Elliot’s Debates: Volume 1

Gradual Approaches Towards Independence

The first Congress of delegates, chosen and appointed by the several colonies and provinces in North America, to take into consideration the actual situation of the same, and the differences subsisting between them and Great Britain, was held at Carpenter’s Hall, in the city of Philadelphia, on the 5th of September, 1774. On that occasion, delegates attended from New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, from the city and county of New York and other counties in the province of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and from South Carolina. Peyton Randolph was unanimously elected president of the Congress, and Charles Thomson unanimously chosen secretary.

On the 6th of September, Congress adopted rules in debating and determining question. According to these, 1. Each colony or province had one vote. 2. No person could speak more than twice on the same point, without leave. 3. No question could be determined the day on which it was agitated and debated, if any one of the colonies desired the determination to be postponed to another day. 4. The door was to be kept shut during the time of business, and the members to consider themselves under the strongest obligations of honor to keep the proceedings secret, until the majority should direct them to be made public. At the same time, a committee was appointed to state the rights of the colonies in general, the several instances in which those rights had been violated or infringed, and the means most proper to be pursued for obtaining a restoration of them. A committee was also appointed to examine and report the several statutes which affected the trade and manufactures of the colonies.

The Congress was opened by prayer, a reverential formality that was subsequently observed; and, by an order of the directors of the Library Company of Philadelphia, of the 31st of August preceding, the delegates were allowed the use of such of the books of that institution as they might have occasion for during their sitting.

On the 14th of September, delegates from North Carolina took their seats. On the 19th of September, it was unanimously resolved that the Congress request the merchants and others, in the several colonies, not to send to Great Britain any orders for goods, and to direct the execution of all orders already sent to be delayed or suspended until the sense of the Congress on the means to be taken for the preservation of the liberties of America should be made public.

On the 24th of September, Congress resolved that the delegates would confine themselves to the consideration of such rights as had been infringed by acts of the British Parliament after the year 1763, postponing the further consideration of the general state of American rights to a future day.

On the 27th of September, the Congress unanimously resolved that, from and after the 1st of December, 1774, there should be no importation into British America, from Great Britain or Ireland, of any goods, wares, or merchandise, exported therefrom; and that they should not be used or purchased if imported after that day. On the 30th of September, it was further resolved that, from and after the 10th of September, 1775, the exportation of all merchandise, and every commodity whatsoever, to Great Britain, Ireland, and the West Indies, ought to cease, unless the grievances of America should be redressed before that time.

On the 6th of October, it was resolved to exclude from importation, after the 1st of December following, molasses, coffee, or pimento, from the British plantations, or from Dominica; wines from Madeira and the Western Island; and foreign indigo. In consequence of a letter received from the Committee of Correspondence, at Boston, on the 6th of October, Congress, on the 7th, resolved to appoint a committee to prepare a letter to General Gage, representing that the town of Boston, and province of Massachusetts Bay, were considered, by all America as suffering in the common cause, for their noble and spirited opposition to oppressive acts of Parliament, calculated to deprive the American people of their most sacred rights and privileges, &c. On the 8th of October, it was resolved that the Congress approve the opposition of the inhabitants of the Massachusetts Bay to the execution of the obnoxious acts of Parliament; and if the same should be attempted to be carried into execution by force, in such case all America ought to support them in their opposition; and on the 11th of October, the letter of remonstrance to General Gage, ordered on the 7th, was brought in and signed by the president. On the 11th, likewise, a memorial to the people of British America, stating the necessity of adhering to the measures of Congress, and an address to the people of Great Britain, were unanimously resolved on. On the 14th of October, Congress made a declaration, and framed resolves, relative to the rights and grievances of the colonies.

On the same day, Congress unanimously resolved, “that the respective colonies are entitled to the common law of England, and more especially to the great and inestimable privilege of being tried by their peers of the vicinage according to the course of that law.” They further resolved, “that they were entitled to the benefit of such of the English statutes as existed at the time of their colonization, and which they have, by experience, respectively found to be applicable to their several and local circumstances.” They also resolved, that their ancestors, at the time of their immigration, were “entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities, of free and natural-born subjects within the realms of England.”

On the 20th day of October, the non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement was adopted and signed by the Congress. This agreement contained a clause to discontinue the slave trade, and a provision not to import East India tea from any part of the world. In the article respecting non-exportations, the sending of rice to Europe was excepted. In general, the association expressed a determination to suppress luxury, encourage frugality, and promote domestic manufactures. The agreement was dated the 24th of October. On the 21st, the address to the people of Great Britain was approved, as was the memorial to the inhabitants of the British colonies, on the same day. Both these state papers contain a representation of the grievances, and a justification of the conduct, of the colonies. It was determined that an address should be prepared to the people of Quebec, in like manner, and letters be sent to the colonies of St. John’s, Nova Scotia, Georgia, and East and West Florida. On the 22d of October, Peyton Randolph being unable to attend, on account of indisposition, Henry Middleton was chosen to supply his place as president of Congress. On the same day, a letter to the colonies of St. John’s, &c., was reported, approved, and signed. It recommended an immediate adoption of the measures pursued by the Congress. On the 25th of October, a petition to the king was adopted, and was ordered to be enclosed in a letter to the several colony agents, in order that the same might be by them presented to his majesty, which letter was approved and signed by the president, on the day following. This petition recited the grievances of the colonies, and asked for a redress of them. On the 26th of October, the address to the inhabitants of Quebec was adopted and signed. It set forth the rights of the British colonists, breathed a spirit of sympathy in suffering, and invited a spirit of union in resistance. The Congress was then dissolved, having, on the 22d of October, passed a resolution recommending delegates to meet again at Philadelphia, on the 10th of May, 1775.

On the 10th of May, 1775, according to the recommendation of the preceding Congress, the delegates from the same several colonies, with the exception of Rhode Island, assembled at the State House, in Philadelphia; when Peyton Randolph was, a second time, unanimously elected president, and Charles Thomson unanimously chosen secretary. On the 13th of May, Lyman Hall was admitted to a seat in Congress, as a delegate from the parish of St. John’s, in the colony of Georgia; but not considering himself as the representative of that colony, he declined voting, except on occasions when the Congress did not vote by colonies. On the 15th of May, Lemuel Ward, a delegate from Rhode Island, appeared and took his seat. On the 16th of May, Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole, on the state of America. On the 17th of May, it was unanimously resolved that all exportations to Quebec, Nova Scotia, the Island of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Georgia, (except the parish of St. John’s,) and to East and West Florida, immediately cease, and that no provision of any kind, or other necessaries, be furnished to the British fisheries on the American coasts, until it be otherwise determined by the Congress. On the 24th of May, Peyton Randolph, then president of Congress, being under a necessity of returning home, the chair became vacant, and John Hancock was unanimously elected president. On the 26th of May, Congress resolved, that the colonies be immediately put in a state of defence; that a fresh petition to the king, with a view to reconcile differences, be prepared; and that a letter to the people of Canada be reported. This letter was approved the day following, and ordered to be signed by the president. It solicits the friendship of the Canadians, calls upon them to assert their rights, and exhorts them against hostilities. On the 29th of May, a committee was appointed to consider the best means of establishing posts for conveying letters and intelligence through the continent.

On the 2d of June, Congress resolved, that no bill of exchange, draught, or order, of any officers in the British army or navy, their agents or contractors, be received, or negotiated, or any money supplied to them, by any person in America; that no provisions, or necessaries of any kind, be furnished or supplied to or for the use of the British army or navy in the colony of Massachusetts Bay; and that no vessel employed in transporting British troops to America, or from one part of North America to another, or warlike stores, or provisions for said troops, be freighted or furnished with provisions, or other necessaries, until further orders from the Congress. On the 3d of June, committees were appointed to draw a petition to the king, and to prepare addresses to the inhabitants of Great Britain and the people of Ireland; to bring in the draught of a letter to the inhabitants of Jamaica; and to bring in an estimate of the money necessary to be raised by the colonies. On the 7th of June, it was resolved, that the 20th day of July following should be observed throughout the twelve United Colonies, as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer. On the 9th of June, in consequence of a letter from the Convention of Massachusetts Bay, which had been previously under consideration, Congress resolved, that the governor and lieutenant-governor of that colony were to be considered as absent, and their offices vacant; and it was recommended to the Provincial Convention to write letters to the inhabitants of the several places which were entitled to representation in Assembly, requesting them to choose such representatives; and that the Assembly, when chosen, should elect counsellors, and that such Assembly, or Council, should exercise the powers of government, until a governor of his majesty’s appointment would consent to govern the colony according to its charter. On the 10th of June, several resolutions were passed for the collection of saltpetre and sulphur, and the manufacture of gunpowder. On the 14th of June, Congress resolved to raise several companies of riflemen, by enlistment, for one year, to serve in the American Continental army, established the pay of the officers and privates, and appointed a committee to prepare rules and regulations for the government of the army. On the 15th of June, it was resolved, that a general should be appointed to command all the Continental forces, raised, or to be raised, for the defence of American liberty; and, proceeding to the choice of a general, by ballot, George Washington was unanimously elected. On the preceding day, it was resolved to appoint major-generals, brigadier-generals, and other officers, necessary for the organization of a regular army. These warlike measures were the result of continued deliberations on the state of America, and the consequence of the military proceedings of the British at Lexington, in the province of Massachusetts Bay, on the 19th of April preceding; of the burning of Charlestown, near Boston; and of the various indications, on the part of Great Britain, of an intention to compel the colonies to submit by force of arms. Several military steps had been previously taken by the colonists, among which were the occupation of the posts of Crown Point and Ticonderoga. A commission for George Washington was made out, and signed by the president of Congress, on the 19th of June, in the following words: —

In Congress. The delegates of the United Colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.—To George Washington, Esquire: We, reposing especial trust and confidence in your patriotism, conduct, and fidelity, do, by these presents, constitute and appoint you to be general and commander-in-chief of the army of the United Colonies, and of all the forces raised or to be raised by them, and of all others who shall voluntarily offer their service, and join the said army for the defence of the American liberty, and for repelling every hostile invasion thereof; and you are hereby vested with full power and authority to act as you shall think for the good and welfare of the service. And we do hereby strictly charge and require all officers and soldiers under your command to be obedient to your orders, and diligent in the exercise of their several duties. And we do also enjoin and require you to be careful in executing the great trust reposed in you, by causing strict discipline and order to be observed in the army, and that the soldiers are duly exercised, and provided with all convenient necessaries. And you are to regulate your conduct, in every respect, by the rules and discipline of war, (as herewith given you,) and punctually to observe and follow such orders and directions, from time to time, as you shall receive from this or a future Congress of the said United Colonies, or a committee of Congress, for that purpose appointed. This commission to continue in force until revoked by this or a future Congress. By order of the Congress. John Hancock, President. Dated Philadelphia, June 19, 1775. Attested, Charles Thomson, Secretary.”

The original of this commission has been preserved in the department of state, at Washington city. Congress at the same time resolved, that they would maintain, assist, and adhere to George Washington, with their lives and fortunes, in the same cause. On the 22d of June, it was resolved to emit a sum not exceeding two millions of Spanish milled dollars, in bills of credit, for the redemption of which the twelve confederated colonies were pledged. On the 24th of June, a resolution was entered into for devising ways and means to put the militia of America in a proper state for defence. On the 30th of June, Congress adopted rules and regulations for the government of the army. On the same day, the committee for Indian affairs was directed to prepare proper talks to the several tribes, for engaging the continuance of their friendship and neutrality.

On the 6th of July, a committee, previously appointed for that purpose, brought in a declaration by the representatives of the United Colonies of North America, setting forth the causes and necessity of their taking up arms, which was to be published by General Washington, upon his arrival at the camp before Boston. On the 8th of July, a petition to the king was signed by the members of Congress present, stating the merits of their claims, and soliciting the royal interposition for an accommodation of differences on just principles. An address to the inhabitants of Great Britain was at this time framed, justifying the measures which had been taken by the colonists, and invoking the sympathy and forbearance of their British brethren. A letter was also prepared, and signed by the president, to the lord mayor, aldermen, and livery of London, thanking them for the friendly disposition they had shown to the rights of America. On the 20th of July, Congress was informed, by a letter from the Convention of Georgia, that that colony had acceded to the general association, and had appointed delegates to attend the Congress. On the 25th of July, an address to the Assembly of Jamaica was agreed to, generally stating the grievances of the colonies, and thanking the Assembly for its good intentions. An additional sum, to the value of one million of Spanish milled dollars, was, on the same day, ordered to be struck in bills. On the 26th of July, Congress authorized the appointment of a postmaster-general for the United Colonies, to hold his office at Philadelphia, with power to appoint as many deputies as he might deem proper and necessary; and, under his direction, a line of posts was ordered from Falmouth, in New England, to Savannah, in Georgia, with as many cross posts as the postmaster-general should think fit. Benjamin Franklin was, by a unanimous vote, appointed to the office. On the 28th of July, an address to the people of Ireland was adopted, setting forth the motives and object of the colonists. On the 31st of July, Congress agreed to a report, which declared a resolution of the British House of Commons, of February 20, 1775, commonly called Lord North’s motion, inadmissible as the basis of reconciliation. The resolution referred to proposed to transfer the right of taxing the colonies, under certain restrictions, to the colonial assemblies. The terms it offered were rejected, among other reasons, because, in the opinion of the Congress, the proposition imported only a suspension of the mode, and not a renunciation of the pretended right to tax the colonies. At the same time, it was made the duty of a committee, in the recess of Congress, to inquire into the cheapest and easiest methods of making salt in the country, and to make inquiry after virgin lead and leaden ore, &c.

On the 1st of August, Congress adjourned to the 5th of September, 1775, having first passed a resolution declaring the non-exportation and non-importation association to comprise the islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Alderney, and Man, and every European island and settlement within the British dominions, as well as all the West India islands, British and foreign, to whatever state, power, or prince belonging, or by whomsoever governed; and also Somers’s Islands, Bahama Islands; Berbicia, and Surinam, on the Main, and every island and settlement within the latitude of the southern line of Georgia and the equator.

On the 5th of September, 1775, agreeably to adjournment, Congress again convened, but did not form a quorum to do business until the 13th, when delegates from Georgia appeared, produced their credentials, and took their seats. On the 25th September, Congress appointed a committee of accounts, or claims, consisting of one member from each of the United Colonies, to whom all accounts against the Continent were to be referred, and who were to examine and report the same for payment.

On the 6th of October, a resolution was passed, recommending to the several provisional assemblies or conventions, and councils or committees of safety, to arrest and secure every person, in their respective colonies, whose going at large might, in their opinion, endanger the safety of the colony, or the liberties of America. On the 13th of October, Congress ordered two armed vessels to be fitted out. On the 26th of October, Congress, having had under consideration the state of the trade of the United Colonies, resolved that it should be recommended to the several provincial assemblies, conventions, or councils of safety, to export to the foreign West Indies, on account and risk of their respective colonies, as much provisions, or other produce, except horned cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry, as they might deem necessary, for the importation of arms, ammunition, sulphur, and saltpetre. On the 30th of October, two more armed vessels were directed to be fitted for sea.

On the 1st of November, the exportation of rice was prohibited to Great Britain, Ireland, or the islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Alderney, or Man, or any other European island or settlement within the British dominions. On the 3d of November, Congress resolved, that it should be recommended to the Provincial Convention of New Hampshire, which had applied for advice, to call a full and free representation of the people, and to establish such a form of government as would best promote the happiness of the people, &c., during the continuance of the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies. A similar resolution was entered into in relation to South Carolina. On the 8th of November, a draft of instructions was agreed to for R. R. Livingston, Robert Treat Paine, and J. Langdon, who were appointed to proceed to Ticonderoga, to consult with General Schuyler on the necessary operations in that quarter, and to exert their utmost endeavors to induce the Canadians to accede to a union with the colonies; to form, from their several parishes, a provincial convention; and to send delegates to Congress. At this time, likewise, all letters to and from the delegates of the United Colonies, during the sessions of Congress, were authorized to pass and be carried free of postage, the members having engaged upon honor not to frank or endorse any letters but their own. On the 10th of November, a similar privilege, without exception, was extended to all letters to and from the commander-in-chief of the Continental army, or the chief commander in the army, in the northern military department. On the same day, it was resolved to raise two battalions of marines. On the 11th of November, a resolution was entered into, authorizing the repair of the fortifications, &c., of Quebec, in case it should be taken from the British. On the 16th of November, it was resolved that no member of Congress should absent himself from that body without leave; and a rule was adopted, that every member should remain in his seat whilst any paper was reading or question was putting. On the 23d of November, Congress authorized the consideration of a plan for carrying on a trade with the Indians. On the 25th of November, resolutions were passed, directing seizures, and the capture, under commissions obtained from the Congress, together with the condemnation, of British vessels employed in a hostile manner against the colonies; the mode of trial and of condemnation was pointed out, and the shares of the prizes were apportioned. On the 28th of November, Congress adopted rules for the regulation of the navy of the United Colonies. On the 29th of November, Congress was informed of General Montgomery’s having, with the Continental troops, taken possession of Montreal on the 12th of that month. The same day an emission of bills of credit was resolved on, to the amount of three millions of dollars.

On the 2d of December, an exchange of prisoners was declared proper. On the 4th of December, it was recommended to the Convention of Virginia, if found necessary, to establish a liberal form of government in that colony, during the continuance of the dispute between Great Britain and the colonies, having first called a full and free representation of the people to determine upon it. This recommendation was occasioned by Lord Dunmore’s proclamation, declaring his intention to execute martial law in that province. On the 6th of December, Congress expressed a determination to retaliate for any undue severities exercised towards persons favoring, aiding, or abetting, the cause of American liberty. This was produced by a proclamation of rebellion, issued from the court of St. James on the 23d of August, 1775. On the 13th of December, a report was sanctioned for fitting out a naval armament, to consist, in the whole, of thirteen ships, five of thirty-two guns. On the 22d of December, officers were appointed to command the armed vessels, other legislative provisions, respecting pay, &c., having been previously made.

On the 6th of January, 1776, a regulation was adopted relative to the division of prizes and prize-money, taken by armed vessels, among officers and men. On the 9th of January, it was resolved that no postage should be paid for any letters to or from private soldiers, while engaged in actual service in defence of the United Colonies, and that they should be franked by some person authorized for that purpose. On the 11th of January, Congress ordained that persons refusing to receive the Continental bills of credit in payment, or who should obstruct and discourage the currency or circulation thereof, should, on conviction, be deemed, published, and treated, as an enemy of the country, and be precluded from all trade and intercourse with the inhabitants of the colonies. On the 27th of January, resolutions were entered into for carrying on trade with the Indians, and for procuring the necessary supply of goods for that purpose. On the 30th of January, it was resolved that no apprentice should be enlisted within the colonies of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the counties on Delaware, or Maryland, as a soldier in the army or navy of the United Colonies, without the previous consent of his master or mistress, in writing; all those enlisted in a contrary manner were ordered to be discharged, on application, and a reimbursement of expenses incurred for enlistment; and every person under the age of twenty-one years, who had enlisted in the army or navy, was, within twenty-four hours thereafter, entitled to his discharge on refunding the amount of money and articles with which he had been supplied. It was, at the same time, recommended to creditors, who had claims against persons in the army or navy for less than thirty-five dollars, not to arrest the debtors until their terms of service had expired.

On the 17th of February, a standing committee of five was appointed for superintending the treasury, and Congress directed the emission of the further sum of four million dollars in bills of credit. On the 27th of February, the middle and southern colonies were divided into two military departments, in the following manner: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the lower counties on Delaware, and Maryland, to constitute one; Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, to constitute another; the former to be put under the command of a major-general, two brigadier-generals, and a proper staff; the latter under a major-general, three brigadier-generals, with a suitable staff.

On the 9th of March, it was resolved, that no oath, by way of test, should be exacted of the inhabitants of the colonies by military officers. On the 14th of March, a resolution was passed recommending a general disarming of disaffected persons throughout the colonies. On the 16th of March, the 17th of May following was appointed a day of general humiliation, fasting, and prayer. On the 21st of March, Congress recommended to the several provincial assemblies to exert their utmost endeavors to promote the culture of hemp, flax, and cotton, and the growth of wool, in the United Colonies; to take the earliest measures for erecting and establishing, in each colony, a society for the improvement of agriculture, arts, manufactures, and commerce; and forthwith to consider of the ways and means of introducing and improving the manufactures of duck, sail-cloth, and steel. On the 23d of March, resolutions were adopted authorizing the fitting out of private armed vessels, to cruise against the enemies of the United Colonies.

On the 1st of April, a resolution was passed for the institution and establishment of a treasury office of accounts, to be kept in the place where Congress might hold its sessions, and to be under the direction and superintendence of the standing committee for the treasury. It was resolved, moreover, that an auditor-general, and a competent number of assistants and clerks, should be appointed, for stating, arranging, and keeping of the public accounts. On the 2d of April, the form of a commission for private armed vessels was agreed upon. On the 3d of April, instructions to the commanders of private armed vessels were considered and adopted. They authorized the capture of all ships and other vessels belonging to the inhabitants of Great Britain, on the high seas, or between high-water and low-water marks, except vessels bringing persons who intended to settle and reside in the United States Colonies, or conveying arms, ammunition, and warlike stores, for the use of such inhabitants of America as were friendly to the cause of liberty. On the 6th of April, several resolutions of a commercial nature were agreed to, authorizing exportations and importations, with certain exceptions, of the merchandise and products from and to countries other than such as were subject to the king of Great Britain; and it was recommended to the assemblies of the different colonies that officers should be appointed to superintend the execution of such regulations as might be made concerning trade. On this occasion, the importation of slaves was expressly prohibited. On the 16th of April, it was recommended to the council of safety of Maryland to cause the person and papers of Governor Eden to be seized and secured, in consequence of a belief that he had been carrying on a correspondence with the British ministry highly dangerous to the liberties of America. On the 17th of April, a bounty of eight dollars was allowed to the owner of every vessel for each able seaman, imported and discharged in American ports, over and above the ship’s company. On the 19th of April, letters directed to any general in the Continental service, commanding in a separate department, were allowed to be carried free of postage.

On the 6th of May, it was resolved that ten millions of dollars be raised, for the purpose of carrying on the war, for the year 1776; and measures were taken for treating with the Indians. On the 9th of May, a resolution passed for the emission of five millions of dollars in bills of credit, in part of the ten millions of dollars voted for the service of the year 1776. On the 10th of May, it was resolved to recommend to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs had been established, to adopt such a government as should, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and of America in general. A preamble to this resolution, agreed to on the 15th of May, stated the intention to be totally to suppress the exercise of every kind of authority under the British crown.

On the 7th of June, certain resolutions respecting independency were moved and seconded. On the 10th of June, it was resolved, that a committee should be appointed to prepare a declaration to the following effect: “That the United States 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.” On the preceding day, it was determined that the committee for preparing the declaration should consist of five; and they were chosen accordingly, in the following order: Mr. Jefferson, Mr. J. Adams, Mr. Franklin, Mr. Sherman, and Mr. R. R. Livingston. On the 11th of June, a resolution was passed to appoint a committee to prepare and digest the form of a Confederation to be entered into between the colonies, and another committee to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers. On the 12th of June, it was resolved, that a committee of Congress should be appointed, by the name of a board of war and ordnance, to consist of five members. On the 25th of June, a declaration of the deputies of Pennsylvania, met in provincial conference, expressing their willingness to concur in a vote declaring the United Colonies free and independent states, was laid before Congress, and read. On the 28th of June, the committee appointed to prepare a declaration of independence brought in a draft, which was read and ordered to lie on the table.

On the 1st of July, a resolution of the Convention of Maryland, passed the 28th of June, authorizing the deputies of that colony to concur in declaring the United Colonies free and independent states, was laid before Congress and read. On the same day, Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole, to take into consideration the resolution respecting independency. On the 2d of July, a resolution declaring the colonies free and independent states, was adopted. A declaration to that effect was, on the same and the following days, taken into further consideration. Finally, on the 4th of July, the Declaration of Independence was agreed to, signed, and directed to be sent to the several assemblies, conventions, and committees, or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the Continental troops, and to be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army.


[In the Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. I. p. 10, the following proceedings, on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, are disclosed: —

In Congress, Friday, June 7, 1776. The delegates from Virginia moved, in obedience to instructions from their constituents, that the Congress should 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; that measures should be immediately taken for procuring the assistance of foreign powers, and a confederation be formed to bind the colonies more closely together.

The house being obliged to attend, at that time, to some other business, the proposition was referred to the next day, when the members were ordered to attend punctually at ten o’clock.

SATURDAY, June 8. They proceeded to take it into consideration, and referred it to a committee of the whole, into which they immediately resolved themselves, and passed that day and Monday, the 10th, in debating on the subject.

It was argued by Wilson, Robert R. Livingston, E. Rutledge, Dickinson, and others, —

That, though they were friends to the measures themselves, and saw the impossibility that we should ever again be united with Great Britain, yet they were against adopting them at this time:

That the conduct we had formerly observed was wise and proper now, of deferring to take any capital step till the voice of the people drove us into it:

That they were our power, and without them our declarations could not be carried into effect:

That the people of the middle colonies (Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, the Jerseys, and New York) were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection, but that they were fast ripening, and, in a short time, would join in the general voice of America:

That the resolution entered by this house on the 15th of May, for suppressing the exercise of all powers derived from the crown, had shown, by the ferment into which it had thrown these middle colonies, that they had not yet accommodated their minds to a separation from the mother country:

That some of them had expressly forbidden their delegates to consent to such a declaration, and others had given no instructions, and consequently no powers to give such consent:

That, if the delegates of any particular colony had no power to declare such colony independent, certain they were, the others could not declare it for them; the colonies being as yet perfectly independent of each other:

That the Assembly of Pennsylvania was now sitting above stairs; their Convention would sit within a few days; the Convention of New York was now sitting; and those of the Jerseys and Delaware counties would meet on the Monday following; and it was probable these bodies would take up the question of independence, and would declare to their delegates the voice of their state:

That, if such a declaration should now be agreed to, these delegates must retire, and possibly their colonies might secede from the Union:

That such a secession would weaken us more than could be compensated by any foreign alliance;

That, in the event of such a division, foreign powers would either refuse to join themselves to our fortunes, or, having us so much in their power as that desperate declaration would place us, they would insist on terms proportionably more hard and prejudicial:

That we had little reason to expect an alliance with those to whom alone, as yet, we had cast our eyes:

That France and Spain had reason to be jealous of that rising power, which would one day certainly strip them of all their American possessions:

That it was more likely they should form a connection with the British court, who, if they should find themselves unable otherwise to extricate themselves from their difficulties, would agree to a partition of our territories, restoring Canada to France, and the Floridas to Spain, to accomplish for themselves a recovery of these colonies:

That it would not be long before we should receive certain information of the disposition of the French court, from the agent whom we had sent to Paris for that purpose:

That, if this disposition should be favorable, by waiting the event of the present campaign, which we all hoped would be successful, we should have reason to expect an alliance on better terms:

That this would in fact work no delay of any effectual aid from such ally, as, from the advance of the season and distance of our situation, it was impossible we could receive any assistance during this campaign:

That it was prudent to fix among ourselves the terms on which we would form alliance, before we declared we would form one at all events:

And that, if these were agreed on, and our declaration of independence ready by the time our ambassador should be prepared to sail, it would be as well as to go into that declaration at this day.

On the other side, it was argued by J. Adams, Lee, Wythe, and others, that no gentleman had argued against the policy or the right of separation from Britain, nor had supposed it possible we should ever renew our connection; that they had only opposed its being now declared:

That the question was not whether, by a declaration of independence, we should make ourselves what we are not; but whether we should declare a fact which already exists:

That, as to the people or Parliament of England, we had always been independent of them, their restraints on our trade deriving efficacy from our acquiescence only, and not from any rights they possessed of imposing them; and that, so far, our connection had been federal only, and was now dissolved by the commencement of hostilities:

That, as to the king, we had been bound to him by allegiance, but that this bond was now dissolved by his assent to the late act of Parliament, by which he declares us out of his protection, and by his levying war on us—a fact which had long ago proved us out of his protection, it being a certain position in law, that allegiance and protection are reciprocal, the one ceasing when the other is withdrawn:

That James II. never declared the people of England out of his protection; yet his actions proved it, and the Parliament declared it:

No delegates then can be denied, or ever want, a power of declaring an existent truth:

That the delegates from the Delaware counties having declared their constituents ready to join, there are only two colonies, Pennsylvania and Maryland, whose delegates are absolutely tied up; and that these had, by their instructions, only reserved a right of confirming or rejecting the measure:

That the instructions from Pennsylvania might be accounted for from the time in which they were drawn, near a twelvemonth ago, since which the face of affairs has totally changed:

That, within that time, it had become apparent that Britain was determined to accept nothing less than a carte blanche, and that the king’s answer to the lord mayor, aldermen, and common council of London, which had come to hand four days ago, must have satisfied every one of this point:

That the people wait for us to lead the way:

That they are in favor of the measure, though the instructions given by some of their representatives are not:

That the voice of the representatives is not always consonant with the voice of the people, and that this is remarkably the case in these middle colonies:

That the effect of the resolution of the 15th of May has proved this, which, raising the murmurs of some in the colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, called forth the opposing voice of the freer part of the people, and proved them to be the majority even in these colonies:

That the backwardness of these two colonies might be ascribed, partly to the influence of proprietary power and connections, and partly to their having not yet been attacked by the enemy:

That these causes were not likely to be soon removed, as there seemed no probability that the enemy would make either of these the seat of this summer’s war:

That it would be vain to wait either weeks or months for perfect unanimity, since it was impossible that all men should ever become of one sentiment on any question:

That the conduct of some colonies, from the beginning of this contest, had given reason to suspect it was their settled policy to keep in the rear of the confederacy, that their particular prospect might be better, even in the worst event:

That, therefore, it was necessary for those colonies, who had thrown themselves forward, and hazarded all from the beginning, to come forward now also, and put all again to their own hazard:

That the history of the Dutch revolution, of whom three states only confederated at first, proved that a secession of some colonies would not be so dangerous as some apprehended:

That a declaration of independence alone could render it consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us, or even to receive an ambassador from us:

That, till this, they would not receive our vessels into their ports, nor acknowledge the adjudications of our courts of admiralty to be legitimate, in cases of capture of British vessels:

That though France and Spain may be jealous of our rising power, they must think it will be much more formidable with the addition of Great Britain, and will therefore see it their interest to prevent a coalition; but should they refuse, we shall be but where we are; whereas, without trying, we shall never know whether they will aid us or not:

That the present campaign may be unsuccessful, and therefore we had better propose an alliance while our affairs wear a hopeful aspect:

That to wait the event of this campaign will certainly work delay, because, during this summer, France may assist us effectually, by cutting off those supplies of provisions, from England and Ireland, on which the enemy’s armies here are to depend; or by setting in motion the great power they have collected in the West Indies, and calling our enemy to the defence of the possessions they have there:

That it would be idle to lose time in settling the terms of alliance, till we had first determined we would enter into alliance:

That it is necessary to lose no time in opening a trade for our people, who will want clothes, and will want money too, for the payment of taxes:

And that the only misfortune is, that we did not enter into alliance with France six months sooner—as, besides opening her ports for the vent of our last year’s produce, she might have marched an army into Germany, and prevented the petty princes there from selling their unhappy subjects to subdue us.

It appearing, in the course of these debates, that the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina, were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem, but that they were fast advancing to that state, it was thought most prudent to wait awhile for them, and to postpone the final decision to July 1st; but, that this might occasion as little delay as possible, a committee was appointed to prepare a Declaration of Independence. The committee were John Adams, Dr. Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. Committees were also appointed, at the same time, to prepare a plan of confederation for the colonies, and to state the terms proper to be proposed for foreign alliance. The committee for drawing the Declaration of Independence desired T. Jefferson to do it. It was accordingly done, and, being approved by them, he reported it to the house on Friday, the 28th of June, when it was read, and ordered to lie on the table. On Monday, the 1st of July, the house resolved itself into a committee of the whole, and resumed the consideration of the original motion made by the delegates of Virginia, which, being again debated through the day, was carried in the affirmative by the votes of New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. South Carolina and Pennsylvania voted against it. Delaware had but two members present, and they were divided. The delegates from New York declared they were for it themselves, and were assured their constituents were for it; but that their instructions having been drawn near a twelvemonth before, when reconciliation was still the general object, they were enjoined by them to do nothing which should impede that object. They therefore thought themselves not justifiable in voting on either side, and asked leave to withdraw from the question; which was given them. The committee rose, and reported their resolution to the house. Mr. Edward Rutledge, of South Carolina, then requested the determination might be put off to the next day, as he believed his colleagues, though they disapproved of the resolution, would then join in it for the sake of unanimity. The ultimate question, whether the house would agree to the resolution of the committee, was accordingly postponed to the next day, when it was again moved, and South Carolina concurred in voting for it. In the mean time, a third member had come post from the Delaware counties, and turned the vote of that colony in favor of the resolution. Members of a different sentiment attending that morning from Pennsylvania also, her vote was changed, so that the whole twelve colonies, who were authorized to vote at all, gave their voices for it; and, within a few days, (July 9,) the Convention of New York approved of it, and thus supplied the void occasioned by the withdrawing of her delegates from the vote.

Congress proceeded, the same day, to consider the Declaration of Independence, which had been reported, and laid on the table the Friday preceding, and on Monday referred to a committee of the whole. The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause, too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for, though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others. The debates, having taken up the greater parts of the 2d, 3d, and 4th days of July, were, on the evening of the last, closed; the Declaration was reported by the committee, agreed to by the House, and signed by every member present, except Mr. Dickinson.]

Back to Table of Contents

Contents

General Overview

In 1787 and 1788, following the Constitutional Convention, a great debate took place throughout America over the Constitution that had been proposed.

In-Doors Debate

View in-depth studies of the Massachusetts, Virginia, and New York state ratifying conventions.

The Federal Pillars

View drawings of the federal pillars rising published by the Massachusetts Centinel during the ratification debate.

View Feature

The Stages of Ratification: An Interactive Timeline

View the six stages of the ratification of the Constitution with links to many other features on this site.

View Feature

Interactive Ratification Map

View interactive maps showing the breakdown of Federalist-Antifederalist strength at the state level during the Ratification debate.

View Interactive

TeachingAmericanHistory.org is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

401 College Avenue | Ashland, Ohio 44805 (419) 289-5411 | (877) 289-5411 (Toll Free)

info@TeachingAmericanHistory.org