Declaration of Independence: History, Meaning, Continental Congress, and Facts

Revolutionary Conventions and Instructions from the Colonial Assemblies

Even though majority of the public was in support of Congress and their push for independence, the colonies had difficulties declaring independence because most of their delegates lacked the authority to do so. The delegates from these colonies, as per the instructions and regulations of their colonies, were not allowed to vote on any independence declaration. These complex legalities, as well as other internal political factors, are what accounted for the delay in Congress declaration of Independence.

Eventually, the above complex political and legal disagreements within and among the colonies were ironed out. In March 1776, North Carolina successfully cleared the ambiguity in their legal framework and voted for independence. North Carolina used the Halifax Resolves to issue out a formal instruction to its congressional delegates to vote for independence.  North Carolina’s action resulted in other colonies voting in similar fashion. By May 1776, a total of 7 colonies (Rhode Island, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Hampshire) issued out instructions to their congressional delegates as well. The other colonies followed suit and revised their congressional instructions at both state and local levels. There were literally tens of legislative acts and formally written instructions to congressional members and delegates dotted across the 13 colonies.

The records show that Rhode Island took a bold step and officially declared the state independent from Great Britain. Therefore, Rhode Island became the first colony to issue a legislative act to back their independence. Another very famous instruction came in the form of a court instruction by South Carolina’s Chief Justice, William Henry Drayton. He is quoted as saying:

the law of the land authorizes me to declare … that George the Third, King of Great Britain … has no authority over us, and we owe no obedience to him.

A quote from Chief Justice, William Henry Drayton

However, in the 5 remaining colonies skepticism and bureaucratic challenges made issuing instructions very difficult. These colonies were New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The 7 pro-independent states worked tirelessly to get these 5 remaining colonies to issue out their instructions. To tackle this, the Continental Congress passed a resolution on May 10 1776. The resolution paved way for constituents and local assemblies in those 5 colonies to issue out instructions to their respective delegates.

Lee’s Resolution for Independence

Back in London, the British crown was obviously worried. The matter even got worse for George III. A Virginia representative, Richard Henry Lee, tabled a motion before the Continental Congress during a June 7, 1776 meeting in Pennsylvania. Lee’s motion called for immediate independence of the colonies from Britain’s rule.

Unfortunately the motion was not passed because the various delegates could not come to a broad consensus. Those against the Lee’s motion for Independence argued that the colonies’ immediate goal should be to secure foreign aid and political support. They regarded Lee’s motion as too early.

Those in favor of Lee’s motion, most notably John Adams, reasoned that without a formal declaration foreign nations would continually regard their colonies as part of the British Empire. Therefore, those foreign countries were unlikely to intervene and support the American Revolution financially or politically.

The meeting was adjoined to June 10 1776 after delegates from Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and New York fervently shot down the Lee’s resolution. However, on June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress set up a five-member committee that included Thomas Jefferson (Virginia delegate), Roger Sherman (Connecticut delegate), John Adams (Massachusetts delegate), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania delegate) and Robert R. Livingston (New York delegate). The Congress tasked this Committee of Five to come up with a formal statement explaining and justifying why the American colonies should be independent sovereign states.

The Work of the Committee of Five in Drafting  the Declaration Document

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris’ 1900 depiction of three members of the Committee of Five. From left to  right: Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson

John Adams proposed to the committee that Thomas Jefferson be selected to write the main draft of the independent statement. His motion was unanimously seconded by all the other committee members. The reason why Thomas Jefferson was trusted with this task was because of his vast experiences in writing and publications. He was an eloquent writer with several editorial and newspaper publications to his name. One famous example of this was his 1774 piece, titled the “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”.

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