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Historical Background

Continental Army recruiting poster. (Engraving, c. 1776, by an unknown artist, Library of Congress.)

THE Second Continental Congress convened in the Pennsylvania State House at Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. Burdened by wartime realities and the need to prepare a unified defense, it created a Continental Army, unanimously elected George Washington as commander in chief, appointed other generals, and tackled problems of military finance and supply. Yet, despite these warlike actions, many Delegates still hoped for a peaceful reconciliation.

In July Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, a final attempt to achieve an understanding with the Crown. The petition appealed directly to King George III to cease hostilities and restore harmony. But, unwilling to challenge the supremacy of Parliament, he refused to acknowledge the plea and proclaimed the Colonies to be in a state of rebellion.

During the winter of 1775-76, as the war intensified, all chance for accommodation vanished. Congress, for the first time representing all Thirteen Colonies because Georgia had sent Delegates in the fall, disclaimed allegiance to Parliament, created a navy, and appointed a committee of foreign affairs. Nevertheless the patriots, despite their mounting influence in the provincial assemblies, felt they needed more public support and hesitated to urge a final break with the Crown.

The turning point came in January 1776 with publication in Philadelphia of the pamphlet Common Sense, authored anonymously by the recent English immigrant Thomas Paine. Attacking the "myth" of an evil Parliament and a benevolent King, he denounced George III for creating the Colonies' miseries, condemned the British constitution as well as monarchy in general, and exhorted his fellow Americans to declare independence immediately. The pamphlet, widely reprinted, was purchased by many thousands of people and read by thousands more. It created a furor. From Georgia to New Hampshire, independence became the major topic of discussion and debate. The Revolutionaries won thousands of converts.

In May Congress took a bold step toward political freedom by authorizing the Colonies to form permanent governments. Those that had not done so began to oust Crown officials and draft constitutions. Independence, though not yet officially declared, was for all practical purposes a reality.

Title page of Common Sense, the anonymously written and widely distributed pamphlet that converted thousands of colonists to the Revolutionary cause. (Library of Congress.)

THE official movement for independence took root in the provincial assemblies. The North Carolina assembly in April 1776 instructed its congressional Delegates to vote for the issue should it be proposed. The next month, on May 4, Rhode Island announced its independence publicly—the first colony to do so. But it was Virginia that prodded Congress to action. On May 15 a Williamsburg convention declared Virginia independent and authorized its delegation at Philadelphia to propose a similar course for the Colonies. On June 7 the delegation's leader, Richard Henry Lee, introduced the following resolution:

That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

The resolution also incorporated proposals to form foreign alliances; and to devise a plan for confederation, which would be submitted to the Colonies for their approval.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, did not emigrate to America from England until 1774, but he became an ardent patriot. (Oil, ca. 1858, by Bass Otis, after George Romney, Independence National Historical Park.)

Despite the enthusiastic response of many Delegates, some of them, though they foresaw the inevitability of independence, objected to the timing. They believed the decision should reflect the desires of the people as expressed through the provincial assemblies and pointed out that the Middle Colonies, not yet ripe for freedom, needed more time for deliberation. On June 10 the moderates obtained a postponement of consideration of the Lee resolution until July 1.

On June 11 the Revolutionaries, undaunted by the delay and convinced of their ultimate victory, persuaded Congress to appoint a committee to draft a declaration of independence. Three of its five members, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, were Revolutionaries. Roger Sherman disliked extremism but had recently backed the independence movement. The most unlikely member, Robert R. Livingston, had stood in the front ranks of opposition to Lee's resolution. Possibly he was appointed to exert a moderating effect on its supporters or, conversely, in the hope that his membership would help swing over the conservative New York delegation.

At the time Lee had introduced his resolution, seven of the Colonies—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia—favored independence. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, South Carolina, and Maryland were either opposed or undecided. Throughout the month, Revolutionaries in those provinces labored to gain control of the assemblies. Delaware and Pennsylvania, unable to reach a decision, instructed their representatives to vote in their colonies, "best interests." New Jersey issued similar directions, but also elected an entirely new and Whig-oriented slate of Delegates. The Maryland assembly, largely through the persuasion of Samuel Chase, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and William Paca, voted unanimously for independence and so charged its Delegates. The South Carolinians, though they had been authorized months before to cast their lot with the majority, vacillated. The New Yorkers impatiently awaited instructions.

Sir William Howe
Sir William Howe, British commander in chief in America from 1776 until 1778. (Mezzotint, 1778, by an unknown artist, after Corbutt, Library of Congress.)

JULY 1 was the day of decision. The Revolutionaries, overconfident from their progress of the preceding month, anticipated an almost unanimous vote for independence. They were disappointed. Following congressional procedure, each colony balloted as a unit, determined by the majority of Delegate opinion. Only nine of the Colonies voted affirmatively; Pennsylvania and South Carolina, negatively; New York abstained; and the two Delegates present from Delaware dead-locked, Technically the resolution had carried, but the solidarity desirable for such a vital decision was missing. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, hinting his colony might change sides, moved that the vote be retaken the next day.

That day proved to be one of the most dramatic in the history of the Continental Congress. John Adams of Massachusetts exerted an overwhelming influence. South Carolina, its Delegates swayed by Rutledge, reversed its position. Two conservatives among the seven Pennsylvanians, Robert Morris and John Dickinson, though unwilling to make a personal commitment to independence, cooperated by purposely absenting themselves; the remaining Delegates voted three to two in favor. The most exciting moment of the day occurred when Caesar Rodney, Delaware's third Delegate, galloped up to the state house after a harrowing 80-mile night ride from Dover through a thunderstorm and broke the Delaware tie. Home on a military assignment, the evening before he had received an urgent plea from Thomas McKean, the Delawarean who had voted for independence, to rush to Philadelphia. In the final vote, 12 Colonies approved Lee's resolution, New York again abstaining. Congress declared the resolution to be in effect.

Robert R. Livingston
Robert R. Livingston of New York, the most conservative member of the drafting committee, neither voted on independence nor signed the Declaration. (Oil, ca. 1782, by Charles Willson Peale, Independence National Historical Park.)

FOR the remainder of July 2 and continuing until the 4th, Congress weighed and debated the content of the Declaration of Independence, which the drafting committee had submitted on June 28. Its author was young Thomas Jefferson, who had been in Congress about a year. The committee had chosen him for the task because he was from Virginia, the colony responsible for the independence resolution, and because of his reputation as an excellent writer and man of talent and action.

Laboring in his rented rooms on the second floor of a private home at the corner of Seventh and Market Streets, Jefferson had completed a rough draft in about 2 weeks. Apparently Franklin and Adams made some minor changes, and Livingston and Sherman expressed no reservations so far as is known. To Jefferson's irritation, however, Congress altered the final draft considerably. Most of the changes consisted of refinements in phraseology. Two major passages, however, were deleted. The first, a censure of the people of Great Britain, seemed harsh and needless to most of the Delegates. The second, an impassioned condemnation of the slave trade, offended Southern planters as well as New England shippers, many of whom were as culpable as the British in the trade.

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Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004