In this special episode recorded live on Independence Day, I discuss the events leading up to the Declaration of Independence. Because this was a live and unscripted episode, I just have some notes I used to prepare for the talk. The notes may differ at points from exactly what I discussed.
In the years leading up to the war, there was virtually no talk of independence.
Even in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, attitudes about independence changed little. The Stamp Tax and its repeal, the Townshend Acts, and the Tea Act all provoked protests, petitions, and trade boycotts, but not calls for independence.
Colonists wanted a restoration of rights, not independence. They wanted things to go back to the way they were before the French and Indian War. Britain had some trade rules in place, which were often ignored, kept a governor in most colonies who worked with elected legislators, and Britain provided the backup support needed in case of military threat from other countries or natives.
What was the big deal over the tea tax? It was a minimal tax, and British changes to import laws made tea much cheaper for colonists even with the tax. But then, that was the idea. British leaders wanted to make it as attractive as possible to pay the tax. Once the colonists paid, it, the principle was established. After that, the British could raise the taxes higher and higher and higher until they were sucking all the excess wealth out of the colonies, much like they already did in places like Ireland and Bengal. Once colonists accepted even a nominal tax, there was no fighting over a principle, only haggling over price. That is why activists would not allow anyone to pay the tax. That is why it got dumped in Boston Harbor.
The Boston Tea Party is what really drew the wrath of Britain, primarily on the Massachusetts Bay colony alone. Britain’s retaliatory coercive acts, aka intolerable acts, stripped Massachusetts of most political power to run its own colony.
First Continental Congress
The First Continental Congress met to discuss how to respond as a united group. Talk was over political compromise and use of trade restrictions with Britain “boycotts” of British goods. However, there was no talk of independence. One delegate who surveyed other delegates on the question sent his conclusions home in a letter to a friend:
I was involuntarily led into a short discussion of this subject by your remarks on the conduct of the Boston people, and your opinion of their wishes to set up for independency. I am as well satisfied as I can be of my existence that no such thing is desired by any thinking man in all North America; on the contrary, that it is the ardent wish of the warmest advocates for liberty, that peace and tranquility, upon constitutional grounds, may be restored, and the horrors of civil discord prevented.
- George Washington to Robert Mackenzie, October 9, 1774
The Congress sent petitions to the King and Parliament requesting protection of their traditional rights and they way things had worked in the past so well for so long, ending with :
We therefore most earnestly beseech your majesty, that your royal authority and interposition may be used for our relief, that a gracious answer may be given to this petition.
That your majesty may enjoy every felicity, through a long and glorious reign over loyal and happy subjects and that your descendants may inherit your prosperity and dominions till time shall be no more; is, and always will be, our sincere and fervent prayer.
With that, the First Continental Congress disbanded, with plans to meet again the following spring in case further measures were needed.
Second Continental Congress
By the time the second Continental Congress met in May 1775, Lexington and Concord had already put the continent at war. Near the end of the year, Thomas Paine released Common Sense. It introduce the idea that a tiny island should not rule large continent. It also attacked the idea of monarchy - -Why do you get to make the rules just because your Dad got to make the rules before you? These events had a big impact, but even war did not move the vast majority of the population to favor independence.
Who really was pivotal to moving colonists to favor independence? It was King George III. His open rejection of the petitions and calls on Parliament to suppress the rebellion with military force ended any hope of reconciliation.
John Adams later said that it was King George who had the greatest impact on colonial opinion favoring independence. Patriots hoped that would see the contention caused by Parliament’s new policies and would broker a settlement agreeable to all. Even if they knew the King generally backed Parliament’s actions in private, turning to him gave him the opportunity to back the government out of what was becoming a big problem and providing a face saving way for the government to back down. When the King came out squarely against compromise. the choice became complete submission, or independence.
Even so, the Second Continental Congress was not ready to declare independence, even though they agreed to take over the war and send George Washington to command the new Continental Army.
By early 1776, most of the conservatives had left Congress. Most of them joined loyalist groups. Many moderates, however, remained. They wanted to continue to resist, but were not ready for Independence.
The debate there was largely between radicals who wanted independence now, and those who thought we should wait and see if we could work out another solution.
There was still a hope that once London realized that this had become a shooting war, they might still be willing to come to a political settlement. Olive Branch Petition was that final effort to work out a deal. Of course, many were by this time ready to declare Independence. But they knew they had to be united on this matter. No one wanted to be the Divided States of America. Without a united front, Britain would easily put down a regional rebellion then turn the screws on everyone else later.
Historians generally credit John Adams with leading the pro-independence fight in Congress, but that may be largely because Adams wrote the first history of what happened and we all tend to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories.
In May, 1776, Adams attempted to push through an independence resolution in an underhanded way. introduced a resolution in the Continental Congress calling on the colonies,
where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.
That did not seem to raise too much fuss. After all, where government had broken down due to problems, it made sense to create something to make it work. A few days later, Adams attempted to add a preamble to the resolution:
Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defence of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies; therefore, resolved, &c.
Essentially, this preamble made clear that recent events required new government because a series of abuses made it impossible to have a government that was not independent of the King. This caused great dissention and even caused the Maryland delegation to walk out.
It was not until a few weeks later when Congress decided to address the question of independence directly. On May 15, the same day Adams tried to introduce his controversial preamble in Philadelphia, the Virginia Convention passed a resolution for Congress to consider. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee offered the resolution to Congress:
Resolved, 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.
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
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, - 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, at the time still had instructions to oppose independence.
After Lee made his resolution, Congress tabled it for three weeks so that delegates could confer with their local leaders back home and decide whether to change their instructions. In the meantime, a drafting committee began work on a declaration in case a vote for independence passed.
I want to take a look at each of those middle states, and how they got to voting for Independence by the beginning of July.
Pennsylvania was a proprietary colony. There was no Provincial Congress, only radical committees. Committee of 100 which had no real legal basis for existing, represented the radical elements who supported the war and independence. The colonial Assembly was dominated by Quakers: Pacifists who supported King.
Radicals like Charles Thomson were pushing for Independence, In May 1776 they attempted to vote in a pro-independence slate into the legislature, but lost. High Quaker turnout, and many patriots had already left to serve in the Continental Army. No absentee ballots.
By the way, Thomson kept amazingly detailed notes about all the political machinations that went on in Congress, not only at this time but throughout the entire time Congress met before the implementation of the Constitution. Near the end of his life, he took these notes and tossed them into his fireplace. He decided that it would be better for history to remember Congress as idealistic heroes rather than wheeler-dealers and that his insider information would destroy that view. So Thomson, great radical patriot, not so much a friend to historians.
Quakers were not shrinking violets. They saw the support of their King and ministers as a religious duty. On January 20, 1776, the Society’s Elders issued a public declaration which said in part
the setting up and putting down kings and governments, is God’s peculiar prerogative; for causes best known to himself: And it is not our business to have any hand or contrivance therein: . . . but to pray for our king, and the safety of our nation, and good of all men: That we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty; under government which God is pleased to set over us.
Despite losing the election, the radicals were not deterred. Responding to a resolution from the Continental Congress that colonies without “government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs” should establish new ones. A few days after this May 15 resolution, a group of 4000 radicals met in front of Independence Hall (then, the State House).
The radical mob, which listened to speeches by some radical delegates, including Thomas McKean wanted, not only independence, but a completely new government for Pennsylvania. They called for a constitutional convention to replace the Assembly. The Committee of 100 then called for an election of delegates to a convention. What legal basis did the committee have for this? Well none really. They were simply counting on the people to support it and for the government to have no power to obstruct it.
Although momentum seemed to be in favor of the radicals, the leaders set up the convention to ensure the result. First, they gave equal representation to each county. This gave far more power to the less populated western counties where radical sentiment was far more popular. Second, they required all delegates to forswear allegiance to the king and to support whatever government the people chose. So Quakers or Tories unwilling to consider the possibility of ditching the King could not participate. Third, opened up voting to any male over the age of 21 who had been assessed for taxes. With no minimum property requirement, this increased the adult male voter pool from 50% to 90% across the State.
Seeing the radicals make a move toward ending the Assembly, many representatives began to move toward the radical camp. Pennsylvania formally withdrew its instructions to its Continental Congress to oppose independence, but did not issue new instructions either. A majority of the delegation still opposed independence 4-3. In the end, two of the opponents, John Dickinson and Robert Morris, left before the vote, allowing the delegation to support independence by a vote of 3-2. Both men realized the change was going to happen soon. Even if they were not ready to cast a vote, they saw the value in allowing Pennsylvania to join the other colonies in backing Independence.
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 had ended the legislative session in January. The Provincial Congress in the state simply took over the functions of government.
When the governor attempted to call the Assembly into session again in June 1776, the Provincial Congress finally reacted by replacing the royal government in June and supporting independence. They sent the governor to be imprisoned in Connecticut and called for the creation of a new Constitution. This was a power play by the patriots. It was not clear that the colony’s population would go along. However, it was enough to get the New Jersey delegation to support independence.
Delaware appeared to be most in favor of independence among the middle colonies. Delaware’s status as its own colony was under question since they were still technically considered part of Pennsylvania. Delaware had long had its own separate assembly, but were owned by the Penn family and under the control of Pennsylvania’s proprietary governor.
Northern Delaware tended to support independence while southern Delaware leaned loyalist. On June 15, the Assembly declared itself independent of both Britain and Pennsylvania, but did not instruct delegates on how to vote.
At the July 1 vote, the Delaware delegation split, with Thomas McKean voting for independence and George Read voting against. McKean had to send for the third delegate, Caesar Rodney who was also serving as a militia officer in lower Delaware putting down a loyalist revolt. Rodney made a famous midnight ride through a thunderstorm to tip the Delaware delegation in favor of Independence in the July 2 vote. His arrival was celebrated as delegates broke into song and dance at his arrival. At least that is how it is portrayed in the Musical 1776. Actual events may have been less dramatic.
Both Rodney and McKean were from southern Delaware. As a result of voting for independence, both men lost their seats in the next election.
The Maryland delegation walked out of Congress on May 15 when Congress debated the controversial preamble that had smacked of supporting independence. The Maryland Convention received Congress’ resolution. It then unanimously voted not to create a new government and reaffirmed its loyalty to the King.
The planter class in Maryland were more strongly loyalist. The patriots mostly came from merchants in the port cities. Samuel Chase became the biggest advocate to get the convention to change its views.
On June 21, the Provincial Convention in Maryland recalled its delegates to discuss the matter, but wanted an assurance that Congress would not vote on independence while they were away. Since Congress planned to begin debate on July 1, this was a problem. In the end, the convention approved independence after learning that Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware would support it. The need for unanimity was a strong one in many of the reluctant colonies.
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. The Congress ended its session on June 30 without changing its instructions to delegates to vote against independence.
New York was the only colony to abstain from the July 2 vote for independence. When the New York Congress learned that all twelve other colonies had voted in favor, it reconvened on July 9 to approve of independence. This allowed the final version of the declaration to add the word “unanimous.”
So if independence was supported on July 2, what happened on July 4. Well, during the whole debate over independence, Congress had created a committee to draft a declaration in case the Congress voted in favor of independence.
John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. As the junior member of the committee, Jefferson got stuck writing the first draft. On July 4, the committee presented the declaration for final approval.
The committee had finished with its draft by late June and presented it to Congress after the July 2 vote for independence. Congress took a couple of days to debate the final wording, which it agreed to on July 4.
John Dunlap produced the first written copy on July 5 and other newspapers began printing it over the next few days. there was no official version to be sent to London. This was a declaration to the world, not a petition. British officers in American obtained copies from local papers in the days following its general distribution.
The signed copy that we consider the “original” was not laid before Congress until August 2 for signatures. By that time, New York had gotten on board, so the final version included the word “unanimous”. Most members signed it on Aug. 2, but some did not get around to signing it until much later.
Because July 4 was the date written on the Declaration itself, it became the date when Americans celebrated independence ever since. 245 years later, we still celebrate that important moment.
Jason Mandresh and I discuss Founder of the Day, which looks at the various men and women who worked to win the Revolution. We also discuss William Franklin, Benedict Arnold, and interesting American Revolution tours.
Lee Wright and I discuss History Camp, which will hold the virtual History Camp - American next week.
Links to Discussion Items
- Culper Tri-Spy Tours http://www.culper.com
- Kyle Jenks - Join Kyle and Dana as James and Dolley Madison for this leisurely stroll around their Society Hill neighborhood. The couple will share their experiences during the 1790’s when the country was still finding its footing while simultaneously expressing a lively social scene. The tour will pass by homes of prominent Philadelphians who were known to the Madisons as well as their own Spruce Street home. (Not open to the public.)
- Tour length: Approximately 120 minutes.
- We will gather at City Tavern at the corner of 2nd and Walnut Street, stroll the neighborhood and circle back to end at City Tavern.
- For pricing, scheduling and other questions e-mail: Kyle Jenks at Jaktar773@aol.com
- Fort Stanwix https://www.nps.gov/fost/index.htm
- Fort Plain Conference American Revolution Mohawk Valley Conference Aug. 6-8, 2021 https://fortplainmuseum.org/conference
- Boston 1775 blog with J.L. Bell http://boston1775.blogspot.com
- History Camp America on July 10, including . . .
- Tour of Fort Ticonderoga—video preview
- Tour of Buckman Tavern and Lexington Green—video preview
- The History and Architecture of Marblehead, Massachusetts—video preview
- Washington in Cambridge and the Siege of Boston, with J.L. Bell—video preview
- Full schedule
- Note: Registration closes at midnight (Eastern) July 8
- History Camp weekly discussions with noted history authors, every Thursday night at 8 pm (Eastern). Includes archive of 50+ discussions
- The Pursuit of History, the non-profit organization that puts on History Camp
- Fort Ticonderoga limited edition print, signed and numbered — Only 200 printed. Proceeds support the mission of The Pursuit of History
- The History List Store
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