Over the spring and early summer of 1776, momentum grew for Independence. Britain and The American colonies had been at war for a year by then. The colonies had done pretty well militarily. colonists had inflicted serious British casualties during the raid on Concord and at Bunker Hill. They had forced the regulars to evacuate Boston and were, for the moment pretty, much in control of the 13 colonies. Sure, British took back most of Canada in May and June, but overall, the colonists were looking pretty good.
Many people credit Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for helping move the population in favor of independence. Certainly, Paine and other pamphleteers had an influence. When someone asked John Adams decades later who he thought was most instrumental in furthering the independence movement, he had an interesting answer: King George III. The King announced at the opening of Parliament in the fall of 1775 that there would be no compromise and that he supported the use of military force to compel obedience. This, along with his rejection of the Olive Branch Petition made clear there would be no politically negotiated solution. Either the British would win by force of arms and the colonists would end up like Ireland, forced to accept whatever London did to them, or the Colonists would win and be independent. There was no longer a middle ground. It was time to pick a side. Most people picked independence.
|John Adams (from Wikimedia)
So, looking back we may see John Adams as the central leader, because John Adams wrote much of the history about what happened. Decades later, long after he was president, Adams wrote his autobiography and other documents and letters describing the debate. I’m not saying he lied. There were dozens of other delegates who generally corroborated his story. But he did have every incentive to focus on, and perhaps exaggerate, his own role and probably did so.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, typically gets credited or blamed for leading the opposition to independence. He clearly did oppose independence. He was also one of the few delegates who never signed the Declaration.
But calling Adams the leader of the independence movement and Dickinson the leader of the opposition may be an oversimplification. There were about fifty delegates present for most of the debates, and a great many of them fought hard for and against independence. Most delegations were divided on the issue, with many opponents eventually agreeing to support independence despite their better judgement, only because they thought the colonies needed to appear united against Britain.
The May Resolution
At the beginning of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, almost everyone at least publicly opposed independence. The only people talking about it were loyalists who accused radical patriots of secretly plotting independence. Even after Lexington, most people seemed to think Britain and the colonies could negotiate some settlement. It was really only by late 1775 after London made clear it was going to fight, not talk, that independence began to gain real momentum.
|Independence Hall (from Wikimedia)
In May 1776, Adams wrote a letter to James Warren, President of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, assessing where each of the colonies stood. He thought that New England, that is Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, would support independence. The southern colonies, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia were also all likely supporters. The middle colonies, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland were all still pretty resistant.
Even so, Adams decided it was time to test the waters. The way they moved into the debate was pretty sneaky. On May 10 Congress passed a resolution calling on the colonies that no longer had an effective government to create one for themselves that would protect the “happiness and safety” of the people. That seemed pretty reasonable. If a colony did not have a working government, it should create one that worked. The resolution did not mandate anything. Most colonies had already created their own provincial congresses to run things. The resolution essentially said great job guys, keep doing what you are doing. It passed unanimously and without much debate.
Then, a few days later, a committee made up of John Adams, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia added a preamble to the resolution. The preamble was longer than the resolution itself. It attacked the King for waging war on the colonies and for hiring foreign mercenaries to destroy them. The preamble aid it was absolutely “irreconcileable [sic] to reason and good Conscience,” for people to swear loyalty to a royal government in light of these horrific acts of war. Therefore, the colonies needed to create new governments.
With that preamble, the resolution now sounded much more like a declaration of independence. Congress would be supporting the colonies creating new governments because they could no longer live under the authority of a tyrannical king. The notes we have only say that Congress agreed to the preamble, but don’t list any sort of vote. We know that the debate was contentious and that many delegates objected to it.
The Independence Resolution
Over the next few weeks, this put front and center the debate over independence both in congress and in the various colonies. On May 15, the same day the Continental Congress was voting on the preamble, the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg voted on a resolution proposed by Patrick Henry to send to congress. The resolution read:
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.On June 7, Richard Henry Lee introduced this resolution into Congress. Delegates began formal debate on the issue the following week. Not surprisingly, much of the opposition came from New York and Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston, James Wilson and John Dickinson all argued strenuously against its adoption. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina also opposed it.
|Assembly room where debate took place (from Wikimedia)
They should at least get formal directives from each colony before embarking on such a drastic declaration. This was a really big step. Shouldn’t we make sure the people are really on board with all this? Others were concerned about foreign alliances. Are we really sure countries like France and Spain would back us? What if they decided simply to use this dispute to recapture some of their own lost colonies and perhaps take a little more from a divided Britain?
Congress agreed to put off further debate for a few weeks so that delegations could communicate with their home colonies and see if they could get approval to support independence. In the meantime, just in case they got approval, Congress would appoint a committee to work on drafting a declaration. They also created a committee to work on a plan for confederation and another committee to work on treaties with foreign countries.
New England Support
Some colonies were clearly ready for Independence, New England especially. Rhode Island had essentially declared its own independence on May 4 when its legislature passed resolutions terminating British authority over the colony. The Connecticut Assembly voted on June 14 to instruct its delegates to support independence. New Hampshire’s House of Representatives did the same on June 15.
It was Massachusetts of all places, that was most divided on independence in New England. Of the five delegates, only two, John and Samuel Adams solidly backed Independence. Two others, Robert Treat Paine and Thomas Cushing opposed it. The fifth, John Hancock seemed to support it, but he was still fighting with the Adamses over other issues. They were still upset because Hancock had not relinquished the presidency of Congress to Peyton Randolph of Virginia when he returned to Congress. Hancock was still miffed at the Adamses for them backing Washington rather than him for command of the Continental Army. In December 1775, Adams got the Massachusetts Provincial Congress to replace Cushing with Elbridge Gerry, who backed independence, thus making Hancock’s vote less important and avoiding a potentially embarrassing fight over whether the Massachusetts delegation would support independence.
In the south, Virginia, which had instructed its delegates to support it in May, was clearly on board. North Carolina, home of the Mecklenburg Resolves and where patriots had already fought in open combat in the battle of Moore’s Creek Bridge, had voted to support independence in April, even before Virginia.
South Carolina had created a new independent government in April, but still expressed hope for an accommodation with Great Britain. It also faced a potential British invasion in June in what became the battle of Sullivan’s Island. South Carolina had essentially punted and told its delegates to support whatever they thought was right. A majority of the delegates supported independence, but the delegation’s leader, Edward Rutledge remained opposed. Georgia, the smallest and probably most loyalist colony in the south also simply told their delegates to use their best judgment, but those delegates seemed to be on board with independence.
That left the middle colonies, where independence seemed to have its weakest support. Delaware appeared to be most in favor of independence in this group. Delaware’s status as its own colony was under question since they were still technically considered part of Pennsylvania. Even so, the Delaware assembly refused to authorize independence. It left instructions to its delegates vague, essentially letting the delegates decide for themselves.
New Jersey was in a period of transition. The colony had a strong loyalist population and could really go either way. Royal Governor William Franklin attempted to call the Assembly into session in May 1776, even though he was under house arrest. The Provincial Congress finally reacted by replacing the royal government in June and supporting independence. But this was a power play by the patriots. It was not clear that the colony’s population would go along.
That leaves us with two of the largest and most important middle colonies, New York and Pennsylvania. Even if the other eleven went along with independence, it’s hard to see how it would work without these two key colonies on board.
New York would prove to be the most intractable. The New York Assembly remained in power until June 1776. Unlike most other colonies, loyalists had also participated in the Provincial Congress as well. This gave them more influence in selecting delegates to the Continental Congress who opposed independence, as well as keeping the Provincial Congress itself from going too far. New York was also facing an imminent invasion. A leader even open to the idea of independence might have second thoughts if he believed that the British army would reassert control over the colony a month later and begin looking for leading traitors to arrest and hang.
Conservatives in New York tried to slow the momentum toward independence. After receiving word that the Continental Congress would debate the matter. The Provincial Congress voted that it could not support independence until it took a vote of the people in its colony, and that it could not take a vote, because, well that British invasion that is about to happen. So New York’s delegation would be stuck with instructions not to support independence, at least until New Yorkers could vote on the question.
Also, of course, Pennsylvania was still going through a radical change that spring and summer. I discussed this in detail last week, so I won’t go through it again now.
Congress Debates Independence
On July 1, 1776, the Continental Congress finally sat down to debate independence. That morning, supporters of Independence got a boost when an express rider arrived from Annapolis to say the Maryland delegates could support independence.
The debate took place under a parliamentary procedure known as the committee of the whole. Basically, the entire Congress sat in committee so that they could discuss things more informally than they would in a session of Congress. As a result, Benjamin Harrison sat as the committee chair rather than Hancock as President of Congress.
Adams commented to another delegate that the whole debate was a waste of time, making the same arguments everyone had heard for the last six months. After Dickinson finished speaking, no one else rose to speak. Finally Adams stood and outlined the case for independence without having a planned speech in hand. No one recorded what he said, but Adams later said they were the same arguments he had made twenty times before. By some accounts, other delegates spoke as well, but again we have no record of the debates.
The debate went late that day, ending at around 7:00 PM. At the end of the day, the delegates took an informal poll to see where everyone stood. Nine States seemed ready to support independence. New York still had instructions to vote no. Pennsylvania and South Carolina both voted no. Delaware had only two delegates present, one for and one opposed. At that point, Congress decided to put off a formal vote until the next day.
Overnight, informal discussions tried to get the opponents on board. Most of South Carolina’s delegation seemed to be in favor of independence, but had voted no out of respect for their delegation leader, Edward Rutledge. The New York delegation actually supported Independence but had to remain loyal to their instructions not to vote yes, and abstained.
Pennsylvania, which had seven delegates, had voted 4-3 against Independence. Benjamin Franklin, John Morton and James Wilson supported independence, even though Wilson had been a critic of the move for some time. The other delegates, John Dickinson, Robert Morris, Thomas Willing, and Charles Humphreys voted against. The Pennsylvania delegates knew though that the more radical Pennsylvania Provincial Congress supported independence and was getting ready to elect new delegates in about three weeks.
Delaware had a third delegate who would likely support independence. Caesar Rodney was down in Dover at the time, putting down a potential loyalist uprising there. He could possibly put Delaware in the yes column if he returned in time.
Voting for Independence
The next day, July 2, Congress finally held the vote. The nine states expected to vote yes did so. Apparently overnight, the pressure on the "no" voters seemed to have an impact. Rutledge of South Carolina decided to let the delegation vote yes, mostly for the sake of unanimity. He realized the colonies could not be divided on this issue if they expected to have any chance of winning the war.
The Pennsylvania delegates also decided to make a change in favor of unanimity. As much as the opponents thought it a mistake, they also agreed that unanimity was important, and that a "no" vote now would only delay things a few weeks until the Provincial Congress replaced them. When Congress got ready to vote, Dickinson and Morris got up and walked out. They did this deliberately, knowing it would allow the Pennsylvania delegation to vote 3-2 in favor of independence. They did not want to change their personal votes, but again agreed that unanimity was most important.
In the end, only New York abstained, leaving twelve colonies for independence and none opposed. New York, once it realized it remained the one holdout, finally voted to allow its delegates to vote yes on July 9th. Congress got word the following week, making the vote unanimous.
For Adams this vote was the victory he had sought, not the wording of the Declaration itself. The day following the vote, July 3, he wrote to his wife Abigail saying:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it 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, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.Next Week: We take a closer look at drafting the actual Declaration of Independence.
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Next Episode 99: Declaring Independence
Previous Episode 97: A Coup in Philadelphia
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Preamble to the resolution of independent governments (May 15, 1776): https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-04-02-0001-0006
Happy Independence Day: Which Day Is It? http://unlearnedhistory.blogspot.com/2015/07/happy-independence-day-which-day-is-it.html
The Declaration of Independence: A History: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-history
The Pursuit of Happiness: https://www.pursuit-of-happiness.org/history-of-happiness/john-locke
Rhode Island Independence: http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/may-4-1776-rhode-island-independence-day
(from archive.org unless noted)
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 4, Jan. 1 - June 4, 1776, Gov’t Printing Office, 1904.
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 5, June 5 - Oct. 8, 1776, Gov’t Printing Office, 1904.
Dwight, Nathaniel The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Harper & brothers, 1840.
Force, Peter American Archives, Fifth Series, Vol 1, M. St. Claire Clarks, 1837.
Goodrich, Charles A. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Mather, 1840.
Lossing, Benson J. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence. The Declaration Historically Considered, Evans, Stoddart & Co. 1870.
Stillé, Charles The Life and Times of John Dickinson, 1732-1808, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891.
Tyler, Moses, C. The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, Vol. 2, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, Basic Books, 2013.
De Bolla, Peter The Fourth of July: And the Founding of America, Harry N. Abrams, 2008.
Hogeland, William Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776 Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.
Maier, Pauline American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, Knopf, 1997
Ryerson, Richard Alan The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765-1776, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.