Philadelphia State House - Biting Flies and Debating Men

The State House - Philadelphia Famous People Geography Law and Politics American Revolution American History

During the late spring of 1776, Thomas Jefferson traveled to Philadelphia as a Virginia delegate to the Second Continental Congress.  His mission was to vote on a resolution which would "declare the United Colonies"—including Virginia—"free and independent states."

Jefferson ended-up as the drafter of that document known as the "Declaration of Independence." There's an interesting story about the day the Continental Congress decided to adopt Jefferson's final draft. It has to do with horseflies.

Meeting in Philadelphia's State House—on the 4th of July, 1776—members of Congress studied the document which King George III and Members of Parliament would surely view as treasonous. Wanting to get it just right, however, became a troubling thing.

The State House was located across the street from stables. July 4th that year, like in many other years, was hot-and-sticky in Philadelphia. Someone had opened the windows, hoping for a breeze, but in those days ... the windows had no screens.

Open windows were tempting to buzzing horseflies. As they swarmed through the open windows, the horseflies quickly become extremely bothersome to the men inside the room.

Trying to get each phrase right, in the document that would end British control of the American colonies, members of the Continental Congress were getting more and more upset about the biting flies. Thomas Jefferson made a note of it in his record of the July 4th events:

The horseflies swarmed thick and fierce, alighting on the legs of the members and biting hard through their thin silk stockings. Handkerchief in hand, they lashed at the hungry pests to no avail.

As the story goes, members of Congress were getting tormented by the biting flies. Soon one member stood, suggesting that Jefferson's words seemed acceptable to him. Another member agreed, then another. Someone made a motion to approve the language, which was quickly seconded and approved.

The flies, we could reasonably conclude, had prevailed. No more changes, other than the already-made 86 edits, were even considered. 

Although some of the members—notably John Hancock—signed the Declaration on July 4th, 1776, most of the founders did not sign their names until the following month.

On August 2, 1776, members of the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia again. All but a few of the ultimate signers approved the document at that time. As far as we know, the horseflies didn't bother anyone inside the State House that day.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5183stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Aug 24, 2019

Media Credits

Image online, courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.


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"Philadelphia State House - Biting Flies and Debating Men" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Aug 24, 2019.
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