A Concise History of America
Part Two Independence Declared
The concept of an independent and free America was not the only point of view, nor at times even the majority point of view among the 13 British Colonies in the period leading up to 1776.
There were a lot of worries among the "men at the top" that, for example, France and Spain might align with Britain and go against the North American colonies to re-secure Canada, the 13 British Colonies and Florida. This would be a united front against an ill-prepared nation in the Western World!
There were also a lot of Colonialists who liked being British citizens. Had Parliament and the King simply granted the same rights and terms to the Colonies by the year 1760, we might still be a part of the U.K. today!
What the Colonists weren’t getting from England was equal representation in Parliament -- the same representation as for those people who lived in England, Ireland or Scotland proper. Also, taxes and services were not on an equal basis with the English homeland. Those in the America’s were second class citizens (an ironic term, considering most of the Colonists treated women, children, blacks and Indians as such) who were seen as indentured servants to the homeland who had financed the trip over, supplies and allowed them to have their own lifestyle of a largely religious nature as they had all wanted. In return the King now demanded tribute in the form of special taxes aimed only at the American colonies and housing for the troops, something English citizens in London didn't have to provide!
More and more the King and his Parliament did things that ruffled the feathers of their American cousins and after a while it began to take its toll, as we saw in our last installment.
By 1770 there were already many people, representatives of people and even states that wanted independence, but at the same time there some who felt we shouldn’t rush into things. A body called the First Continental Congress was convened to draw up and present to the King of England the grievances of the Colonialists in the Western World. This body was unprecedented in the Americas, made up of representatives from each of the 13 British Colonies who came together as one body to draft a communiqué to the King of England seeking redress.
In the summer of 1775 the Second Continental Congress convened after no reply to their petition. This body began as a coordinated effort to resist the British and bring the 13 American colonial states together for the common good. This was, for all intents and purposes, the first independent government of the American Colonials as a nation.
By the end of that summer the representatives learned that the King of England had proclaimed the American colonialists to be in “opened and avowed rebellion.” The American Prohibitory Act was issued by Britain, making all American vessels and cargoes subject to forfeit to the Crown.
Colonist Thomas Paine's “Common Sense,” published in January 1776, was sold by the thousands in America. This work detailed the origin and history of government, with particular emphases on Great Britain (“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one”), the Monarchy and succession process in England, Paine’s views on the current American affairs:
“Under our present denomination of British subjects, we can neither be received nor heard abroad: The custom of all courts is against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations. These proceedings may at first appear strange and difficult; but, like all other steps which we have already passed over, will in a little time become familiar and agreeable; and, until an independence is declared, the Continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done, hates to set about it, wishes it over, and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity.”
By the spring of 1776 American ports had been opened to all nations in defiance of the British Navigation Act and it was also learned that the King of England had contracted with Germany to send mercenaries into the New World to assist the British Army in putting down this colonial rebellion and this action helped to solidify many new converts to the concept of American Independence. All in all, citizens from 8 of the 13 colonies were now in favor of independence.
In June of 1776 Virginia had created a Declaration of Rights written by George Mason that was adopted by the Virginia legislature and presented that same month in Philadelphia at the Continental Congress convention, where Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed independence, as directed by the government of the Virginian colonists. The motion, however, was postponed by a vote of 7 to 5, with New York abstaining and the Continental Congress adjourned after appointing a committee to draft a notice to the world (and, of course, King George of England) about their case for independence. This was on June 11, 1776. Congress was to reconvene in July to take the Virginia-Lee matter up, once again.
The committee handling this matter had asked representative Thomas Jefferson to draft a document of independence. Jefferson used parts of the Virginia Declaration of Rights as a template for the work, which he finished and delivered to the bench of the Continental Congress in the Philadelphia Assembly Chamber (now Independence Hall) on Friday, June 28, 1776.
The committee on Independence, and the convention members as a whole, then reconvened with 12 of the 13 Colonies voting to go with the Lee resolution. Then they began to debate the proclamation of independence issue from July 1 through the evening of July 4th, before finally recommending that the colonies vote on and adopt this document after a few changes were made by Dr. Ben Franklin and Representative Adams. After a few more revisions were made by the Congress as a whole, the Jefferson proclamation was then signed by Continental Congress President John Hancock and the Secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson in the late afternoon of July 4, 1776.
The printing office of John Dunlop then produced "broadsides" of the first formal draft of the declaration, which were then circulated to newspapers and the legislatures of the 13 colonies, especially to New York which had been reluctant to vote on the matter in Philadelphia. (Only 24 of the Dunlop broadsides are known to exist, two are in England and most of the rest in America.)
By July 19th all of the colonies approved the document and it is largely believed that Timothy Matlack, who had done written work for Charles Thomson and George Washington, wrote the “formal” and “original” version (known as an “engrossing” or formal document) in pen and ink on parchment that was to be signed by all the delegates. This historic event occurred on August 2, 1776, however John Dickinson and Robert R. Livingston who were for reconciliation with England and believed this declaration was a premature action, did not sign the document even though they attended the convention.
The original pen and ink document remained with the Continental Congress and now is in the National Archive, however a second “authentic” copy was commissioned and made by Mary Katherine Goddard in Baltimore and distributed to all the 13 Colonial legislatures on January 18, 1777.
The events that took place starting in July of 1776 didn’t resolve any real issues, but only started the battle cry for a long and bloody war, that would lead to an independent nation later in time as we’ll discover in our next installment...