ADAMS, John. Autograph letter signed ("John Adams"), as former President, to Governor William Plumer (1759-1850), Quincy, 28 March 1813, WITH AUTOGRAPH FREE FRANK SIGNED ("J. Adams"). 2 pages, 4to, creases repaired.
DECLARING INDEPENDENCE: "THERE WERE SEVERAL WHO SIGNED WITH REGRET, AND SEVERAL OTHERS, WITH MANY DOUBTS AND MUCH LUKEWARMNESS"
"'IT IS DONE! AND I WILL ABIDE BY IT.'" A most exceptional letter in response to Plumer's question whether "every member of Congress did, on the 4th of July 1776, in fact cordially approve the declaration of Independence?" His recollections vivid in spite of the passage of 37 years, Adams gives a dramatic account of the shifting moods within the delegates' chamber during the fateful spring and summer of '76, as the delegates prepared to take the momentous step of declaring independence. "They who were then Members all Signed it, and as I could not See their hearts, it would be hard for me to say that they did not approve it: but as far as I could penetrate the intricate internal foldings of their souls, I then believed, and have not since altered my opinion, that there were several who signed with regret, and several others, with many doubts and much lukewarmness. The measure had been upon the carpet for months, and obstinately opposed from day to day. Majorities were constantly against it. For many days the majority depended on Mr. [Joseph] Hewes, of North Carolina," Adams continues, but Hewes was converted one day during the debate when reports came in about the change of public mood throughout the country in favor of independence. "Mr. Hewes," Adams writes, "...started suddenly upright, and lifting up both hands to Heaven, as if he had been in a trance, cried out, 'It is done! and I will abide by it.' I would give more for a perfect painting of the terror and horror upon the faces of the old majority, at that critical moment, than for the best piece of Raphaelle."
Adams's revealing narrative takes the story back to May of 1776, when many of the delegates found themselves in an awkward position: the fighting at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill put the Americans in a de facto state of independence, yet many of the delegates were bound by instructions from their home legislatures that either forbade a formal declaration of independence (as in the case of New York and Pennsylvania) or were silent on the issue. This disjunction between legislators and public opinion was the weak spot that Adams kept hammering away at in his Congressional arguments. The people were ready for independence even if their representatives could not or would not believe it. If the delegates were handcuffed by their instructions, then new delegates or new instructions were needed.
Adams tried to force the issue by an ingenious legislative device, made in concert with Richard Henry Lee. On 10 May Lee moved a resolution that "it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies," that they "adopt such government as shall...best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents...and America in general." This passed. Then five days later Adams introduced a preamble to this resolution that in effect declared independence, since it called for the suppression of "every kind of authority under the said Crown." If Adams couldn't move the delegates on the floor of Congress, then he'd see them pushed from the rear, so to speak, by their legislatures.
Adams would later call this May 15 resolution "the most important...that was ever taken in America" (Smith, 1:263) It set off an intense, impassioned debate between the pro- and anti-independence factions. It was, Adams writes here, "the most copious and the most animated" of all the independence debates; "but the question was now evaded by a motion to postpone it another day; some members, however, declaring that if the question should be now demanded, they should vote for it, but they wished for a day or two more to consider of it." Adams's preamble passed. Its language was rushed to all the colonial legislatures, and resulted in new instructions in favor of independence from the key colonies. Adams's gambit worked. "Some members," he tells Plumer, "who foresaw that the point would be carried, left the house and went home, to avoid voting in the affirmative or negative. Pennsylvania and New Jersey recalled all their delegates who had voted against Independence, and sent new ones expressly to vote for it." Adams now felt he could make the direct and decisive move for an independence resolution. At his urging Richard Henry Lee on June 7 moved that "the Congress should declare that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states...and that all political connection between them and the state of Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
"When that day arrived," Adams writes, "some of the new members desired to hear the arguments for and against the measure. When these were summarily recapitulated, the question was put and carried. There were no yeas and nays in those times. A committee was appointed to draw a declaration; when reported it underwent abundance of criticism and alteration; but when finally accepted [on July 2], all those members who had voted against independence, now declared they would sign and support it." This was the famous committee of five, consisting of Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston, that handed the pen to Jefferson to draft the American Declaration of Independence. Adams had at last achieved his goal of an official, irrevocable separation from Great Britain. But he knew that many of the delegates still harbored doubts and insecurities. The vote on independence and the signing of the declaration, Adams concludes, was very much like the selection of George Washington as commander in chief: an example "of apparent unanimity" that papered over "real regret in nearly one half" of the delegates.
Examples of Adams writing about the struggle for independence have always been eagerly sought by collectors. See, for example, his 31 July 1811 letter to Benjamin Rush in which he stated that "one third of the people...detested" the idea of independence in 1776 (sold Sotheby's 9 June 1999, lot 147, $290,000) or his 21 May 1807 letter to Rush on the origins of revolutionary sentiment in America (sold Christies, Forbes Collection, 27 March 2002, lot 22, $160,000). This letter provides an even more detailed look inside the congressional debate itself, and Adams communicates the wrenching process with his characteristically sharp eye and pen.