AP U.S. History Notes

Declaration of Independence

The Continental Congress

In response to the Patriot’s defiant outburst and the destruction of British goods during the Boston Tea Party, Parliament enacted several laws to tighten its control over the colonies. The Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts by Americans, punished primarily Bostonians but affected people in all thirteen colonies.

The legislation increased Americans’ resentment toward Britain and galvanized the Patriot resistance. In September 1774, delegates from twelve colonies—the governor of Georgia refused to send a representative—met at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia to fashion a common response to the Intolerable Acts. John Adams, George Washington, Samuel Adams, and Patrick Henry were among the fifty-five members of the First Continental Congress who discussed various ideas and drafted resolutions to address colonial grievances.

One proposal, the Plan of Union, presented by Pennsylvanian Joseph Galloway, called for an American government consisting of a president appointed by the king and a council selected by the colonies. The American officials would regulate internal colonial affairs and possess the power to veto parliamentary acts affecting the colonies, but remain subordinate to Parliament and the Crown. Galloway’s moderate proposal was defeated by a vote of six colonies to five.

Paul Revere then submitted the Suffolk County Resolves that rejected the Intolerable Acts and called upon Americans to prepare for a British attack. After endorsing the resolutions, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Rights and Resolves, drafted by John Adams. Drawing upon the “immutable laws of nature” and rights of Englishmen, the declaration argued that Americans were entitled to legislate for themselves “in all cases of taxation and internal polity,” conceding to Parliament only the power to regulate “our external commerce.”

During the course of nearly two months, the First Continental Congress endorsed many documents and open letters to the people of Great Britain and Canada explaining their actions. In an appeal to the king, edited by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, the delegates blamed the crisis on Parliament and Lord North’s administration. Americans were not yet demanding independence, but sought the right to participate in a free government that protected their liberties within the British Empire. Before adjourning, the delegates organized the Continental Association that called for a complete boycott of British goods. The delegates agreed to meet again in May 1775 to discuss Britain’s response to their decisions.

Tension between the colonies and Great Britain escalated following Parliamentary elections that gave Lord North’s government a majority for the next seven years. King George declared the New England colonies to be in a state of rebellion, and Parliament supported his decision to coerce the colonies. Resistance was also stiffening in America. Colonists increased their efforts to enforce the British boycott by appointing association committees to monitor compliance and expose all violators. People caught breaching the boycott were often tarred and feathered. The failed attempts to negotiate a resolution with Britain prompted many colonists to secure weapons and conduct military drills to prepare for the possibility of war.

In January 1775, orders went out from London to prohibit the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. The following month, Parliament declared that Massachusetts was in a state of rebellion and military reinforcements were dispatched to America under the command of three senior generals—William Howe, Henry Clinton, and John Burgoyne. On the night of April 18, General Thomas Gage sent British troops marching from Boston toward Concord. The soldiers were ordered to seize colonial weapons and gunpowder and arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams, whom the British considered to be the leaders of the Patriots.

As the redcoats entered Lexington, they encountered a band of colonial militia called "Minute Men" who were trained to fight on a minute's notice. The two groups exchanged heated words and, as the Americans slowly dispersed, a shot was fired. The British continued their march after a brief skirmish, leaving behind eight dead Americans. At the North Bridge in Concord, the redcoats met a sharper fight, and casualties were sustained by both sides. American essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson later immortalized the event as “the shot heard round the world.” The Revolutionary War had begun.

On May 10, 1775, representatives from all thirteen colonies met at the State House in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Joining many members from the First Congress were Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson, a young Virginia planter who had recently written essays criticizing the British monarchy and supporting the rights and liberties of Americans. Also representing Virginia was George Washington, a veteran of the French and Indian War, who attended sessions dressed in his colonel's uniform.

Many cautious representatives from the middle colonies feared that radical New England delegates were pushing the colonists into open rebellion. After much debate, the fighting in Massachusetts finally convinced a majority of the delegations that a military defense plan was necessary. Washington’s experience in battle and his willingness to defend America influenced congressional members to appoint him commander-in-chief of the newly formed Continental Army. The selection of Washington to lead the army appeased many conservatives who distrusted the boisterous Bostonians. Washington’s wealth, and his refusal to accept pay for his position, quashed suspicions that he was a fortune seeker.

While the battles at Lexington and Concord pressed many colonists into joining the military forces gathering near Boston, members of the Second Continental Congress believed they could still persuade the king and Parliament to resolve the colonists' grievances without more bloodshed. In June 1775, Congress approved John Dickinson’s "Olive Branch Petition," which was aptly named because of its suppliant tone. It professed American loyalty to the king and begged him to intercede for the Patriots against his controlling Parliament and ministers.

The following day, the delegates endorsed the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, written by Dickinson and Jefferson. It proclaimed: “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect.” American Patriots were prepared to fight to preserve their liberties as British citizens. In November, however, word arrived that King George III refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition and officially proclaimed the colonies to be in “open and avowed rebellion.”

As the fighting between the Patriots and the redcoats intensified, the Second Continental Congress assumed the functions of a national government. It appointed commissioners to negotiate with Indian tribes and foreign governments in an effort to form military and diplomatic alliances. It also authorized the creation of a navy and several battalions of marines, and organized a postal system headed by Benjamin Franklin.

The Great Declaration

By the end of 1775, the military conflicts with Great Britain increased the eagerness of many Patriots to declare their independence, but many other colonists, including influential members of the Second Continental Congress, were wary about breaking completely from the Crown. The ties to England remained strong for many Americans and the thought of losing their political and commercial connections to one of the world’s most powerful nations seemed irrational to them.

Many colonists believed that a rebellion would change their lives for the worse. They were familiar with the living conditions under British rule and feared the unknown. The upper class in America did not want to lose their status in society and grew concerned about how average Americans would react to independence. In addition, many colonists wondered if common people could actually govern themselves.

In early 1776, two significant events propelled the colonies toward severing relations with Britain. First, the pamphlet Common Sense was published in January. Thomas Paine wrote the political piece criticizing King George III. While colonial leaders crafted gracious and humble petitions to persuade the king to ease Britain’s control over the colonies, Paine bluntly called George III a “Royal Brute” who was unworthy of Americans’ respect. The pamphlet encouraged colonists to break free from England and start a new independent and democratic society. Paine argued that the concept of an island ruling a continent defied natural law. “We have it in our power to begin the world again,” he insisted.

Reaction to Common Sense was overwhelming. Paine’s diatribe put into words the thoughts of many Americans. Even members of the Continental Congress accepted Paine’s call to action by urging states to form governments and write their own statements of independence.

The following month, Congress learned of the Prohibitory Act, closing all colonial ports and defining resistance to the Crown as treason. Congress responded by authorizing privateers to operate against British shipping. Additionally, Americans discovered that the British government was hiring foreign mercenaries to crush the colonies. Ultimately, nearly thirty thousand German-speaking soldiers, collectively called “Hessians” because the majority hailed from Hesse-Kassel, fought in the Revolutionary War. Many colonists associated mercenaries with radical and illicit behavior including looting and torture. The potential for such cruelty toward Americans, many colonists concluded, doomed the possibility of a peaceful reconciliation. In April, Congress opened American ports to international trade. By that time, several revolutionary state governments were committed to independence from Great Britain.

On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced to the Continental Congress a resolution: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” He further called “for forming foreign Alliances and preparing a plan of confederation.” Lee’s resolution announced America’s break from England, but members of Congress believed a more formal explanation was needed to unify the colonies, secure foreign assistance, and justify their actions to the world. Delegates from the middle colonies, however, were reluctant to support the separation from the mother country and postponed a vote on Lee’s resolution.

In the meantime, Congress appointed a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson to prepare a formal declaration. The committee selected Jefferson, the youngest member of the Continental Congress and the delegate who received the most votes in the selection process, to write the first draft. Jefferson spent the next two weeks writing. The committee refined and edited the manuscript before submitting a final version to the Congress on June 28.

Several ideas Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence to justify the American Revolution were not new. John Adams, in particular, claimed that Congress frequently discussed the concepts outlined in the document. Additionally, many of the terms incorporated by Jefferson derived from proclamations of independence previously issued by several colonial governments. Jefferson admitted that it was not his task to invent new principles or arguments, but rather the Declaration was intended be an expression of the American mind.

In the preamble, Jefferson referred to the “natural rights” of humankind popularized by Enlightenment thinkers, including philosopher John Locke’s call for “the right to life, liberty, and property”—the last of which Jefferson changed to “the pursuit of happiness.” He also incorporated Locke’s contention that people have the right to overthrow their government when it abuses their fundamental rights.

In a direct attack on George III, Jefferson provided a lengthy list of the king’s violations of American rights. He accused King George of imposing taxes on colonists without their consent, and blamed him for the existence of slavery in America—although Congress deleted that allegation from the final document.

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress unanimously passed Lee’s resolution to declare American independence from British rule. The delegation from New York, which represented a large population of loyalists who did not want to break all ties with England, abstained from voting. The Continental Congress spent the next two days debating and amending the Declaration of Independence. The delegates focused primarily on the list of grievances, cutting Jefferson’s harsh assault on the British people for backing the king and eliminating about one-fourth of the original wording. The Declaration, the delegates believed, should explain and justify American independence in a gentlemanly manner.

On the Fourth of July, the delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence. By defying the king and declaring their independence, the Patriots became rebels subject to the penalties for treason. The American revolutionaries realized that unity was imperative to their success. “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” vowed Benjamin Franklin. “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

The Declaration of Independence did not immediately garner a great deal of attention from people outside the British Empire. Within a few years, however, the document profoundly influenced citizens from other countries hoping to escape the oppressive tyranny of their rulers. The “French Declaration of the Rights of Man,” most notably, drew upon Jefferson’s ideas and words. The Declaration of Independence remains an inspiration for freedom-loving peoples.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Declaration of Independence" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 23 Jun. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/declaration-of-independence/>.