The ‘Ravishing Light and Glory’ of the Declaration of Independence

Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was first read in Philadelphia, John Adams wrote to Samuel Chase, a fellow signer from Maryland and a future Supreme Court justice.

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America by Armand-Dumaresq

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America by Armand-Dumaresq

Adams dated the letter July 9, 1776, and suggested Chase could add his name to the document. Though Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, said the Declaration was signed by Congress July 4th, his letter and additional evidence suggests otherwise. Some of the signers — like Chase — weren’t in Philadelphia on July 4th. Moreover, the Declaration wasn’t printed with all the names of the signers until January 1777, by Mary Katherine Goddard in Baltimore.

Some historians believe the Declaration was signed on August 2; some on July 19. Wilfred Ritz argued most of the members of Congress signed on July 4, and others added their names on August 2 or afterward.

Whatever the case, John Adams wrote to Abigail that he was not transported with enthusiasm about the Declaration. He told her, “I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means.”

‘The bridge cut away’

In his letter to Chase, Adams wrote,

Yours of the 5th came to me the 8th. You will see by this post, that the river is passed, and the bridge cut away. The Declaration was yesterday published and proclaimed from that awful stage in the State-house yard; by whom, do you think? By the Committee of Safety, the Committee of Inspection, and a great crowd of people. Three cheers render the welkin. The battalions paraded on the Common, and gave us the feu de joie, notwithstanding the scarcity of powder. The bells rang all day and almost all night. Even the chimers chimed away. The election for the city was carried on, amidst all this lurry, with the utmost decency and order. Who are chosen, I cannot say; but the list was Franklin, Rittenhouse, Owen Biddle, Cannon, Schlosser, Matlack, and Kuhl. Thus you see the effect of men of fortune acting against the sense of the people.

As soon as an American seal is prepared, I conjecture the Declaration will be subscribed by all the members, which will give you the opportunity you wish for, of transmitting your name among the votaries of independence.

Military Intelligence

Adams then describes the practical reality of winning independence.

I agree with you that we never can again be happy under a single particle of British power. Indeed, this sentiment is very universal. The arms are taken down from every public place.

The army is at Crown Point. We have sent up a great number of shipwrights to make a respectable fleet upon the lakes.

We have taken every measure to defend New York. The militia are marching this day in a great body from Pennsylvania. That of Jersey has behaved well, turned out universally. That of Connecticut, I was told last night by Mr. Huntington, was coming in the full number demanded of them, and must be there before now. We shall make it do, this year, and if we can stop the torrent for this campaign, it is as much as we deserve, for our weakness and sloth in politics the last. Next year we shall do better. New governments will bring new men into the play, I perceive; men of more mettle.

With thanks to John Adams by David McCullough. This story was updated in 2020.

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