The Second Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence

The Second Continental Congress met inside Independence Hall beginning in May 1775. It was just a month after shots had been fired at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, and the Congress was preparing for war. They established a Continental army and elected George Washington as Commander-in-Chief, but the delegates also drafted the Olive Branch Petition and sent it to King George III in hopes of reaching a peaceful resolution. The king refused to hear the petition and declared the American colonies in revolt.

On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee put forth the resolution for independence: “Resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states…” Voting was postponed while some of the delegates worked to convince others to support independence, but a committee of five men was assigned to draft a document of independence: John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Thomas Jefferson (VA), Roger Sherman (CT), and Robert R. Livingston (NY). Jefferson did most of the work, drafting the document in his lodgings at 7th and Market Street.

On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to adopt Lee’s resolution for independence. This is the day that John Adams thought should be celebrated with “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” (John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776)

Between July 2 and July 4, Congress argued over every word in Jefferson’s draft of the declaration, making numerous changes. On July 4, Congress voted again – this time to approve the wording of the Declaration of Independence. They didn’t actually sign the document that day. After New York’s delegates received instructions from home to vote for independence (they had initially abstained), the document was sent to Timothy Matlack to be engrossed (handwritten). Fifty of the 56 men signed the engrossed Declaration of Independence inside Independence Hall on August 2, 1776.

Last updated: September 1, 2018

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