued past dark. Candles were brought in. “The sensible part of the house opposed the motion,” wrote an irate Edward Rutledge. “No reason could be assigned for pressing into this measure, but the reason of every madman.”

On Monday, June 10, after President John Hancock reconvened the assembly, Rutledge and the “cool party” succeeded in having the final vote delayed for twenty days, until July 1, to allow delegates from the middle colonies time to send for new instructions. Nonetheless, it was agreed that no time be lost in preparing a declaration of independence. A committee was appointed, the Committee of Five, as it became known, consisting of Jefferson, Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Benjamin Franklin, who had by now returned from his expedition to Canada but was ill and exhausted and rarely seen.

On the floor above, meantime, in the Banqueting Hall of the State House, another revolution was transpiring as the Pennsylvania Assembly struggled over what instructions to give its delegation.

Adams, who had not written a word to Abigail in nearly two weeks, dashed off a letter saying, “Great things are on the tapis.”


JEFFERSON WAS TO DRAFT the declaration. But how this was agreed to was never made altogether clear. He and Adams would have differing explanations, each writing long after the fact.

According to Adams, Jefferson proposed that he, Adams, do the writing, but that he declined, telling Jefferson he must do it.

“Why?” Jefferson asked, as Adams would recount.

“Reasons enough,” Adams said.

“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 very much otherwise. Reason third: You can write ten times better than I can.”

Jefferson would recall no such exchange. As Jefferson remembered, the committee simply met and unanimously chose him to undertake the draft. “I consented: I drew it [up].”

Possibly neither of their memories served, and possibly both were correct. Jefferson may well have been the choice of the committee and out of deference or natural courtesy, he may well have offered Adams the honor. If there is anything that seems not in keeping, it is the tone of Adams’s self-deprecation, which is more that of the old man he became than the Adams of 1776, who was anything but inadequate as a writer and who was by no means as unpopular as he later said. If he was thought “obnoxious,” it would have been only by a few, and only he himself is known to have used the word. In all the surviving record of official and private papers pertaining to the Continental Congress, there is only one member or eyewitness to events in Philadelphia in 1776 who wrote disparagingly of John Adams, and that was Adams writing long years afterward. As critical as he could be in his assessment of others, the man he was inclined to criticize most severely was himself. In fact, the respect he commanded at Philadelphia that spring appears to have been second to none.

Unquestionably, Adams did value Jefferson’s literary talents, but he knew also how much else he must attend to in the little time available, and the outcome of the “great question” was by no means certain. Already Adams was serving on twenty-three committees, and that same week was assigned to three more, including an all-important new Continental Board of War and Ordnance, of which he was to be the president.

That there would be political advantage in having the declaration written by a Virginian was clear, for the same reason there had been political advantage in having the Virginian Washington in command of the army. But be that as it may, Jefferson, with his “peculiar felicity of expression,” as Adams said, was the best choice for the task, just as Washington had been the best choice to command the Continental Army, and again Adams had played a key part. Had his contribution as a member of Congress been only that of casting the two Virginians in their respective, fateful roles, his service to the American cause would have been very great.


ALONE IN HIS UPSTAIRS PARLOR at Seventh and Market, Jefferson went to work, seated in an unusual revolving Windsor chair and holding on his lap a portable writing box, a small folding desk of his own design which, like the chair, he had had specially made for him by a Philadelphia cabinetmaker. Traffic rattled by below the open windows. The June days and nights turned increasingly warm.

He worked rapidly and, to judge by surviving drafts, with a sure command of his material. He had none of his books with him, nor needed any, he later claimed. It was not his objective to be original, he would explain, only “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject.”

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.

He borrowed readily from his own previous writing, particularly from a recent draft for a new Virginia constitution, but also from a declaration of rights for Virginia, which appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post on June 12. It had been drawn up by George Mason, who wrote that “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights… among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty.” And there was a pamphlet written by the Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson, published in Philadelphia in 1774, that declared, “All men are, by nature equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it.”

But then Mason, Wilson, and John Adams, no less than Jefferson, were, as they all appreciated, drawing on long familiarity with the seminal works of the English and Scottish writers John Locke, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, and Henry St. John Bolingbroke, or such English poets as Defoe (“When kings the sword of justice first lay down, They are no kings, though they possess the crown. Titles are shadows, crowns are empty things, The good of subjects is the end of kings”). Or, for that matter, Cicero. (“The people’s good is the highest law.”)p>

Adams, in his earlier notes for an oration at Braintree, had written, “Nature throws us all into the world equal and alike…. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man [kings included] to endanger public liberty.” The purpose of government, he had said in his recent Thoughts on Government, was the “greatest quantity of human happiness.”

What made Jefferson’s work surpassing was the grace and eloquence of expression. Jefferson had done superbly and in minimum time.

I was delighted with its high tone and flights of oratory with which it abounded [Adams would recall], especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly would never oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted, if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant… I thought the expression too passionate; and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.

A number of alterations were made, however, when Jefferson reviewed it with the committee, and several were by Adams. Possibly it was Franklin, or Jefferson himself, who made the small but inspired change in the second paragraph. Where, in the initial draft, certain “truths” were described as “sacred and undeniable,” a simpler, stronger “self-evident” was substituted.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

Adams had no doubt that there would be further changes called for and considerable debate over details and language once the declaration was submitted to Congress for approval. Still, he was confident enough about the draft that he laboriously transcribed the full text in his own hand, and later sent the copy to Abigail, who, understandably, thought he had written the Declaration.


THE PRESSURES or RESPONSIBILITY grew greater for Adams almost by the hour. As head of the new Board of War, meeting every morning and evening, he was acutely aware of Washington’s distress at New York. Dispatch riders from the general’s headquarters brought repeated warnings that arms, lead, flints, medicines, and entrenching tools were all urgently needed. At Boston the troops were “almost mutinous in want of pay.” In Canada, where the remnants of an American army were still holding out, the situation was gravely compounded by the ravages of smallpox.

On June 15, the provincial legislature of New Jersey had ordered the arrest of its royal governor, William Franklin, the estranged, illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, and authorized its delegates in Congress to vote for independence. To see that this was done, five new New Jersey delegates had been appointed.

In Maryland, delegate Samuel Chase, who had earlier gone to Canada with Benjamin Franklin, was rounding up support for independence, as perhaps no one else could have. A huge, red-faced young man of inexhaustible energy, Chase refused to accept the dictum that Maryland’s delegates must vote down independence. “I have not been idle,” he reported to Adams.

As he had for months now, Adams struggled to keep a balance with the need, on one hand, for all possible haste, and the need, on the other, to keep from pushing too fast, forcing events too soon. Some things, some people, must not be hurried. Time and timing were both of the essence, now more than ever. Reminders of time passing were everywhere about him: the great clock ticking away on the outside wall of the State House; bells at night striking the hour; the “clarions” of a hundred roosters calling across town as he began his day at first light.

“What in the name of Common Sense are you gentlemen of the Continental Congress about?” demanded a constituent writing from Massachusetts. “Is it dozing?”

“The only question is concerning the proper time for making a specific declaration in words,” Adams replied.

Some people must have time to look around them, before, behind, on the right hand, and on the left, and then to think, and after all this to resolve. Others see at one intuitive glance into the past and the future, and judge with precision at once. But remember you can’t make thirteen clocks strike precisely alike at the same second.

No one in Congress had worked harder or done more to bring about a break with Britain. But it was the fact of independence more than the words on paper that concerned Adams, and especially for what it would do to unify the colonies and bring “spirit” to American military operations. Facts were “stubborn things,” he had once argued in defense of the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre, and as stubborn as any of the large facts bearing heavily on his mind now was “the bloody conflict we are destined to endure.”

On June 23 a conference of committees from every county in Pennsylvania declared that the delegates of Pennsylvania in Congress should vote for independence. “You see therefore,” Adams wrote to Samuel Chase, “that there is such a universal expectation that the great question will be decided the first of July… to postpone it again would hazard convulsions and dangerous conspiracies.”

The birth of a new nation was at hand, perhaps truly, as Thomas Paine had written, a new world. “Solemn” was Adams’s word for the atmosphere in Congress.

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