Learning Objective I:
Discuss the background material leading to the Declaration of Independence. This material breaks down into two areas of ( 1) external and (2) internal factors. Discuss the debate and factors that led to the colonies to finally declare their independence from Great Britain.
By the time the Continental Congress met again in May 1775, war had already broken out in Massachusetts. On April 19, 1775, British regiments set out to seize local militias’ arms and powder stores in Lexington and Concord.
The town militia met them at the Lexington Green. The British ordered the militia to disperse when someone fired, setting off a volley from the British. The battle continued all the way to the next town, Concord. News of the events at Lexington spread rapidly throughout the countryside. Militia members, known as “minutemen,” responded quickly and inflicted significant casualties on the British regiments as they chased them back to Boston. Approximately 20,000 colonial militiamen lay siege to Boston, effectively trapping the British. In June, the militia set up fortifications on Breed’s Hill overlooking the city. In the misnamed “Battle of Bunker Hill,” the British attempted to dislodge them from the position with a frontal assault, and, despite eventually taking the hill, they suffered severe casualties at the hands of the colonists.
While men in Boston fought and died, the Continental Congress struggled to organize a response. The radical Massachusetts delegates––including John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock––implored the Congress to support the Massachusetts militia then laying siege to Boston with little to no supplies. Meanwhile, many delegates from the Middle Colonies––including New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia––took a more moderate position, calling for renewed attempts at reconciliation. In the South, the Virginia delegation contained radicals such as Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson, while South Carolina’s delegation included moderates like John and Edward Rutledge. The moderates worried that supporting the Massachusetts militia would be akin to declaring war.
Externally, the final movement towards independence began on August 23, 1775 when King George III refused to receive the conciliatory Olive Branch Petition. This document, written by John Dickinson, for the Second Continental Congress, expressed colonial hopes of reconciliation and asked for the King's help in the restoration of peace.
The Debate for and Against Independence
The second decisive event occurred in January of 1776 with the publication of Common Sense by Thomas Paine, one of the most potent pamphlets ever written. Paine, the son of a Quaker corset-maker, came to Philadelphia in 1774 and found work on the Pennsylvania Magazine with the help of Ben Franklin.
During the Revolutionary War, Paine continued to write and to publish his views on the patriot cause in a series of papers called American Crisis. In his first issue he wrote: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country."With this eloquent patriotism the hesitation of many about the war in and out of the army were resolved.Washington was so impressed with the papers that he ordered them to be read to his troops at Valley Forge.
A Reading of Common Sense
George Washington had taken control of the army and after laying siege to Boston forced the British to retreat to Halifax. In Virginia, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation declaring martial law and offering freedom to “all indentured servants, Negros, and others” if they would leave their masters and join the British. Though only about 500-1000 slaves joined Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian regiment,” thousands more flocked to the British later in the war, risking capture and punishment for a chance at freedom. Former slaves occasionally fought, but primarily served as laborers, skilled workers, and spies, in companies called “Black Pioneers.” British motives for offering freedom were practical rather than humanitarian, but the proclamation was the first mass emancipation of enslaved people in American history. Slaves could now choose to run and risk their lives for possible freedom with the British army, or hope that the United States would live up to its ideals of liberty. ((Pennsylvania Evening Post, September 21, 1776.))
Dunmore’s Proclamation had the additional effect of pushing many white Southerners into rebellion. After the Somerset case in 1772 abolished slavery on the British mainland, some American slave-owners began to worry about the growing abolitionist movement in the mother country. Somerset and now Dunmore began to convince some slave owners that a new independent nation might offer a surer protection for slavery. Indeed, the Proclamation laid the groundwork for the very unrest that loyal southerners had hoped to avoid. Consequently, slaveholders often used violence to prevent their slaves from joining the British or rising against them. Virginia enacted regulations to prevent slave defection, threatening to ship rebellious slaves to the West Indies or execute them. Many masters transported their enslaved people inland, away from the coastal temptation to join the British armies, sometimes separating families in the process.
On May 10, 1776, nearly two months before the Declaration of Independence, the Congress voted a resolution calling on all colonies that had not already established revolutionary governments to do so and to wrest control from royal officials. The Congress also recommended that the colonies should begin preparing new written constitutions. In many ways, this was the Congress’s first declaration of independence. A few weeks later, on June 7, Richard Henry Lee offered the following resolution:
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 connexion between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
Delegates went scurrying back to their assemblies for new instructions and nearly a month later, on July 2, the resolution finally came to a vote. It was passed 12-0 with New York, under imminent threat of British invasion, abstaining.
The passage of Lee’s resolution was the official legal declaration of independence, but, between the proposal and vote, a committee had been named to draft a public declaration in case the resolution passed. Virginian Thomas Jefferson drafted the document, with edits being made by his fellow committee members John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and then again by the Congress as a whole. The famous preamble went beyond the arguments about the rights of British subjects under the British Constitution, instead referring to “natural law”:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
The majority of the document outlined a list of specific grievances that the colonists had with the many actions taken by the British during the 1760s and 1770s to reform imperial administration. An early draft blamed the British for the transatlantic slave trade and even for discouraging attempts by the colonists to promote abolition. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia as well as those from northern states who profited from the trade all opposed this language and it was removed.
Neither the grievances nor the rhetoric of the preamble were new. Instead, they were the culmination of both a decade of popular resistance to imperial reform and decades more of long-term developments that saw both sides develop incompatible understandings of the British Empire and the colonies’ place within it. The Congress approved the document on July 4, 1776.