The Declaration Of Independence
The colonies advised to form temporary governments.—Up to the beginning of 1776 the Whigs disavowed the purpose or desire for independence. But in spite of the view of the conservatives, Congress had been forced to assume the direction of the war and had been called upon to advise several of the colonies regarding the course to be pursued in organizing their governments. In answer to an inquiry from Massachusetts, Congress replied that no obedience was due to the parliamentary act altering the charter, and that the governor and lieutenant-governor were to be considered absent and the offices vacant. As there was no council, the provincial convention was advised to write letters to the inhabitants of the places which were entitled to representation in the assembly, requesting them to choose representatives; and when the assembly was chosen, it was to elect councillors, "which assembly and council should exercise the powers of Government, until a Governor, of his Majesty's appointment, will consent to govern the colony according to its charter." New Hampshire was advised to call a full and free representation of the people who might establish such a form of temporary government as would "produce the happiness of the people and most effectually secure peace and good order in the province" during the dispute with Great Britain. Similar advice was given to South Carolina and Virginia.
Paine's "Common Sense."—The attitude of the British government, the events on the Canadian frontier and about Boston, and the burning of Falmouth and Norfolk, fanned the flames of rebellion to a white heat. When Tom Paine issued his pamphlet Common Sense, "the first open and unqualified argument in championship of the doctrine of American Independence," he found a receptive audience. The pamphlet held up to scorn the idea of kingship, argued that the security and happiness of the British people were due to their character and not to their constitution, asserted that the British colonial system was based upon English self-interest, and that only injuries and disadvantages would result from continued allegiance to Great Britain. Reconciliation, Paine argued, would result in the ruin of America, because England, ruled by self-interest, would still be the governing power, because any arrangement which might be obtained would be a temporary expedient, and because nothing but independence would keep the peace of the American continent. From every point of view, independence, he declared, was necessary. "The period of debate is closed. Arms, as the last resort, must decide the contest.... By referring the matter from argument to arms, a new era for politics is struck; a new method of thinking hath arisen. All plans, proposals, and so forth, prior to the nineteenth of April ... are like the almanacs of last year." The pamphlet met with immediate success. It was read throughout the colonies and convinced thousands that independence was necessary.
The independence movement in the three southern colonies.—Early in 1776 three southern colonies took definite steps toward independence. In February a small revolutionary group in Savannah instructed delegates to agree to any measure for the general good which might be adopted by Congress. In March South Carolina gave similar instructions, and on April 12 the provincial congress of North Carolina instructed its delegates to concur with representatives from other colonies in declaring independence. In spite of the action of South Carolina, the colony was probably unconvinced of the necessity of separation from Great Britain until the Charleston hostilities.
Congress advises the colonies to suppress the authority of Great Britain.—On May 10 Congress recommended to the various assemblies and conventions that where no sufficient government had been established, such governments as would best conduce to the happiness and safety of the people and of America in general should be established. Five days later Congress adopted a preamble to this resolution which contained the significant statement that the exercise of every kind of authority under the British crown should be suppressed and all the powers of government exerted under the authority of the people of the colonies.
The German mercenaries.—On May 21 Congress received copies of the treaties which Great Britain had made with the Duke of Brunswick, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, and the Count of Anhalt-Zerbst, by which they agreed to furnish about seventeen thousand troops to be used against the rebellious colonies. These treaties were immediately published and were a potent force in bringing some of the wavering colonies to instruct their delegates for independence.
Lee's Resolution.—In Virginia a convention was called to form a new government, and on May 15 the Virginia delegates in Congress were instructed to propose independence. Accordingly on June 7 Richard Henry Lee moved in Congress "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."
The debate on the resolution.—A declaration of independence at that time was opposed by James Wilson, Robert R. Livingston, John Dickinson, Edward Rutledge, and others. They declared that they were friends of the measure but thought that it should be postponed until the people demanded it. The middle colonies, they thought, "were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection, but ... were fast ripening." They argued that a declaration which was not unanimous would cause foreign powers either to refuse to make alliances with the colonies or to insist upon hard terms. It was believed that a successful termination of the New York campaign would make alliances possible on excellent terms.
John Adams, Lee, Wythe, and others argued for an immediate declaration. They saw no reason for waiting for every colony to express itself. They argued that a declaration of independence alone could bring about desired alliances. Without it the colonies would never know whether or not aid could be obtained from France or Spain. It was pointed out that the New York campaign might not be successful and that an alliance ought to be made while affairs bore a hopeful aspect. If an alliance were made at once with France, she might assist in cutting off British supplies and might divert enemy forces by an attack on the British West Indies. It was also pointed out that an immediate alliance would assist the people, who were in need of clothing and money.
Committees appointed.—It was decided to get the consent of the colonies before issuing the declaration, but a committee composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston was appointed to prepare the document. Congress also decided to appoint committees to formulate a plan of confederation and to draft a form of treaties.
New England takes formal action.—The New England colonies had favored independence for some time. They now took formal action. In May Rhode Island instructed its delegates to agree to any acts which would hold the colonies together. In June Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire instructed their delegates to support Lee's resolution.
The independence movement in the middle colonies.—The middle colonies still stood out and Congress made great efforts to induce them to give their support. After a hard struggle with Governor William Franklin, on June 22 the provincial congress of New Jersey authorized its delegates to agree to independence. Pennsylvania had been held back by the Quakers, Germans, and proprietary interests. When the conservative assembly refused to sanction independence, a vast crowd assembled in Philadelphia and voiced its displeasure. The Loyalists were terrorized and a patriot convention was formed which agreed to favor independence. Delaware formed a new government but failed to instruct its delegates regarding independence. In Maryland the provisional government induced Governor Eden to leave the colony and a special convention called by the council of safety gave the delegates the desired instructions. New York failed to express itself in favor of the great measure.
The Declaration of Independence.—On July 1 Lee's motion was debated in Congress, John Adams speaking for an immediate declaration of independence and Dickinson for delay. When the debate closed, nine states voted in the affirmative. Pennsylvania and South Carolina opposed immediate action; the Delaware vote was a tie, and the New York delegates were excused from voting. The final vote was postponed until the next day. The arrival of Rodney of Delaware gave the vote of that state for the Declaration. Dickinson and Morris did not appear and the other delegates from Pennsylvania voted in the affirmative. The South Carolina delegates, influenced by news that a great British fleet was off New York, took matters in their own hands and voted for independence. New York alone stood out.
The congressional committee had entrusted the preparation of the Declaration to Thomas Jefferson. After it had undergone the fire of criticism, on the evening of July 4 the document was approved by twelve states. On the following day copies signed by President Hancock and Secretary Thomson were sent to the various assemblies. The other signatures were added later. Although the New York delegates had not voted for the Declaration, on July 9 the New York provincial congress approved it, completing the long chain of states which stretched along the Atlantic seaboard from Nova Scotia to East Florida.
Contents of the Declaration.—This immortal document begins by setting forth certain "self-evident truths" concerning the rights of mankind and the nature of government. Then follow in nearly thirty paragraphs a list of charges against King George III, and a review of the efforts of the colonies to obtain redress. The last paragraph declares, in the resounding words of Lee's Resolution, "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." A new nation had been born.
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