The Continental Congress was firm at heart but timorous in action, for awhile. In January (1776), Franklin called up his plan for a confederation, and endeavored to have a day set for its consideration, but was defeated by Dickinson, Hooper, Jay and others, who were not ready for separation. But in February, a proposition from Wilson, for Congress to send forth an address to their constituents in which they should disclaim the idea of renouncing their allegiance, disgusted that body and the people. The constituency everywhere were ahead of their representatives in aspirations for independence. The proposition of Wilson brought out Harrison of Virginia, who said: "We have hobbled on under a fatal attachment to Great Britain. I felt that attachment as much as any man, but I feel a stronger one to my country."
The honest and able George Wythe, from the same province, was also fired with righteous indignation at the proposition, and exclaimed, after asserting the natural and prescriptive rights of the Americans: "We may invite foreign powers to make treaties of commerce with us; but before the measure is adopted, it is to be considered in what character we shall treat! As subjects of Great Britain? As rebels! No; we must declare ourselves a free people." These were the first brave words on the floor of Congress in favor of independence. They were followed by a resolution offered by Mr. Wythe, "That the colonies have a right to contract alliances." "That means independence," said timid ones; but the question whether the resolution should be considered was carried by the vote of seven colonies against five. In less than a month afterward, Silas Deane was appointed by the Committee of Secret Correspondence, a political and commercial agent to operate in France and also elsewhere, and to procure necessary supplies of every kind for an army of twenty-five thousand men. He was instructed to say to the French government, in substance, "We first apply to you, because if we should, as there is an appearance we shall, come to a total separation with Great Britain, France would be the power whose friendship it would be fittest for us to obtain and cultivate." Already an emissary from France had been sent to America, with the consent of young King Louis, who had doubtless given some of the members of the Congress to understand that aid would be offered by France, if it could be done secretly, for that country was not then in a condition to engage in war with Great Britain.
The subject of independence came up in other forms in Congress. In their instructions to the commissioners to go into Canada, reported by John Adams, these words were used: "You are to declare, that it is our inclination that the people of Canada may set up such a form of government as will be most likely, in their judgment, to produce their happiness." To this Jay and others objected, because it meant "independence." But the sentence was adopted. Then, after long debate, the Congress resolved, in April, to throw open the ports of the colonies to the commerce of the world, "not subject to the king of Great Britain," and that "no slaves be imported into any of the thirteen United Colonies." This resolution abolished British custom-houses, and swept away the colonial system here. It was a most important step in the direction of absolute independence.
North Carolina was the first colony that took positive action on the subject of independence. On the 22nd of April, 1776, a provincial Convention in that colony authorized its representatives in the Continental Congress "to concur with those in the other colonies in declaring independence." The people of Massachusetts did the same on the next day. Those of Rhode Island and Virginia instructed their representatives to propose independence. Those of Connecticut told their delegates to assent to independence. the Provincial Congress of New Hampshire issued similar instructions; and the delegates from New Jersey, just elected, were left to act in the matter as their judgement might dictate. Several months before, the subject had been hinted at in the Pennsylvania Assembly, when the startled Conservatives procured the adoption of instructions adverse to that idea. These restrictions were removed, but the delegates received no official instructions on the subject. At the close of May the Maryland Convention positively forbade their delegates voting for independence, but at the close of June they were in accord with Virginia. Georgia, South Carolina and Delaware, took no official action in the matter, and their delegates were left free to vote as they pleased. William Franklin (son of Dr. Franklin), the royal governor of New Jersey and the last of the crown-officers who held his seat, had been arrested by order of the General Congress, and sent, a prisoner of State, to Connecticut. So the sovereignty of that body was asseted in this treatment of the direct representative of the king. It was the act of an independent nation.
Meanwhile the desire for independence had become a living principle in the Continental Congress, and that principle soon found courageous utterance. On the 10th of May, that body, on motion of John Adams, resolved, "That it be recommended to the several assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs hath hitherto been established, to adopt such a government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constitutents in particular, and America in general." This was a bold but cautious step. It was not sufficiently comprehensive to form a basis of energetic action in favor of independence. There was need for some one courageous enough to offer an instrument which should sever the cord that bound the colonies to Great britain. That man would be marked as an arch-traitor, and incur the undying resentment of the royal government. He appeared in the person of Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, whose constituents had instructed him to "propose" independence; and on the 7th of June, 1776, he arose in his place in the hall of Congress--a spacious room in the State-house at Philadelphia, and ever since known as Independence Hall--and with his clear, musical voice read aloud this resolution:
"That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States; and that all political connection between us and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
John Adams instantly seconded the resolution. To shield him, and Mr. Lee, from the ministerial wrath, the Congress, whose sessions were always held with closed doors, directed their secretary to omit the names of the mover and seconder of the resolution, in the Journal; and the entry simply declares that "certain resolutions respecting independence being moved and seconded," it was resolved that the further consideration of them should be postponed until the next day. The postponement was afterward extended to the first of July; and in order to avoid a loss of time, in case the resolution should be adopted, a committee was "appointed to prepare a declaration to that effect." The committee was composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Mr. Lee was not appointed on the committee, because he had been compelled to leave Philadelphia for his home, in consequence of the serious illness of his wife.
The Declaration was fully discussed in committee, and when its topics were settled, the task of putting the whole in proper form was committed to Mr. Jefferson, because he was a colleague of Mr. Lee, and his acknowledged superior in the art of literary composition. At the end of two days he submitted a draft which was adopted unanimously by the committee, after some slight verbal alterations by Adams and Franklin. Debates upon it in Congress were long and animated, for there was not unanimity therein, on the subject. Several amendments were made. Among these was the striking out of a long paragraph, in which the King of Great Britain, in the general indictment, was held responsible for the African slave-trade carried on by the colonies, and the perpetuation of slavery here. The charge was not strictly correct, and a sacred regard for truth caused the clause to be omitted in the indictment.
It was evident from the beginning that a majority of the colonies would vote for independence, but their unanimous consent was most desirable. To secure that result, the friends of the measure bent every effort. The Assemblies of Maryland and Pennsylvania, as we have seen, had refused to sanction it, and Georgia, South Carolina, and New York remained silent. The delegates from Maryland were all in favor of it; those from Pennsylvania were divided. At length, on the 24th of June, the people of Pennsylvania, in a convention held at Philadelphia, consented to "concur in a vote of Congress, declaring the United Colonies free and independent States;" and by the unwearied exertions of Chase, Carroll and other delegates from Maryland, the Convention of that province, on the 28th of June, recalled their former instructions and empowered their representatives to concur with the other colonies in a Declaration of Independence. So the most important obstacles in the way of unanimity were removed; and when a vote was taken in the committee of the whole House on Mr. Lee's resolution, on the 2nd of July, all the colonies voted for it excepting Pennsylvania and Delaware, four of the seven delegates from the former voting against it, and the two delegates from Delaware, who were present, being divided--Thomas McKean favouring it, and George Read opposing it.
The all-important resolution being adopted, it remained for final action in the Declaration of Independence. It was warmly debated on the 2nd and 3rd of July. Meanwhile news of the arrival of General Howe, with a large British army, at Sandy Hook, had been received by the Congress, and made a profound impression on that body. McKean, burning with a desire to have Delaware speak in favor of Independence, sent an express after Caesar Rodney, the other delegate from that colony, who, he knew, was in favor of the measure. Rodney was eighty miles from Philadelphia. He tarried only long enough to change his linen. Ten minutes after receiving McKean's letter, he was in the saddle, and riding day and night, he reached Philadelphia on the 4th of July, a short time before the final vote on the Declaration was taken. So Delaware was secured-Read had changed his mind and voted for the Declaration. Robert Morris and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania were absent. The former was in favor, the latter was opposed to the measure. Of the other five Pennsylvania delegates who were present, Dr. Franklin, James Wilson, and John Morton were in favor of it, and Thomas Willing and Charles Humphreys were opposed to it; so the vote of Pennsylvania was also secured. When the question was taken on that bright, cool day, the 4th of July, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the unanimous vote of the thirteen colonies, and Charles Thompson, the Secretary of Congress, made the following modest record of the great event, in their journal:
"Agreeably to the order of the day, the Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole, to take into their further consideration the Declaration; and, after some time, the President resumed the chair, and Mr. Harrison reported that the Committee have agreed to a Declaration, which they desired him to report. The Declaration being read, was agreed to."
In that Declaration, after reciting their reasons for making it, in a series of definite charges against the British monarch, the Congress said:
"We, therefore, the representatives of the United States, in general Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare 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, and that, as free and independent States, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
Having, by this act, given birth to a nation, it was necessary to have, for use, a token of national authority, and on the afternoon of the same day, the Congress resolved: "That Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams, and Mr. Jefferson be a committee to prepare a proper device for a Seal for the United States of America."
The Declaration of Independence was signed on the same day by every member present, who voted for it. As the voting in the Congress was by colonies, a majority of the members of that body could not bind a single colony; it was therefore necessary for the members to sign it, to show that a majority of the delegates of the several colonies represented were in favor of it. Their signature, only, could be received as a proper authentication of the instrument. These signatures were attached to a copy on paper, and the instrument was ordered to be engrossed on parchment. This was done, and the copy on parchment was signed by fifty-four delegates on the 2nd of August. Two others afterward signed, one in September and the other later in the autumn.
Immediately after the adoption of the Declaration it was printed, and was sent out in every direction, with the names of only John Hancock, the President of Congress, and Charles Thompson, Secretary, appended to it. The erroneous impression has prevailed that only these two officers signed it on the Fourth of July.
In January, 1777, it was printed on a broadside, with the names of all the signers, and sent to the several assemblies, conventions and committees, or Councils of Safety, and to the several commanding officers of the Continental troops.
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