Put yourself, in your mind’s eye, back in June 1776, specifically, the period between June 7 and July 1. It is precisely at that time that one of the most crucial political battles in the history of the American republic was fought—the battle over whether the American colonists would, as thirteen united colonies, declare independence to the world. Without that bold step—which put every outspoken leader, national or local, at risk of prison or death—the United States of America would never have been born.
Yet the chief leaders of the American Revolution had a serious problem. Despite the broad support for Boston against British depredations, a large portion of the colonists–the standard estimates range around one-third–were by no means ready to break with the mother country. Indeed, many even blamed the “radical” Sons of Liberty and other “rabble-rousers” for the troubles with England, even though King George had rejected Congress’s 1775 Olive Branch petition without even reading it. Many people wanted to stay out of politics, let things quiet down, make a deal. What was to be done? Bold leadership was required.
Start from the fact that the decision to issue a Declaration of Independence was a strategic question, not a matter of stating or mustering “public opinion.” By June 1776 a shooting war had raged between the British and the colonies, beginning with Massachusetts, for over a year. Declarations from King George himself had made it clear to leaders like John Adams and George Washington that the Crown was determined to impose total rule over its American subjects. The military force assembled by the Americans, under the leadership of George Washington, had brilliantly outwitted the British Army in Boston, driving it from the town, but tens of thousands of well-trained British and Hessian regulars were headed for New York City, with the clear intent of splitting the continent in two.
The core of the colonies’ leadership, most of which was sitting in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, faced a crucial decision. These leaders, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, had been briefed by General Washington in late May on the situation in New York City, where the prospects of an American victory looked poor. It was their firm conviction that durable military success would require the active support of Britain’s historic enemies, the French and the Spanish. But there was no chance of winning such support without a Declaration of Independence of the unified states—and even then, the necessary international aid was not guaranteed.
On the other side, however, the Revolutionary leadership, especially Franklin, Washington, and Adams, knew that a declaration, which would escalate the war, had to be backed by a large portion of the population. New layers of the population would have to be organized to provide the necessary support for the leadership that could win the war.
It was Friday, June 7, when Richard Henry Lee, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress from Virginia, presented his resolution calling for a declaration of independence. He took this action with the mandate of a Virginia Convention that had taken place on May 15. The resolution was terse.
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.
Resolved, That the consideration of them be referred till tomorrow morning; and, that the members be enjoined to attend punctually at 10 o’clock . . . .
On the next day, Lee’s resolution met a divided response. In open support were six additional states: North Carolina, Rhode Island, Massachusetts (whose delegate John Adams had seconded the resolution), New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Georgia. The rest were uncommitted or opposed, believing such action “premature.” But the leadership of the Convention knew it would never do to pass the resolution with a mere seven-six majority. The states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina—some of the largest in the nation-to-be—had to be brought along.
A decision was made to delay the vote for three weeks, while the pro-independence leadership mobilized popular support to ensure that unanimity for independence was achieved. The “voice of the people” must be heard, was the sentiment even of opponents, such as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. At the same time, anticipating success, the Congress on June 11 appointed a committee of five to prepare a draft Declaration of Independence; the committee included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman.
There was no question that support for independence was uneven throughout the colonies. Strongest in favor were the New England states, with their deep republican tradition and experience of British military occupation; and some of the Southern states, led by Virginia, which had also faced operations of British armed forces. The fact that America’s foremost military figure, George Washington, strongly supported independence also played a crucial role in Virginia’s stance.
The mid-Atlantic states were more divided, especially the crucially important Pennsylvania and New York. Many of the elites, and ordinary people as well, were not prepared to abandon loyalty to “tradition” and established authority. Ideals of freedom and developing a prosperous nation were all very well and good, but they had families to feed, business to attend to, pressing matters of daily life.
There had been a national mobilization underway against such arguments since early 1776, as revolutionary leaders sought to counter British blandishments to the Loyalists. Among the most thorough was Alexander Hamilton’s 1775 reply to the Tory Samuel Seabury in New York state, A Farmer Refuted, in which he ripped apart Seabury’s argument that sticking with the British system of being a colony supplying raw materials to the mother country, and remaining in dependence for manufactures, was to the benefit of the farmers.
Thomas Paine, who came to America, like many others, with the aid of Benjamin Franklin, had electrified the nation with his Common Sense pamphlet, which was published in January 1776, and which set forth unequivocal arguments for separation from Great Britain. Estimates of the ninety-page pamphlet’s circulation range widely, with Paine himself estimating 120,000 to 150,000 (within a population estimated to have been 2.5 million, including slaves). While this number has been disputed, there is no question but that the pamphlet had a strong impact.
In mid-April the North Carolina legislature became the first to call for independence. By mid-May, seven others had joined it.
Over the course of that six-month period, and even before, all the colonies had undergone some sort of popular upheaval in their governments, with Crown governors ousted or ignored, and legislative bodies replaced or nullified. Local political associations, such as Committees of Safety, sprang up around local leaders in a continuation of the process of the Committees of Correspondence which had formed in the early 1770s. Thousands of patriots participated, discussing political ideas as well as mobilizing support against political and physical atrocities. There were many divisions, but even in more conservative regions such as New York City, the revolutionary demand for freedom from the Crown was winning out.
It was this political infrastructure that the Revolutionary leaders set out to mobilize when the Congress set the deadline of July 1 for reconsidering Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of independence. In some of the originally-resisting states the conversion to support was easy; in others it was not. In many cases, the revolutionaries had to mobilize those generally staying outside of politics to challenge the established political institutions, and call special conventions which would support the necessary action.
For example, in New Jersey, the legislature decided on June 15 to arrest royal governor William Franklin, and to order their delegates to the Congress to vote for independence. In Maryland, pro-independence leaders, led by Samuel Chase, expelled their proprietary governor and called on the counties to hold emergency conventions on the question—with the result that they voted for independence, and overrode the Provincial Convention in an emergency session June 28.
In the cases of Pennsylvania and New York, however, the fight was more difficult. In divided Pennsylvania, conventions were held in every county, which elected a new statewide body which declared for independence. Militia battalions (Pennsylvania had already raised eight rifle companies for the Continental Army) raised the cry for independence, calling on the formal legislature to be overridden. While Continental Congress delegates Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, and John Morton were in favor of independence, the other four delegates were not. Yet, delegates Robert Morris and John Dickinson decided to respect the popular will insofar as they would not vote against it; their abstention permitted Pennsylvania to vote in favor.
In New York, the Mechanics Committee for Independence, which passed a resolution for independence on May 29 among others, urged the state’s delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence.
Meanwhile, back in Congress, Thomas Jefferson had produced his draft declaration, which had been reviewed and revised. On June 28 it was read and debated in Congress as a whole. More revisions were demanded and made, including the crucial decision to omit Jefferson’s attack on King George for enforcing slavery on the Colonies.
When the Congress once again took up the issue on July 2, the leadership engaged in a full nine hours of debate. Leading the forces for independence was John Adams, who had long advocated separation and was intimately involved in the organization of the colonies for war. Leading the other side was Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, who argued at length that to adopt a Declaration of Independence would be “to brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” Even at the end of the discussion, four states were still not on board—New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Delaware.
But, when matters came to a vote again on July 2, every state but Pennsylvania had gotten the message from the people to support the national call for independence. A decision by two Pennsylvania delegates to abstain led to the vote going through, twelve for, one abstention (New York), none opposed. John Adams accurately described the process in a letter to his wife:
Time has been given for the whole people maturely to consider the great question of independence, and to ripen their judgment, dissipate their fears, and allure their hopes, by discussing it in newspapers and pamphlets, by debating it in assemblies, conventions, committee of safety and inspection, in town and county, meetings, as well as in private conversation, so that the whole people, in every colony of the thirteen, have now adopted it as their own act.
The Revolutionary leadership of the nation had mobilized the people to give their consent to the action that had to be taken, for the population to survive and prosper as a free nation. The principles outlined in the formal Declaration of Independence, whose final text was voted up on July 4, had thus already been begun to be put into effect, and the fight to establish a nation committed to the inalienable rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness was underway.
See John Richard Allen, The American Revolution 1775-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1954), 86-89, for a discussion of popular sentiment.
For a sampling of the opposition to the Revolutionaries, see examples of newspaper articles and pamphlets published in merkspages.com/APUSH/plain%20truth.htm.
See the text at avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/contcong_07-08-75.asp.
The fact that the Americans understood the necessity for this alliance is attested to by, among other things, the history of the intensive efforts by the American revolutionary leadership, starting in 1775, to obtain a formal alliance with France. It is also shown by the fact that the Lee resolution for independence was accompanied by a resolution to seek alliances with European powers for the fight ahead.
Rutledge, who ultimately signed the Declaration, wrote a letter to John Jay on June 29, 1776 expressing his concerns. oll.libertyfund.org/titles/jay-the-correspondence-and-public-papers-of-john-jay-vol-1-1763-1781.
Two other committees were established as well, one to draft treaties to be proposed to foreign powers, and another to draft a constitution for the new confederation of independent states.
Harold Syrett, and Jacob Cooke, The Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961-1977), 1: 81-165.
See Ray Raphael, “Thomas Paine’s Inflated Numbers,” Journal of the American Revolution, allthingsliberty.com/2013/03/thomas-paines-inflated-numbers/.
A convention of eighty-three delegates from North Carolina met in the town of Halifax, where they adopted the Halifax Resolves, which called for independence. For text, see home.nps.gov/mocr/learn/historyculture/upload/Halifax-Res.lves.pdf.
See Ray Raphael, “Samuel Chase’s Wild Ride,” Journal of the American Revolution, July 2, 2018, allthingsliberty.com/2013/07/samuel-chases-wild-ride/.
For a discussion of this process, see an article by Dr. Roland Bauman at www.ushistory.org/pennsylvania/birth2.html.
See archives in Peter Force, ed., American Archives: Consisting of A Collection of Authentick Records, State Papers, Debates, and Letters and Other Notices of Publick Affairs, the Whole Forming a Documentary History of the Origin and Progress of At North American Colonies; of the Causes and Accomplishment of the American Revolution: and of the Constitution of Government for the United States, so the Final Ratification Thereof,
John Dickinson’s remarks in the July1 debate are quoted in J. H. Powell, “Speech of John Dickinson Opposing the Declaration of Independence 1 July, 1776,” and “Arguments agt the Independance of these Colonies in Congress,”The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography,65#4 (October 1941), 458-481.
New York signed on July 9, after a special convention had been held.
John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/digitaladams/.
This was a great article that gave background that I’ve never heard before.