The Drafting Committee of Five, and 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence
“We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately” is commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin after the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The moment was not captured and preserved by Movietone News but, whether true or not, that sentence captures the gravity of the action those 56 men took when they signed the document that ended with the words “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Keep in mind that the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, was, in the summer of 1776, considering two closely-related but separate issues. The first was a declaration of independence and the second was the Declaration of Independence. The resolution to declare independence was introduced by Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee on June 7 and was seconded by John Adams of Massachusetts. Its first and most important paragraph reads as follows: “Resolved, 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.”
The resolution was the subject of “intense debate” until June 10th, after which the delegates decided to delay the final vote “for 20 days, until July 1, to allow delegates from the middle colonies time to send for new instructions.” (McCullough, 118-119)
Interestingly, Congress did not wait for the adoption of Lee’s resolution to appoint a committee to draft a formal declaration of independence. It appointed such a committee immediately. Known as the “Committee of Five,” it consisted of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Notice the word is “draft,” not “write,” clearly meaning the product would be subject to review and editing by Congress.
It was clear from the start that Jefferson would be the principal author, but how that decision was made is not clear. David McCullough, in his 2001 biography of Adams, says Jefferson offered the job to Adams but Adams declined for several reasons (pp. 119-120). Jefferson was from Virginia, was younger (33 v. 40) and possessed, as Adams said, a “peculiar felicity of expression.” That said, it can be asked why Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee, the author of the independence resolution, was not placed on the committee and then asked to chair it. The answer seems to be that Lee was a man of the spoken word whereas Jefferson was a man of the written word. When president, Jefferson discontinued delivering State of the Union addresses in person and it was not done again until Woodrow Wilson resumed the practice. Jefferson’s writing ability was well-known. To borrow a phrase, it seems to have been a “self-evident truth” that Jefferson was the man for the job, and history affirms his choice.
Jefferson worked quickly, without access to his library, and produced a draft in about three weeks. The Franklin Institute website says that “Benjamin Franklin primarily served as the editor of the Declaration of Independence. His changes were believed to have been minimal, but, when the document went before the entire Continental Congress, the draft was more thoroughly changed by the larger body from Jefferson’s original text. The final document was passed on July 2, 1776 and ratified on July 4, 1776.”
While true, the above statement does not do justice to Franklin’s contribution. As the elder statesman not only of the committee but also of the Congress itself, Franklin knew and had helped make the history of the pre-revolutionary period. He had, for example, spent some 15 years in London, working with Edmund Burke, trying to explain to the British how their policies toward their North American colonies were driving them to independence. Thus, Franklin knew the truth of the grievances Jefferson listed in the document and, when he affixed his signature to it, it carried much weight.
The contributions of the other members of the committee do not seem to be many or significant. When finished, Jefferson gave copies to Franklin and Adams and asked for their input. They made “two or three” minor corrections in their own handwriting, whereupon Jefferson prepared a new draft and sent it to Congress. Two points should be noted here: (1) the Declaration’s climactic words in the first sentence of its final paragraph are lifted verbatim from Lee’s resolution: “ . . . 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; . . . ” and (2) Jefferson did not make copies for committee members Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman.
At this point it was not clear that the work of the Committee of Five would amount to anything because the Lee resolution declaring independence remained unpassed. Without its adoption, the wording of the Declaration of Independence would not matter. Pursuant to its June 10, 1776 decision, Congress resumed debate on Lee’s resolution July 1. Delegate John Dickinson of Pennsylvania spoke against it, arguing that the risks and costs of independence were not justified. When he finished, there was no applause. (McCullough, p. 126)
Adams knew the burden of history lay on his shoulders and his response truly made him one of our great Founding Fathers. To quote McCullough, “No transcription was made. . . . That it was the most powerful and important speech heard in the Congress since it first convened, and the greatest speech of Adams’s life, there is no question. To Jefferson, Adams was ‘not graceful nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent,’ but spoke ‘with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats.’ ” (p. 127)
A vote was taken and the measure passed, but not decisively. They decided to postpone the final vote until the next day to allow time for more “politicking.” On July 2 the measure was adopted with twelve states voting “yes” and one (New York) abstaining. McCullough concludes that, “It was John Adams, more than anyone [else], who had made it happen.” (p. 129)
Speaking of New York, Robert R. Livingston, a member of Congress from that state, did not support the Lee resolution but abstained rather than vote against it. There is no evidence that he participated in or made any contributions to the Committee of Five, and he did not sign the Declaration of Independence after its adoption. He did, however, later support the ratification of the Constitution and served as Minister to France under President Jefferson during which time he played a significant role in the purchase of Louisiana.
Neither is there any evidence that committee member Roger Sherman of Connecticut participated in or made any contribution to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, but he did vote for it and sign it. His great service came later when he served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and proposed what is known as the Great Compromise or Connecticut Compromise on the character and composition of Congress.
When we have our annual July 4 celebrations, we do not think of the events of July 4, 1776 as anticlimactic, foregone conclusions, but they were. The big day was July 2 when Congress adopted both Lee’s declaration of independence and Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Joined by Washington, Hamilton, Pulaski, von Steuben, Lafayette and others in the long effort to achieve rather than simply declare independence, these men became a marked band of brothers trying to create “the first new nation.” (Seymour Lipset) Success was far from certain. Yes, they were fighting for their homeland on their homeland, but the 13 colonies were a large and diverse territory with different histories and interests and were not accustomed to thinking of a single, common good.
Granted, the Atlantic Ocean protected the colonies and was an obstacle the British had to overcome, but Britain was the world’s great superpower at the time and its navy was well equipped for the challenge.
The mother country took its colonial empire in North America very seriously. That empire was making it rich and powerful, and it would not relinquish its colonies without a fight. How serious it was is borne out by what it did in the 19th century when it went on to assemble the largest noncontiguous empire the world has ever seen.
This band of colonial brothers (Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, 2000) knew the task that lay ahead would be hard and bitter. Did they rely on the protection of Divine Providence? If we can believe what they said, they did. The last paragraph of the Declaration begins with the words, “We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; . . .”
Also consider Franklin’s plea at the Constitutional Convention in the same room 11 years later when he said,
“In the beginning of the contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the Divine Protection. — Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?
I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that ‘except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall be become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.”
These beautiful words are beyond improvement. Notice Franklin used the word “truth.” We should take him at his word. If not all born again themselves, that these early patriots were imbued with Judeo-Christian values is supported not only by Ellis, cited above, but also by Donald Lutz in his The Origins of American Constitutionalism (1988) and by Dreisbach et al in The Founders on God and Government (2004).
What would have happened to our patriot forefathers if they had lost the war for independence? It would not have been pretty. Franklin’s prediction most likely would have come true. If not, the difference would have been that they were summarily lined up and shot rather than hanged. It is very doubtful that Cornwallis would have been as magnanimous with Washington as Washington was with him or that the British would have bothered with the legal niceties required by trials. Thus, they did lay their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor on the line. Thanks be to God!
Winfield H. Rose, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Murray State University.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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What a terrific, wonderful essay! So much thought and wisdom went into our Declaration. this entire series should be required teaching in our History classes in high school and even in college. So Many have not idea or appreciation of how Nation came into being.
I love this essay by Wilfred Rose. In it I feel the reverence that Benjamin Franklin obviously felt when he talked about the importance of prayer in composing and finalizing our Declaration of Independence.
I have followed you since 2010 because of your format of reaching out to America’s children and exposing them to the beautiful ideas and documents of our founding. Plus I have enjoyed being educated right along with them.
Thanks for a job well done.