If the United States of America was born on the 4th of July, the
date of conception was June 7, 1776. It was Friday and the members of the Second
Continental Congress were eager to end their business and retire for the weekend.
Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee stood before the other delegates and in a clear voice
finally said what many members of the Congress had believed privately since King George of
England had failed to respond to the grievances of the First Continental Congress.
Lee's resolution spelled it out:
"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 disolved."
It was a brave and unprecedented step. The
First Continental Congress had convened in Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia on September
5, 1774 to consider addressing the ill treatment of the 13 American Colonies by
England. In reaction to the "Boston Tea Party" the British Parliament had
passed the "Intolerable Acts", provisions the colonists found not only unfair
but illegal under British Common Law. Initiated by the Virginia House of Burgesses,
all 13 colonies as well as Canada were invited to attend the meeting. Twelve
Colonies responded (with Canada and Georgia abstaining), and the 50 delegates met and
unanimously elected Virginia Delegate Peyton Randolph as president.
Fifty-six delegates met to consider the pressing matters before
the First Continental Congress. Half were lawyers but the delegation also included
planters and merchants. Despite their differences, they found a common ground in
responding to their treatment by their mother country. Patrick Henry echoed the
sentiments of most when he stated,
"The distinctions between New Englanders and
Virginians are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American."
One of the first orders of business was
consideration of "The Suffolk Resolves" calling for the colonies to defy
Parliament's Coercive Acts. Initially proposed by the more radical delegates from
Massachusetts, it was approved by the Congress on September 17. A key element of the
approved resolution called for the arming of a Colonial militia, the birth of the American
Not all of the delegates were so radical in their opposition to
the crown. Georgia's absence was due to their governor's loyalty to the King.
Even among the delegates present, there were those who sought to fend off talk of open
rebellion. Because the common thread among the delegates was the fact that they
were all men of prominence and some degree of wealth, they had much to lose by rash
action. The delegates from the host Colony of Pennsylvania put before the Congress a
resolution to resolve their differences with England. The resolution was defeated on
September 28th, BY ONE VOTE!
The defining moment of the two month proceedings came on October
14th when the delegates approved the DECLARATIONS AND RESOLVES. In addition to
condemning Parliament and the King of England for interfering in the matters of the
Colonies, it granted to each of the Colonies the right to a Colonial treasury and a
Colonial legislative process.
Before the First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26th
the delegates took two very important steps that set the stage for events to follow.
First, a petition was issued to King George,III of England called the "Declaration of
Rights and Grievances". It was the precursor to the Declaration of Independence
that would follow a year and a half later, and set forth the complaints the Colonists had
with their treatment by the mother country. Finally, before returning to their
homes, the delegates called for a Second Continental Congress to convene in Philadelphia
the following year on May 10, 1775.
The Second Continental Congress convened more than a year before
Lee's historic resolution was presented on June 7, 1776. In the months since the
earlier Congress had sent their Declaration of Rights and Grievances to the King, much had
happened. Just three weeks before the delegates assembled, Paul Revere made his
historic ride and British Troops were defeated at Lexington and Concord. In Virginia
the fires of revolution were igniting, soon to spill over to the other Colonies.
|"Our brethren are already in the
field. Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? Is life
so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?
Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give
me liberty, or give me death!"
Henry - Richmond, Virginia - March 23, 1775
When the delegates of the Second Continental
Congress met on May 10, 1775 they had no basis in law, so the very existence of that body
of delegates was a defiant, revolutionary act. This time the delegation included
representation from Georgia. Among those attending were Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin
Franklin, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. (Remember Jeff, Ben, John and Alex
from our story of Royal, Inc.?) As the delegates began their meetings, unrest
continued throughout the colonies. After the military actions of recent months,
British soldiers had occupied the city of Boston and were fortifying the city.
Another of the delegates was a young Virginian named George
Washington. Washington had endured a somewhat unsuccessful military career in the
British efforts during the French and Indian Wars. When he arrived in Philadelphia
in May he was in uniform...the only uniform in the delegation. On the heels of the
recent engagements at Lexington and Concord, and even as the Congress was meeting in
Philadelphia, a body of colonial volunteers captured Fort Ticonderoga. In Virginia
the men of Patrick Henry's Hanover County were openly challenging the governor's
authority. The unrest had escalated to militancy, and George Washington stood out in
the crowd. During the proceedings of the Second Continental Congress on June 14th,
Massachusetts delegate John Adams submitted the name of Colonel Washington to command an
army. George Washington appeared to be taken by surprise and slipped out of the
room. He continued his absence the following day when it was resolved by the
delegates that "a General be appointed to command all the continental forces raised
for the defence of American liberty." A Maryland delegate formally nominated
George Washington, and he was unanimously elected.
Two days after General George Washington took formal command of
the Colonial militia at Boston on July 3rd, the Second Continental Congress approved a
more moderate petition drafted by Pennsylvania's John Dickinson. It called upon King
George, III to repeal the Coercive Acts and work together with the Colonists in a happy
and mutually beneficial relationship. This concession to the desires of many of the
delegates to avoid confrontation with Britain and reconcile the Colonies to the king was
forwarded to Britain where Colonial agents attempted to persuade Lord Dartmouth to pass it
on to King George. Knowing that King George was unwilling to receive the
controversial peace offering, Lord Dartmouth refused. King George, III finally
responded on August 23rd by declaring that the colonists were in open rebellion against
England and the King. He then responded by contracting for the use of 20,000 Hessian
soldiers to suppress that rebellion.
"Attached to your Majesty's person,
family and government with all the devotion that principles and affection can inspire,
connected with Great Britain by the strongest ties that can unite societies, and deploring
every event that tends in any degree to weaken them, we solemnly assure your Majesty, that
we not only most ardently desire the former harmony between her and these colonies may be
restored, but that a concord may be established between them upon so firm a basis as to
perpetuate its blessings uninterrupted by any future dissensions to succeeding
(Exerpt from Dickinson's Petition)
Over the following year the members of the Second Continental
Congress continued to take revolutionary steps. The members by their actions,
constituted their body as a government, with the ability to legislate and execute
law. The Congress established regulations for trade relations, issued their own
currency, sent representative emissaries to other countries to represent the interests of
the Colonies, and for all practical purposes operated as a nation free and independent of
|Late in 1775 King George presented a speech in which he called on
Colonial troops to lay down their weapons. Outside Boston where George Washington
now had 15,000 troops to sustain his siege of British troops fortified there, Colonial
soldiers responded by burning copies of the King's speech. Congress had authorized a
new flag for the 13 Colonies and, on New Years Day of 1776 General Washington's troops
raised their new flag on the liberty pole at Prospect Hill near the General's headquarters
in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (You'll learn more about this flag a little later on as
we continue our tour in the Birth of a Nation exhibit.) With each new step the
delegates of the Second Continental Congress were coming closer and closer to an
inevitable conclusion.... complete separation from Britain and King George.
First flown by ships of the Colonial Fleet on the Delaware River,
Navy Lieutenant John Paul Jones raised this flag aboard Captain Esek Hopkin's
flagship Alfred on December 3, 1775; a month before it was raised at
Since the delegates to the Second Continental
Congress were meeting in Philadelphia, it was hard to miss the pamphlet issued on January
10th by local printer Robert Bell. Titled "Common Sense", the provocative
words were penned by Thomas Paine, an English immigrant who had arrived in the Colonies
only two years prior. General George Washington read the pamphlet and wrote to
military colleague Joseph Reed on January 31st saying, "Common Sense
will not leave numbers at a loss to decide upon the propriety of separation (of the
Colonies from England)." Not everyone agreed. Reverend William Smith of
Pennsylvania referred to Paine's "common sense" as "NONSENSE".
|"If you say you can still pass
(King George's) offenses over, then I ask, has your house been burned? Has your
property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a
bed to lie on or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or child by their hands,
and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, and can still shake
hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or a
lover, and whatever may be your rank and title in life, you have the heart of a coward the
the spirit of a sycophant."
Thomas Paine In "Common Sense"
By March 4th the 2,000 Colonial soldiers under General John Thomas
captured the British post at Dorchester Heights. Three weeks later, after nine
months of siege, British troops evacuated Boston. By the middle of May, eight
colonies had decided they would support a move for independence. On May 15th the
Virginia Convention passed a resolution that "the delegates appointed to represent
this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose that respectable body to declare
the United Colonies free and independent states." The simmering cauldron
of revolution was reaching the boiling point as Henry Lee stood before his fellow
delegates on June 7th to follow the edict from his home Colony and offer his historic
As the Friday session came to a close the delegates prepared for
further debate on the Lee resolution. Not all of the delegates favored such a
drastic step by the Colonies. When the Lee resolution was reconsidered the following
Monday, by a vote of 7 - 5 (with New York abstaining), it was decided to postpone the vote
on Lee's resolution . Congress then recessed for three weeks.
Debate on the Lee resolution indicated that there was a strong
probability that it would ultimately be approved. The delegates determined that, in
the event the members should approve the resolution when they reconvened three weeks
later, it would be wise to have already prepared a document to declare the independence of
the Colonies. Before they concluded their business for the day they appointed a
committee of five men to represent the three regions of the Colonies in drafting such a
declaration. New England would be represented by John Adams (Massachusetts) and
Roger Sherman (Connecticut). Representing the middle Colonies were Benjamin Franklin
(Pennsylvania) and Robert R. Livingston (New York). Representing the Southern
Colonies was a 33 year old Virginian named Thomas Jefferson.
Seventy year old Benjamin Franklin was the elder statesman on the
committee of five, and to him should have fallen the responsibility of preparing the
initial draft. A year earlier Franklin had in fact, prepared such a draft and then
discarded it. Now Franklin wasn't feeling well, beset by a "touch of the
gout", so the responsibility of writing the declaration passed to John Adams.
Adams attempted to pass it on to Jefferson, eight years his junior; but Jefferson
deferred. It may have been but the first of the many disagreements between Jefferson
and Adams, each attempting to convince the other to write the proposed declaration.
Finally, in exasperation, Adams told Jefferson "You write it. You are ten times
the writer I am." Thus to the young Virginian fell the responsibility to pen,
within a matter of three short weeks, one of the most dramatic documents in World