Reconciliation No Longer An Option

On June 23, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to write a declaration that would explain the military conflict with England to the American people. The members of the committee were John Jay, Thomas Johnson, John Rutledge, Benjamin Franklin, and William Livingston. On June 26, after a draft was submitted to Congress and sent back to the committee for further consideration, Congress added two new members to the committee, Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson. The committee directed Jefferson to write another draft. William Livingston was uncomfortable with what he wrote; he claimed it had “much fault-finding and declamation, with little sense or dignity.”[1] Out of respect Jefferson deferred to Dickinson and permitted him to put it in a form that could meet everyone’s approval. Dickinson did more than just minor editing; he significantly rewrote the draft. In the end only the last four of the original thirteen paragraphs remained. “He made Jefferson’s draft stronger, more assertive, even threatening.”[2] The power of the draft, known as the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, was in its final two paragraphs:

“We are reduced to the alternative of chusing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honour, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them, if we basely entail hereditary bondage upon them.

Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable… With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves.”[3]

Signatures of the Olive Branch Petition. Source: Library of Congress
Signatures of the Olive Branch Petition. Source: Library of Congress

The same committee less Thomas Johnson and William Livingston was also preparing a “humble petition” for King George. It was called the Olive Branch Petition. It acknowledged that the union between the mother country and her colonies had “produced benefits so remarkably important” to each that it was “the wonder and envy of other Nations,” but also that the Ministry was responsible for “delusive pretences, fruitless terrors, and unavailing severities, that have, from time to time …. [filled American minds] with the most painful fears and jealousies.” The colonists wanted free trade in exchange for taxes equal to those imposed on Englishmen living in England or no taxes at all and strict trade regulations. In its conclusion, the colonists beseeched “your Majesty that your royal authority and influence may be graciously interposed to procure us Relief from our afflicting fears and jealousies.”[4]

The Continental Congress approved both documents, the Olive Branch Petition on July 5 and the Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms on July 6.The immediate question is why – why did the they on the one hand petition for reconciliation and on the other justify armed resistance? The answer is that Congress was deeply divided. The conservatives, led by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and John Jay of New York, believed reconciliation was still possible with the King’s intervention, thus the Olive Branch Petition; the radicals, however, led by John Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, did not believe the Ministry or Parliament was sincere in its desire for reconciliation – and would convince the King to refuse the petition, thus the Declaration of Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.

On July 8, Richard Penn set sail for England with the Olive Branch Petition. He was to deliver it to Arthur Lee, the colonial agent in England. It was accompanied by a letter from Dickinson to Lee in which he stated, “Our Rights have already been stated – our Claims made – War is actually begun, and we are carrying it … Vigorously … If they reject this application with Contempt, the more humble it is, Treatment will confirm the Minds of [our] Countrymen to endure all the Misfortune that may attend the Contest.”[5] On August 13, Penn landed at Bristol; on August 21, he reached London and met with Lee. They planned to deliver the petition to Lord Dartmouth the next day, however, they learned that they could not meet with him until he returned from his summer home on September 1. [6] When they eventually handed the petition to him, Lord Dartmouth accepted it without comment and promised to deliver it to the King.The timing of the affair could not have been worse.

One week earlier, King George, after learning of the Battle of Bunker Hill, reacted by issuing his Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition. In it, he blamed the “disorderly Acts … the obstruction of lawful Commerce, and … the Oppression of Our loyal Subjects [on] … dangerous and ill-designing Men.” It was evident to him that the colonies were in a state of “open and avowed rebellion, by arraying themselves in a hostile manner … traitorously preparing, ordering, and levying War against us.” By the time Lord Dartmouth delivered the Petition, the King was in no mood to read it. [7] This made Richard Penn and Arthur Lee, who officially delivered the Olive Branch Petition to Lord Dartmouth on September 1, rebels and not subjects of the King, thus they were not granted an audience with the King. On September 2, the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty sent a dispatch to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves:

“You are hereby required and directed, in pursuance of the King’s Pleasure signified to us, by the Earl of Dartmouth one of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State on his Letter the 29th of last Month [8] to give Orders to the respective Captains and Commanders of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels under your Command to seize all Ships and Vessels belonging to any of the said Colonies or owned by the inhabitants thereof, except only in cases where it shall clearly appear, from their Papers or from other Evidence, that they are bound to, or returning from some Port or Place in Great Britain, Ireland or His Majesty’s Islands in the West Indies; but you are to observe that this Exception is not to extend or be applied, to, such Ships or Vessels as may have Arms or Ammunition on board, which Ships and Vessels are to be seized in all cases whatsoever, unless it shall appear that the Arms and Ammunition shall have been shipped with Licence wither from His Majesty in Council, from the Master General and Principal Officers of the Ordnance, or under the usual Clearances from the Commissioners of His Majesty’s Customs.”[9]

Lord Dartmouth knew of the orders contained in the dispatch three days before his meeting with Penn and Lee. When he was later asked how the petition was received, he responded, “as His Majesty did not receive it on the Throne, no answer would be given [10]

On November 9, the Continental Congress received a copy of the King’s Proclamation of August 23 and an explanation as to how the Olive Branch Petition was received. Many of the delegates believed they were now left with but two choices: submit to the Supremacy of Parliament or push for complete separation. It just so happened that on the same day the Olive Branch petition was read in the House of Lords for the first time. The Duke of Richmond advocated acceptance of the petition and Richard Penn, who was called to testify, assured the Lords that independence was not the colonists’ goal and unconditional freedom of trade was not required for conciliation. Lord Dartmouth disagreed with both men. He stated that it would be impossible to accept the Petition, ”without at the same instant relinquishing the sovereignty of the British Parliament; … it was no longer a question about taxation, about the quantum to be raised, or the mode of raising it; it was not the conquest, but the allegiance of the colonies, which administration were desirous of obtaining; the petition … was unexceptionable, but there was every reason to believe that the softness of the language was purposely adopted to conceal the most traitorous designs.”[11] On December 6, the Continental Congress, unaware of what would transpire in Parliament two weeks later, declared “that whatever punishment shall be inflicted upon any persons in the power of the enemies, for favouring, aiding, or abetting the cause of American liberty, shall be retaliated in the same kind, and the same degree, upon those in our power, who have favoured, aided or abetted, or shall favour, aid, or abet the system of ministerial oppression.”[12]

On November 10, Lord Dartmouth stepped down as Secretary-of-State for the American Colonies. His successor was Lord George Germain. During his first two years in office, Lord Dartmouth had sought conciliation through negotiation. In his final year, he sided he policy of his stepbrother, Lord North, for conciliation through negotiation and coercion. However, with Lord Germain’s appointment all efforts at conciliation ended. The Ministry was now going to pursue a policy of unconditional submission to Parliament through coercion by any and all means necessary. [13]

On November 20, the Prohibitory Act was introduced in the Houseof Commons. “His Lordship [Lord North] explained the necessity of restraining the Americans from all trade during the present rebellion, and the justice there would be in immediately taking off the restraint from such Colony wherein it might cease; that the Boston Port Act, and the acts passed last year, being framed upon other grounds and for other purposes, would stand in the way of this operation; that the restraining bills were civil coercions against civil crimes; but we being now at war, the provisions were incapable, and other provisions were necessary. Those provisions he now proposed were such as would be made use of in case of war with any country in the world; but they were framed under suchprovisos as might open the door of peace upon its first approach.”[14]The Act stated ”all manner of trade and commerce [with the America colonies] is and shall be prohibited” and that any ships found trading “shall be forfeited to his Majesty, as if the same were the ships and effects of open enemies.” Finally, “for the encouragement of the officers and seamen of his Majesty’s ships of war [they] shall have sole interest and property of all ships, vessels, goods and merchandise, which they shall seize and take.”[15]After January 1, all American vessels found off the coast of Britain were to be seized and confiscated; all American vessels sailing into and out of Americans ports after March 1 were to be seized and confiscated; and all foreign vessels trading with America after June 1 were to be seized. Also a blockade of all colonial ports was ordered. This presented a major problem for the Royal Navy. Even though the Navy had 131 ships of the line, many were in a state of neglect because of rapid and poor construction during the Seven Years’ War. [16] Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, had plans to upgrade the fleet, but it had only just begun. In July, Admiral Palliser in a report to the Admiralty calculated that 50 frigates would be necessary to effectively blockade the North American coast.[17] In the spring of 1776 there were 41 British ships in North American waters.[18] With the arrival of Lord Richard Howe on July 12, General Clinton on August 1 and Commodore William Hotham on August 12, the number grew to 71 ships, 30 of which had two-decks and between 40-74 guns, and 400 transports.[19] Forty-seven were assigned to give the army “close support” at Quebec, Halifax, New York and St. Augustine;[20] others had to protect convoys from the West Indies, the fisheries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Bermuda. In August 30 ships patrolled the waters near New York; by September 34; and by November 44. By the fall of 1776 no more than 15 ships could be spared for the blockade.[21]

Knowing this, the House of Commons on December 11 still passed the Prohibitory Act by a vote of 112 to 16. It was then sent to the House of Lords where after further consideration it was passed on December 21 by a vote of 48 to 12. The King gave his royal assent the following day.

News of the October 27 speech arrived at Philadelphia on January 10, 1776, the same day that the first one thousand copies of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, were published.Paine’s basic contentionwas that Americans could secure their future and that of their children only by declaring their independence and founding a new government whose authority rested on the people alone. He said Americans had an opportunity for independencethat “hath not happened since the days of Noah … [they had the] power to begin the world over again.”[22]

Rumors of the impending passage of a Prohibitory Act reached the colonies in February by way of an anonymous letter (probably from a member of Parliament) dated London, December 9. There were two parts to the letter. The first outlined the Act, in general terms; the second declared, “The plan of operations for next year is to carry on a piratical war by sea, and to have thirty thousand men, by land in America, dispersed through the different Provinces. Five thousand are to sail from Ireland … No person can yet find out how it will be possible for the Ministers to get ten thousand men more to send to America in the course of next year; however, it is certain that this country will pay eight millions of money for the next campaign against America, and it is hardly doubted but the real design of the Cabinet is to exert their utmost efforts next year to subdue America to slavery … The Ministers have been trying, with all their address, to get troops from Russia, in which they have failed. They are now treating with all the petty Princes in Germany for men … It is not certainly known yet, but probably they may get four to five thousand from Germany.”[23]

By March the Prohibitory Act was no longer rumor.On March 20, Joseph Hewes, a North Carolina merchant, wrote, “The Act of Parliament prohibiting all trade and commerce between Great Britain and the colonies had been lately brought here by a Mr. Temple from London … I fear it will make the breach between the two countries so wide as never more to be reconciled … I see no prospect of reconciliation, Nothing is left now but to fight it out.”[24] The Act reached Philadelphia the next day.After hearing it read, John Adams stated, “It is complete dismemberment of the British Empire. It throws thirteen colonies out of the royal protection, levels all distinctions, and makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties. It may be fortunate that the act of independency should come from the British Parliament rather than the American Congress; but it is very odd that Americans should hesitate at accepting such a gift from them.”[25] He believed the Act declared the colonies independent seven months before the Declaration of Independence was written.

The Continental Congress considered the Act a declaration of economic war.

In response, on March 23, they passed the Privateering Resolution. A “privateer … was a [merchant] ship armed and fitted out at private expense for the purpose of preying on the enemy’s commerce to the profit of her owners, and bearing a commission authoring her to do so, from the Government.”[26] When an enemy ship or prize was captured, it was to be taken to a friendly port. The ship and cargo were then placed in the custody of the local authorities. The “prize agent” representing the owner of the privateer then filed a libel against the ship and her cargo in an admiralty court. A hearing was held and if evidence was presented that the prize was the property of England or an English merchant, the court would order her sold for auction. The proceeds would then be shared with the owner, the captain, and crew. The owner received 50 percent and if multiple owners, it was divided up accordingly and the captain and crew received the other 50 percent. According to the records of the Continental Congress, by the end of the war, letters of marque and reprisal[27] were issued to 1,697 vessels.[28]

In a sermon on April 7, Samuel Cooper said, “All History shows that it is no easy Matter to excite a large people into any vigorous and continued opposition to the Government they have been long habituated to respect and obey. Nothing can bring them to this, but a clear Conviction and strong Feeling of some real and important Injury.”[29]

On May 10, the Continental Congress issued the following resolution, “Whereas his Britannic Majesty has, by a late Act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these united colonies from the protection of the Crown … it be recommended to the respective Assemblies of the united colonies … to adopt such government as shall … best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”[30]

The Prohibitory Act moved the struggle from forceful resistance against the Ministry and Parliament to rebellion against the King, and according to John Locke, “Opposition may be made to the illegal Acts of any inferior officer… but not withstanding such Resistance, the King’s Person and Authority are still both secured.” But, should a magistrate (or King) act unlawfully he “ceases to be a Magistrate, and acting without Authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the Right of another.”[31]Thus, the colonists believed their rebellion against the king was lawful.

On June 20, Lord Richard Howe, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, wrote that England wanted reconciliation with her colonies except that “the deep rooted prejudices of America and the necessity of preventing her Trade from passing into foreign Channels, must keep us still a divided People.” Franklin responded, “To me it seems that neither the obtaining or retaining of any trade, how valuable soever, is an Object for which Men may justly Spill each other’s Blood; that the true and sure means of extending and securing Commerce is the goodness and cheapness of Commodities; and that the profits of no trade can ever equal to the Expence of compelling it, and of holding it, by Fleets and Armies.”[32]

Two weeks later, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

 /// Featured image at top: Cartoon of March 1, 1776, depicts several high-ranking British government officials working in a blacksmith shop to make shackles, or “fetters,” for the American colonists. The men depicted are the Earl of Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench; Lord North, Prime Minister; the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty; John Stuart, the Earl of Bute and King George III who watches from the window. In Lord North’s right hand is “An Act for Prohibiting all Trade”. Source:  Virginia Memory, Digital Collections


[1] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 2:128.

[2] Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997), 20.

[3] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 2:128-157.

[4] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 2:158-161.

[5] Edmund C Burnett,. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1921), 1:157.

[6] “Richard Penn and Arthur Lee to Lord Dartmouth”, in Peter Force, American Archives, 4th Series, 3:255; “Richard Penn and Arthur Lee to the President of Congress,” 4th Series, 3:627,

[7] L. Munro, ed., Acts of the Privy Council of England (Colonial Series), V (London, 1912), 417; “Proclamation, by the King, for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition,” in Force, American Archives, 4th Series, 3:240.

[8] “Lord Dartmouth to the Lords Commissioners of the British Admiralty, dated Whitehall, 29 August 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, Part 5 (Washington DC.: GPO, 1966), 694.

[9] “Lord Commissioners of the British Admiralty to Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, dated 2 September 1775,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 2, Part, 5 (Washington DC.: GPO, 1966), 701.

[10] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 3:343.

[11] William Cobbett, John Wright, et al., The Parliamentary History of England, from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, Vol. XVIII (London: T.C. Hansard, 1814), 919-20.

[12] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 3:412.

[13] J. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III, 1760-1815 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960).

[14] Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England, 992-93.

[15] 16 Geo. III. Cap. 5.

[16] Mark Mayo Boatner, III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (New York: McKay, 1966), 769.

[17] “Memorandum of Admiral Palliser, July 1775,” in The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1771-1782, Vol. 1 (Navy Records Society, 1933-38), 64-66.

[18] “Lords of the Admiralty to Howe, 4 May 1776,” with enclosure, “A List of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in North America,” Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington DC.: GPO, 1969-1972), 4:1090-1093.

[19] Lord Howe to Philip Stephens, August 14, 1776, and enclosures, “A List of Transports sailing under Convoy of the Repulse, n.d., and Disposition of Ships under Howe, August 15, 1776,” Naval Documents, 6:167-169.

[20] Disposition of Ships under Howe, August 15, 1776, Naval Documents, 6:167-169.

[21] Disposition of Ships under Howe, September 18, Naval Documents, 6:891-894.

[22] Thomas Paine, Common Sense (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986), 120.

[23] American Archives, Series 4, 4:222,

[24] John Quincy Adams and Charles Francis Adams, “Letter from John Adams to Gen. Gates, 23 March, 1776,” Life of John Adams, Vol. I (New York: Cosimo, Inc.,

2005), 289-90; Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789,Vol. III, (Washington DC: Library of Congress), 431.

[25] Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 416-17.

[26] Edgar Stanton Maclay, A History of American Privateer, Vol. 7 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1899), 7.

[27] Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 4:253-54.

[28] Charles H. Lincoln, ed., Calendar of Naval Records of the American Revolution 1775-1788 in the Library of Congress (Washington DC: GPO, 1906).

[29] Charles W. Akers, ed., “‘A Place for My People Israel’: Samuel Cooper’s Sermon, 7 April, 1776,” New England Historical and Genealogical register, CXXXII (1978), 131-32.

[30] Francis Newton Thorpe, ed., The United States Congressional serial set, Vol. 91, Part 1 (Washington DC.: G.P.O., 1909), 2624.

[31] John Locke. “Second Treatise of Government” in Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett, ed., (Cambridge, 1960), 420-21, 418-19, 433.

[32] “Letter from Lord Howe to Benjamin Franklin, June 20, 1776.” Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States (Washington DC: G.P.O., 1889), 484, 452.

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  • Great article and analysis, Bob!
    When one of my friends or relatives talks about how divided and confused our Congress is today, I can direct them to your article. They’ll know Congress has been divided and confused, literally, from the very beginning!

  • It’s fascinating to me that so many colonists–not only the Loyalists–were so reluctant for so long to figuratively pull the trigger on rebellion.
    I think there was no realistic basis for believing the Olive Branch Petition would be effective, but otherwise sensible men strongly endorsed it.
    I wonder, Bob, do you have any insight on this point: do you think the king and British leaders ever really made a realistic military commitment to win the war? Did the British really try to win? Or were they simply mostly hopeful about victory?

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