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US History E-Text > The Revolution: War and Independence > The Declaration

Let us now go back for half a year and shift the scene again to Philadelphia, and the scene, covering some eight months, is the most dramatic of all the scenes in the drama. Early in the autumn of 1775 Congress was waiting to hear from the king. In deference to his Majesty, who would not recognize Congress as a legal body, the members had signed their humble petition, not as a body, but separately, as individuals representing their respective colonies. This alone proves their sincerity, and absolutely disproves any intention to strike for independence at that time. The petition reached London in August. The answer came late in October, and it was a stunning blow, even to the most sanguine. King George had declined to receive the petition, or to see the messenger that bore it! But the king made answer in another way. He thundered forth a proclamation declaring the colonists in a state of rebellion and no longer under his protection. And this was not all. The irate monarch, unable to secure at home the troops needed in America, hired a large number of soldiers from the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel and other German princes, to fight his subjects in America.1 These Hessians, as they were called, were for the most part honest, sincere men, and they came to America only because they were sold by their inhuman masters.

The news of the rejection of their "Olive Branch" petition, of the king's prodamation, and of the hiring of foreign mercenaries, reached America at about the same time, -- the last days of October, -- and the sensation created was profound and widespread. It was evident that the king meant to awe the colonists into submission, but this he could not do. He only deepened the resentment against him, and thousands who had been lukewarm were now converted to the cause of the patriots. From this moment Congress assumed a bolder tone. It appointed committees to correspond with foreign nations, advised various colonies to set up governments for themselves, and urged South Carolina to seize all English vessels within its waters. It also opened the American ports to all nations (March, 1776), and advised the colonies to disarm the Tories. No more disclaimers of a desire for independence do we hear, no more talk of reconciliation with the king.

This change of attitude toward the mother land was not confined to Congress. The majority of the people were soon convinced that their sovereign did not love them, and it was not long before the subject of independence, which before had been only whispered in the corner, began to be proclaimed from the housetop. The subject was debated on all sides, and the idea of independence grew steadily during the following winter. But the people were not unanimous. A large minority, probably one third of the people, were in sympathy with the English cause to the end, and it is noteworthy that in New England and the South the tendency to make a final break with the king was more pronounced than in the middle colonies. In January, 1776, appeared a remarkable pamphlet entitled "Common Sense," from the pen of Thomas Paine. This was published broadcast, and its concise, simple, and unanswerable style won thousands to the cause.

Up to April, 1776, all the talk of independence had been private talk. This showed the drift of popular feeling, but something more must be done to achieve it. North Carolina won the honor of being first to make an official move.2 On the 12th of April that colony instructed its delegates in Congress "to concur with the delegates of the other colonies in declaring independence and forming foreign alliances." This was a move of the greatest importance, and it was but a short time until Rhode Island and then Massachusetts followed the example of their southern sister. The fourth colony to pronounce for independence was Virginia, which went farther than the others by instructing its delegates to propose independence to the Continental Congress. This bold resolution was sent by special messenger to Philadelphia.

Congress during this time was making history rapidly. It had practically assumed sovereign power in its conduct of the war. On the 15th of May, 1776, it passed a set of resolutions, offered by John Adams, authorizing the several colonies to set up state governments independent of the Crown, and several of them, as Virginia and New Jersey, proceeded to do so.3 This was altogether an act of sovereignty, and it rendered necessary, as a logical consequence, a declaration of independence of the Crown. But so vast and so vital did this subject seem -- the founding of a nation -- that Congress felt that it could not grapple with it alone; on this one subject it could act only at the mandate of its master -- the People. The majority of the members had come to favor a final break with England. The leader of this party was Samuel Adams, -- who, like Otis and Warren, was among the few that had aimed at independence from the beginiung. The opposite party, led by Dickinson, was equally patriotic, but it counseled delay and a further effort toward reconciliation.

The messenger from Virginia arrived early in June. What his message was we have seen. On the 7th of that month Richard Henry Lee, one of the foremost delegates from that colony, rose before Congress and solemnly offered the resolution, in obedience to his constituents, "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, and that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown." The colonies had not all been heard from, and Lee's resolution, after a brief debate, was laid on the table for three weeks. A committee was then chosen to prepare a declaration in a suitable form to be sent forth to the world. This committee was chosen by ballot, and Thomas Jefferson, receiving the highest number, became the chairman of the committee and the writer of the immortal document. By the 1st of July all the colonies except New York had granted the necessary authority to their respective delegations, and on that morning Lee's resolution was taken up. For two days the subject was debated with great vigor, the chief speaker being John Adams. There is no doubt that the speech he made on this occasion was the most powerful delivered on the floor of Congress during the Revolutionary period. Dickinson answered him as best he could, but years afterward he acknowledged that he had been on the wrong side. On the afternoon of the 2d the resolution was passed by the unanimous vote of twelve colonies, New York not voting. Each colony had but one vote, the majority of the delegation casting it.

Jefferson had ere this put the sentiments of Congress into a terse and fitting form; in other words, he had written the "Declaration of Independence" as we know it. This document was now taken up, and, with a few slight changes,4 was adopted by the vote of the twelve colonies on the evening of the 4th; and this day became the recognized national holiday of the newly founded nation.5 New York joined with the twelve on the ninth, and the thirteen colonies were then unanimous. This Declaration practically ignored Parliament and the English people, and laid the entire blame for the dissension on the king.6 In short, nervous, almost passionate sentences, it recounted the political crimes of his Majesty and characterized him as a despot and a tyrant. It pronounced the colonies absolved from all allegiance to the Crown, and invested them with imperial power. The Declaration, whatever its defects (and it is not above criticism), was a true expression of the popular will. The people were not unmindful of the gravity of the step they were taking, of the vastness of the responsibility they were assuming. They knew that a long and bloody war must follow -- that it meant untold suffering and sacrifice, vacant chairs at the family fireside, widowed mothers and fatherless children. But they took no step backward; they saw in the dim future a new nation born, commercial and political freedom, self-government. "America was never so great," says a famous English writer, "as on the day when she declared her independence."

The news of the great act rang forth to the expectant city in joyful peals of the old bell in the tower of the statehouse, and the people were thrown into a state of delirious joy. Post riders were sent in all directions with the great news, and in many places people abandoned themselves to the most unrestrained enthusiasm. In New York a leaden statue of George III was torn from its pedestal in the public square and melted into bullets. The Declaration was read at the head of each brigade in the army, from the pulpit and the public platform; and it was welcomed everywhere with shouts and processions, with the firing of guns and the ringing of bells, with bonfires and illuminations. For fifteen years -- since the granting of the writs of assistance in 1761 -- the people had borne one indignity upon another; they had groped in the dark, unable to divine the next move on the great chessboard. Now there was a goal, a prize for which they were willing to stake their all -- their "lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor."


1King George had first applied to Catherine II of Russia for troops, but she declined, and sarcastically asked the king if he thought it compatible with his dignity to employ foreign troops against his own subjects. (See Fiske, Vol. I, p. 161.) The whole number of "Hessians" employed during the war was about thirty thousand. Congress offered them grants of land if they would desert the British, and many of them did so. [return]

2Frothingham's "Rise of the Republic," p. 504. [return]

3New Hampshire and South Carolina had framed constitutions on the advice of Congress (November, 1775) that the colonies set up temporary governments. [return]

4Congress made but two changes of importance; a clause condemning the slave trade and another censuring the English people were struck out. The other members of the committee that framed the Declaration were Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston -- no two from the same colony. [return]

5The Declaration was signed by the members at a later date. [return]

6Winsor, Vol. VI, p.246. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XII p. 250-254. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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