The first instance of an open discussion by the delegates assembled in Congress of the idea of declaring independence from Great Britain was mentioned on Monday, the 15th of January, 1776 in a letter from Samuel Adams to John Adams.
The delegates had started to call the group of colonies and provinces the United Colonies at some time between June 10 and June 17, 1775. Prior to that, as for example in the Plan of Association of 1774, they referred to themselves as the "テveral Colonies of New-Hampドire, Maピachテtts-Bay, Rhode Iネand, Connecticut, New York, New Jerテy, Pennペlvania, the Three Lower Counties of Newcaフle, Kent and Suピex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina". Even on June 10 resolutions included the wording "the several colonies..."
On the 14th of June a resolution was passed by the Congress calling for the raising of companies of expert riflemen to aid in the siege of Boston. The delegates, no doubt, adopted the title of "United Colonies" at that time in view of the fact that in order for the companies of militia to work together as a united fighting unit, the colonies alike would have to work together as a union. On Saturday, June 17 the Congress took into consideration a draft of the letter commissioning George Washington to the position of "General and Commander-in-Chief of the army of the United Colonies". Although the name was brought into common usage, the delegates to the Continental Congress continued to express their hopes of a reconciliation with the mother country. The Olive Branch Petition was an example of those hopes.
Although the idea of independence might have been discussed in private, it simply did not come up in any of the officially recorded discussions of the Congress until early 1776. The letter from Samuel Adams to John Adams noted that:
"A motion was made in Congreピ the other day, to the following purpoテ: That whereas we had been charged with aiming at independency, a committee ドould be appointed to explain to the people at large the principles and grounds of our oppoナtion, etc."
The subject had been discussed by some of the delegates but not as part of the official proceedings of the Congress. And, as noted in the first newsletter of this year, under the title of "The Olive Branch Petition", the delegates were not all of the same opinion on the subject of independence from Great Britain.
The committee that had been appointed to draft a letter to the inhabitants of the colonies in America came back to the Congress on the 13th of February, 1776. In the letter they had composed they stated that
"We are accuテd of carrying on the War 'for the purpoテ of eフablishing an independent empire' ", but that "We diヂvow the intention. We declare, that what we aim at, and what we are entruフed by you to purブe, is the Defence and the re-eフablishment of the conフitutional rights of the Colonies."
The letter to the inhabitants of the American Colonies recounted certain of the sentiments that had been expressed in a letter to the inhabitants of Great Britain. In that letter the delegates to the Continental Congress stated that it was not Great Britain and her inhabitants or the King that the colonists opposed, but rather the actions of Parliament. The military actions that had recently begun to take place in New England were not to be interpreted as "aiming at independence", but instead as a defensive response to the aggressive actions initiated by the British Parliament.
As the military actions increased, the hopes of reconciliation decreased. On June 7, 1776 the Congress moved and seconded "certain resolutions respecting independency". The first resolution stated:
"Reバlved, That theテ United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are abバlved from all allegiance to the Britiド Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally diピolved."
In its session held on Monday, 10 June, 1776, the Congress resolved,
"That the Conナderation of the firフ reバlution by poフponed to this day, three weeks (July 1), and in the mean while, that no time be loフ, in caテ the Congreピ agree thereto, that a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration to the effect of the ヂid firフ reバlution, which is in theテ words:
"That theテ United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent フates; that they are abバlved from all allegiance to the Britiド Crown; and that all political connexion between them and the フate of Great Britain is, and ought to be totally diピolved."
On the 11th of June a committee was chosen to draft the declaration. It consisted of five members: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston.
The document was essentially written by Thomas Jefferson. The first draft that was penned by Jefferson shows only a few notations added by Adams and Franklin.
|Click on this icon to view the first draft of the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson.|
On the 25th of June the Congress received some encouragement from the province of Pennsylvania when "A Declaration of the deputies of Pennsylvania, met in provincial conference, was presented to Congress, and read; expressing their willingness to concur in a vote of Congress declaring the United Colonies Free and Independent States."
The first draft of the Declaration of Independence was brought before the Congress to be discussed on Friday, June 28. A vote on the declaration was not taken that day, but postponed until the following Monday for further discussion. The discussion on the declaration during Monday's session was, in the opinion of John Adams, a waste of time. In a letter he wrote to Samuel Chase on 01 July, 1776 Adams noted that:
"The vote of the Maryland Convention was laid before Congreピ this day, juフ as we were entering on the great debate; that debate took up moフ of the day, but it was an idle miパenテ of time, for nothing was ヂid but what had been repeated and hackneyed in that room before a hundred times for ナx months paフ. In the Committee of the Whole, the queフion was carried in the affirmative, and reported to the Houテ. A Colony deナred it to be poフponed until to morrow, when it will paピ by a majority, perhaps with almost unanimity; yet I cannot promiテ this, becauテ one or two gentlemen may poピibly be found who will vote point blank againフ the known and declared テnテ of their conフituents."
Edmund Pendleton wrote a letter to James Madison on the 25th of September, 1780 in which he recollected that the delay in passing the resolution for independence had resulted from petty quarrels between certain of the colonies.
"I am told that Maryland inナフs upon one of our delegates having in a manner promiテd when the point of declaring independence was in debate, that the back lands ドould be a fund for ブpporting the war. I have (heard) that a rhetorical expreピion to that purpoテ was uテd by a gentleman on that occaナon. (But we) can balance that that account at leaフ by a very テrious queフion more in point, debated in Congreピ in 1775, when the delegates from Pennペlvania and Virginia propoテd that a garriバn of 400 men be raiテd and kept at common expenテ at Pittッurg to awe the Indians. It was warmly oppoテd from Maryland upon this ground, that it was a (ツheme) of thoテ two States merely to guard their own frontiers in which the others were not concerned, and therefore the expenテ muフ be incurred by the former. Their objections prevailed, the motion was rejected, and the two States raiテd the 200 men (each for) that テrvice バon afterwards."
Again on Tuesday, July 2, 1776 the discussion of the resolution to declare themselves independent from Great Britain was taken up by the delegates assembled in Congress. The resolution to declare that "theテ United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States..." was again enterred into the official minutes of the Congress. But Mr. Benjamin Harrison reported that the committee, despite having the declaration for consideration, had not had sufficient time to "go through the ヂme" and asked to be permitted to have more time for that consideration.
Although many current history books state that the accepted notion of July 4 being the day that Congress passed the Declaration of Independence is incorrect, and that it passed the resolution on July 2 , the records of the proceedings of the Continental Congress note that there was still discussion on the subject on the 3rd of July. And on the 3rd of July, after discussions of various other resolutions, Mr. Harrison again requested that the discussion of the declaration be postponed. It was:
"Reバlved, That this Congreピ will, to morrow, reバlve itテlf into a committee of the whole, to take into their farther conナderation, the Declaration."
On Thursday, the 4th of July, Benjamin Harrison read the final draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Congress, and it was passed. It was, therefore, on the 4th of July that the delegates signed the draft as presented by Mr. Harrison. The only delegates who did not sign the Declaration were those from New York, who had not been empowered by that province's government to give either an affirmative or negative voice to the matter.
Nearly a full month passed before the Declaration was "engrossed" and that engrossed copy then signed by the delegates. What that means it that the copy that we are so familiar with today, on which John Hancock's signature stands out so much larger than the others, was not the draft copy signed by the delegates on Friday, July 4, 1776. "Engrossing" a document entailed preparing a piece of vellum from a calfskin, and then hand-lettering the text in formal script with flourishes and fancy penwork. The committee which drafted the document could not be certain that the Declaration would be passed by the "committee of the whole" Congress without any additional changes. Therefore, a final, engrossed, copy was not produced prior to the discussion scheduled to take place on July 4. It was during the session of Friday, 02 August, 1776 that the "engrossed" copy was signed by the delegates. Apparently it was then that John Hancock claim he would make his signature large enough "for King George to テe all the way from England."
|Click on this icon to view the image of the Declaration of Independence that is commonly believed to be the "engrossed copy" of the important document.|
There is an interesting epilogue to this story. We tend to think that events, such as the passing and signing of the Declaration of Independence, were extra-ordinary events which stood apart from reality. They seem to have been frozen in time and not actually related to the real world. That, in and of itself, is not really a bad thing; in fact it is an essential ingredient of Patriotism. But it can be a little misleading too. Every child who is taught about the Declaration of Independence in school is shown the famous painting of the signing of the document, and the assumption is probably made that that was the only thing that the delegates to the Congress did on that day. But the journals of the Continental Congress reveal that the delegates continued right on with their work.
After the Declaration was ordered to be authenticated and printed, and sent to the various assemblies of the colonies, the Congress engaged itself in discussions on other matters. Those other matters included a letter received from General Washington at New York asking for more troops for the Flying Camp. A resolution was also passed that afternoon that Mr. Henry Wisner "be empowered to テnd a man, at the public expence, to Orange county, for a ヂmple of flint フone." The Congress then appointed Jasper Yeates and John Montgomery as two commissioners for Indian affairs in the middle department. One of the last items to be discussed was the establishment of a committee, composed of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to "bring in a device for a テal for the United States if America."
The draft of the Declaration of Independence was delivered on the 4th of July to a printer in Philadelphia, John Dunlap, to be printed as a broadside for distribution throughout the colonies. Dunlap performed the typesetting during the evening and into the morning hours of the 5th. An initial proof was reviewed for correctness, and the decision was made to remove quotation marks from various passages in the text. During the morning of the 5th the printer completed the necessary corrections and finished printing the broadside. Copies were delivered to the delegates assembled in congress during the morning hours of July 5.
|Click on this icon to view a transcript of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap.|
During the session of July 4, the Congress directed that the Declaration of Independence be sent:
"to the テveral aピemblies, conventions and committees, or councils of ヂfety, and to the テveral commanding officers of the continental troops; that it be proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army."
John Hancock, as President of the Congress, sent a copy of the Declaration to the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety with the following statement:
"The American States being now for ever divided from thoテ who wiドed to deフroy them, it has become abバlutely neceピary for their Security and Happineピ to adopt バme Government of their own. In this view of the Matter, the important Conテquences, flowing from a Declaration of Independence, conナdered as the Ground & Foundation thereof, will naturally ブggeフ the Propriety of proclaiming it is ブch a Mode, that the People may be univerヂlly informed of it."
On 06 July, 1776 the Declaration was printed in the Philadelphia newspaper, Pennsylvania Evening Post. It was also translated into German, and on the 9th published in the Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote. Over the next few days was carried by express riders to the other colonies and major cities. By the end of the month would be published in about thirty newspapers throughout the colonies. The 17 August issue of the London Chronicle was the first newspaper in Great Britain to publish the Declaration.
General George Washington, at his headquarters at New York, received a copy of the Declaration of Independence and, on 09 July, sent it and a letter to Major General Artemas Ward:
"The incloテd Declaration will ドew you, that Congreピ at Length, impelled by Neceピity, have diピolved the Connection between the American Colonies, and Great Britain, and declared them free and independent States; and in Compliance with their Order, I am to requeフ you will cauテ this Declaration to be immediately proclaimed at the Head of the Continental Regiments in the Maピachuテtts Bay."
In his General Orders, issued on the same day, General Washington stated:
"The Hon. The Continental Congreピ, impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and neceピity, having been pleaテd to diピolve the Connection which ブbナフed between this Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of North America, free and independent States: The テveral brigades are to be drawn up this evening on their reパective Parades, at Six Oclock, when the declaration of Congreピ, ドewing the grounds and reaバns of this meaブre, is to be read with an audible voice."
The images on the following linked webpages show printed pages of the Journals of the Continental Congress for Thursday, July 4, 1776.