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FREEDOM IS BORN

Friday

June 7, 1776

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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. 


First Continental Congress

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 military.

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. 


Second Continental Congress

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!"

Patrick 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 generations."

(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 the Crown.

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.

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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 Prospect Hill.

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 resolution.


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 History...

The Declaration of Independence

 

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Birth of A Nation Exhibit

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[Our Founding Documents]  [Royal, Inc. - A Parable of Independence]
[Freedom is Born - The 1st & 2nd Continental Congresses]
[Magna Carta's Impact on the Declaration of Independence]   [Read Magna Carta]
[Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence]  [Virginia Declaration of Rights]

[Adoption of the Declaration]  [Read the Declaration of Independence]
[The Articles of Confederation]  [Read the Articles]  [Shay's Rebellion]
[Constitutional Convention]  [Debating the Constitution]  []
[Adopting the Constitution]  [The Constitution in Outline Form]   [Read the Constitution]
[ Amending the Constitution]  [The Bill of Rights]  [Adding Amendments]
Outlines and Time Lines
[Events Leading to Revolution]  [Time-line for our Documents]   [Our Form of Government]
[Signers of Declaration of Independence]  [Constitutional Convention Delegates]

Flag Display
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Capitol Display
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Click here to go to the Lobby Click here to go the the 1st Floor Entrance Click here to go to the 2nd Floor Click here to go to the 3rd Floor

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Sources:
Chronicle of America. DK Publishing.  New York: 1997.
"Continental Congress."  Funk & Wagnals New Encyclopedia, Volume 7.  1986
George Washington, Man and Monument. Cunliffe, Marcus.   Little, Brown & Co.  New York: 1958

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