John Adams: ‘Yesterday the greatest question was decided’
John Adlum, a diarist, placed the arrival of the Declaration of Independence in York on the evening of July 6, 1776.
James Smith, York’s signer, and two other men brought it to York, then called York Town, for a reading.
Just three days earlier, Massachusetts delegate John Adams got it right in a letter to his wife, Abigail: “Yesterday the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men.”
In assessing the crowd in York Town, Adlum did not figure those assembled understood the significance of the event.
“I do not believe that the majority, men and women,” Adlum wrote, “knew what independence meant.”
The crowd’s actions suggestioned otherwise. The Declaration’s reading inspired many in the crowd to enlist in the Continental Army.
The following excerpts from “Nine Months in York Town” focus on the Declaration’s arrival in York Town: …
Continental Army Capt. Francis Wade of Delaware and one Dr. Young accompanied James Smith to York Town on the evening of July 6, 1776.
The three men had traveled from the bustling city of Philadelphia to glean the pub lic’s reaction to the reading of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
“I do not believe that the majority, men and women,” diarist John Adlum of York County wrote, “knew what independence meant.”
Four militia companies gathered in York Town’s Centre Square, Adlum wrote, joined by 300 to 400 old men, women and boys. The women, mainly Germans, looked on with as much interest as the men.
Wade and Young made short speeches, followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Smith, a prominent York Town attorney, briefed the audience on the advantages of independence and concluded by throwing his hat into the air, cheering for liberty and independence.
Those gathered did the same.
A month earlier, soldiers were dying for America’s freedom, but the Continental Congress had not yet declared independence.
In the State House in Philadelphia, some delegates argued for such a declaration and others for reconciliation.
Richard Henry Lee, a Virginian closely allied with the fiery New Englanders pushing for independence, stepped forward on June 7 to offer a three-part resolution: dissolve ties with Britain, negotiate foreign alliances and form a confederation.
For three days, Congress debated whether to approve the resolution but could not decide.
Two decisions did emerge: to recess to July 1 and “that no time be lost, in case the Congress agree thereto”; and to appoint John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, Roger Sherman and Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration of independence.
Congress debated Lee’s resolution for independence all day on July 2.
Late in the afternoon, the question was decided. Twelve colonies voted for independence, with New York still awaiting instructions from its assembly.
“Yesterday the greatest question was decided, which ever was debated in America,” John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, on July 3, “and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men.”
Adams had more to say later that day, so he penned more words to Abigail:
“I am apt to believe that it (July 2) will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.”
Adams and other forceful proponents of independence had to wait until July 4 for Congress to peruse Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration.
Congress worked hard on the document. Much was riding on its wording. It must gain the attention of France, a potential ally, and the rest of the world.
The delegates pondered words criticizing the people of Britain. Strike that, some argued, so as not to inflame the English public.
Another passage attacked the slave trade. Delete that, others contended, so as not to lose the vote of the southern colonies.
Those amendments made, Congress approved the Declaration, a treasonable act that increased the bounty on the heads of the delegates. This done, America became an independent nation on the evening of July 4, 1776.
James Smith was busy in July and August 1776.
He served as a delegate to both the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention and the Continental Congress. He also worked to supply and equip the militia of York and Cumberland coun ties.
Both bodies met in the State House in Philadelphia. But when James Smith sat down to write a letter to his wife, Eleanor, news about the Declaration of Independence and other pivotal actions from the Constitutional Convention or Congress did not flow from his pen.
He asked about her health, commented on his health and told about items he had recently lost and found.
“I received your Letter two days since, which gives me much pleasure to find your Thumb was got well,” Smith wrote to York Town.
As for the writer, he was suffering from “a touch of ye rheu matism” in his shoulder by sleeping with the windows open in his rented house.
One of the Adamses told him he deserved the soreness because he was careless. But Smith had allies in Jacob Duch, chaplain of Congress, and someone higher.
“I told him as Mr. Duchee prays for us every Day,” he wrote, “I thought there was no need to take Care of ourselves.”
John Hancock was a better doctor. He promised Smith some pine buds to make tea.
But Smith had shut the windows the past two nights, and the pain had subsided. “… It never hurt my eating & Drinking,” he wrote.
Smith would have written earlier, but he was in a bad humor from losing his new cane at a turtle feast. He also had misplaced a new hat and $37 in paper money.
He soon recovered these items, though. “I got my Cane at the New Tavern, Genl Worster had taken my hat in a Mistake & the Negro woman found the money in my bed room amongst some old Papers,” he wrote.
Smith frowned on his wife’s suggestion that she join him in Philadelphia. One horse had a rough trot, another was skittish, her male friends were out of town visiting the Army’s camp, and her female friends were at their country homes.
“Besides as you Can’t bring the Children with you,” he wrote, “it would distress them to be left behind.”
About a month later, James Smith informed Eleanor about his busy social schedule but in dicated life in Philadelphia was full of work, too.
He dined one evening at statesman John Dickinson’s house outside Philadelphia.
“He Enquired very kindly about you & the young Ladies,” Smith wrote, “his Wife is decent & not disagreable.”
Gen. Thomas Mifflin arrived in Philadelphia from the Continental Army camp near Elizabethtown, N.J., and Smith dined with him and John Hancock.
The Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention had adjourned, but Smith was busy with duties in Congress.
“When you are in a Chiding humour at my stay, think me employed in getting some worthy man Advanced in the Army or getting some Prisoner exchanged who now pines in Captivity… ,” he wrote.
Smith would return to York Town when Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson returned from leave in Carlisle.
“I am in good health & spirits,” he wrote a few days later from his seat in Congress, “& live mostly at my own little house as the People here Call it.”
Some two weeks later, James Wilson still had not relieved James Smith in Congress.
“If Mr. Wilson should come through York, give him a flogging,” Smith wrote Eleanor from the floor of Congress, “he should have been here a week ago.”
Smith dined at Robert Morris’ house the day before, and the rain soaked him on his way home.
His shoulder, sore from sleeping in a draft, again flared up.
“… (M)y shoulder got troublesome, but by running a hot smoothing iron over it three times, it got better,” Smith wrote, “this is a new and cheap cure.”
Smith’s adventures in Philadelphia happened after his York Town excursion with Capt. Wade and Dr. Young.
His trip to York County had paid off. The scene inspired the folks of York Town and the surrounding county. A call went out for the militia to march to the Continental Army’s camp in New York, and the ranks quickly filled.
By the time the militia reached Philadelphia, the men became disenchanted with their leadership. The word got around that a mutiny had broken out.
John Dickinson, the statesman also serving as a militia commander in Philadelphia, chided the York Town companies, astonishing the men.
The town can brag of a worthy military past. It produced the first rifle company to be mustered in Pennsylvania, he observed, and that company had been early to Boston the year before.
The speech continued until a member of the militia interrupted him:
“Who told you that we refused to march? We have not yet been ordered. Give the order and let the officers take their places and see who of the men will refuse to march. I pledge myself, not one.”
The order came, and the men stepped their way toward New York City.
With companies of York County men marching to join the Continental Army, York Town became a community of men older than 50, women and children.
Several older men filled in positions on local groups that supported the war effort. Guards stayed with them day and night to provide security against suspected Tory plots.
For moments in July 1776, the town lay quiet. Shops closed. Business stood still.
“How many prayers and tears will now be brought before the Lord,” the Rev. George Neisser, pastor of York Town’s Moravian Church, wrote in his diary, “by parents for their children, by children for their parents, by wives for their husbands.”
The crossroads town of York would remain desolate only for a time.
Within a year, the town teemed with new life.
The British army chased America’s founders from the State House in Philadelphia to the Court House in remote York Town. The wide Susquehanna River flowed between America’s most wanted and the redcoats when the Continental Congress convened for the first time on Sept. 30, 1777.
James Smith and 25 other signers of the Declaration of Independence would walk York Town’s streets and meet in its Centre Square courthouse for the next nine months.
There, they would convene, debate and eventually adopt another document that would complement the Declaration of Independence – the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution.
The infant nation was just learning to walk.