background history
[The Declaration of Independence, historical background]
historical background

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The Declaration of Independence
historical background


  The clearest call for an "American" independence up to the summer of 1776 came in Philadelphia on June 7. On that date in session in the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall), the Continental Congress heard Richard Henry Lee of Virginia read his resolution beginning: "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."

  The Lee Resolution was an expression of what was already beginning to happen throughout the colonies. When the Second Continental Congress, which was essentially the government of the United States from 1775 to 1788, first met in May 1775, King George III had not replied to the petition for redress of grievances that he had been sent by the First Continental Congress. The Congress gradually took on the responsibilities of a national government. In June 1775 the Congress established the Continental Army as well as a continental currency. By the end of July of that year, it created a post office for the "United Colonies."

  In August 1775 a royal proclamation declared that the King's American subjects were "engaged in open and avowed rebellion." Later that year, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act, which made all American vessels and cargoes forfeit to the Crown. And in May 1776 the Congress learned that the King had negotiated treaties with German states to hire mercenaries to fight in America. The weight of these actions combined to convince many Americans that the mother country was treating the colonies as a foreign entity.

  One by one, the Continental Congress continued to cut the colonies' ties to Britain. The Privateering Resolution, passed in March 1776, allowed the colonists "to fit out armed vessels to cruize [sic] on the enemies of these United Colonies." On April 6 1776, American ports were opened to commerce with other nations, an action that severed the economic ties fostered by the Navigation Acts. A "Resolution for the Formation of Local Governments" was passed on May 10 1776.

  At the same time, more of the colonists themselves were becoming convinced of the inevitability of independence. By the middle of May 1776, eight colonies had decided that they would support independence. On May 15 1776, the Virginia Convention passed a resolution that "the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states."

  It was in keeping with these instructions that Richard Henry Lee, on June 7 1776, presented his resolution. There were still some delegates, however, including those bound by earlier instructions, who wished to pursue the path of reconciliation with Britain. On June 11 consideration of the Lee Resolution was postponed by a vote of seven colonies to five, with New York abstaining. Congress then recessed for three weeks in large part intending to allow delegates to consult with their several colonial constituencies about the position they could adopt in relation to a Declaration of Independence. The tone of the debate indicated that at the end of that time the Lee Resolution would be adopted. Before Congress recessed, therefore, a Committee of Five was appointed to draft a statement presenting to the world the colonies' case for independence.

  The committee consisted of two New England men, John Adams of Massachusetts and Roger Sherman of Connecticut; two men from the Middle Colonies, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York; and one southerner, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.

  In the event all the work in the preparation of an initial draft of what subsequently became the American Declaration of Independence was left to Thomas Jefferson. In 1823 Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Madison concerning the background history to the Declaration of Independence, wrote that the other members of the committee "unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught [sic]. I consented; I drew it". (For several decades after 1776 it was not widely known that Thomas Jefferson had been the principal draftsperson - the identity of its draftsperson was in fact kept more or less associated with the relative anonymity of a revolutionary committee).

  Jefferson later wrote of the task then before him as one:-

  "not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expresssion of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion".

  Thomas Jefferson felt that the Declaration had to set out be persuasive, to set out a case in terms of arguments and conclusions, not least so as to sway the many persons in the Americas who were reluctant to pursue a formal break with Great Britain.

  In 1823, Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Madison concerning the background history to the Declaration, wrote that "before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections. . . I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress."

  In the event Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams suggested only a very few and limited "merely verbal" changes to Thomas Jefferson's draft. The Committee of Five as a whole then submitted the draft "unaltered" to the Second Continental Congress on 28 June 1776.

  On July 1 1776, Congress reconvened. The following day, the Lee Resolution for independence was adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies, New York not voting. Immediately afterward, the Congress began to consider the draft Declaration. The discussion in Congress resulted in some alterations and deletions, but the basic document remained Jefferson's. The process of revision continued through all of July 3 and into the late afternoon of the fourth of July. Thomas Jefferson seems to have been personally affected by the degree to which the Congress elected to alter his draft. The Congress felt that the tone of Jefferson's draft in relation to "the people of England" might seem too severe, similarly Jefferson's censure of "Scotch auxiliaries and mercenaries". Of all the changes made by the Congress the one that Thomas Jefferson seems to have had most difficulty with was that the Congress declined to endorse a condemnation of the slave trade. Previously some colonial assemblies had, from time to time, sought to curtail this trade but the British authority had preferred to avail of the revenues that were associated with a continuance of that trade. In the draft of the Declaration that had passed the survey of the Committee of Five Thomas Jefferson's strongest language of denunciation against Great Britain and King George III had been used in protests associated with this trade in MEN (Jefferson's Capitalisation) but in the event, both the northern and southern colonies preferred that this section in Thomas Jefferson's draft was very substantially edited out.

  Late in the evening on the fourth of July 1776 church bells rang out over Philadelphia; the Declaration had been officially adopted by approval of twelve of the thirteen colonies with only New York abstaining.

  On July 9 the action of Congress was officially approved by the New York Convention. All 13 colonies had now signified their approval. On July 19 therefore, Congress was able to order that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."

  Engrossing is the process of preparing an official document in a large, clear hand. Timothy Matlack was probably the engrosser of the Declaration. He was a Pennsylvanian who had assisted the Secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson, in his duties for over a year and who had written out George Washington's commission as commanding general of the Continental Army. Matlack set to work with pen, ink, parchment, and practiced hand, and finally, on August 2 the journal of the Continental Congress records that "The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed."


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The Declaration of Independence
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