Most Americans today see the Declaration of Independence as the handiwork of one man—Thomas Jefferson—that was almost handed down to the Second Continental Congress from on high and adopted for American independence. The truth is much more complex, and ultimately more interesting. The Declaration of Independence was part of a great republican deliberative moment of the people and their representatives in colonial legislatures and the Continental Congress engaging in reflection and debate about their liberties and fate as a people united with a common purpose.
The deliberation about independence took shape over a decade of resistance against British taxes and tyranny. While some colonists spoke of a possible break with Great Britain, most considered themselves English and could not imagine living outside the empire. However, the war forced them to reconsider their ties with the British and provided a moral imperative to protect natural rights against a tyrannical government.
The publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, in January 1776, made independence central to the national conversation. As colonists substituted committees of safety and conventions of representatives of the people for royal rule in several colonies, Congress began to consider independence.
On May 10, Congress adopted a resolution urging each colony to adopt new state governments and write constitutions. Five days later, Congress added a preamble written by John Adams that asserted, “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies.”
On June 7, Richard Henry Lee rose in Congress and offered a resolution for independence. “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Congress appointed a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence while states such as Virginia wrote constitutions and their own declarations of rights.
Jefferson composed the draft of the Declaration and submitted it to his fellow committee members, particularly Benjamin Franklin and Adams, for their review. After making light edits, the committee sent the document to the Congress for its consideration.
The delegates to the Congress were ready to enter the seminal discussion over national independence. Many important founders were not present for these debates, the creation of the Declaration of Independence, or the final vote on Lee’s resolution. For example, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Henry Knox were then preparing the defenses of New York for a massive British invasion.
Others were either opposed to independence or at least hesitant. The middle colonies—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland—were the center of most of the opposition to independence. Some of the leading statesmen against independence were John Dickinson (PA), James Wilson (PA), Edward Rutledge (SC), and financier Robert Morris (PA). Their viewpoint was predicated on several factors: they thought it imprudent to sever historic ties to Britain, the colonies were insufficiently united, the Continental Army needed decisive victories, and the timing was not just right yet. Moreover, congressional delegations waited for their legislatures to authorize them to vote for independence.
While Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence, several key colonies authorized their delegates to support independence. In this decisive shift, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware delegations were permitted to vote for independence. Maryland and New York still had not changed their mind in time for the final debates over independence.
With more delegations receiving authorization to vote for independence and the tide clearly turning in favor of independence, Rutledge begged his friend, John Jay of New York, who opposed independence, to make haste to Philadelphia for support. But Jay had important business that kept him from the city as it did other delegates through the spring and summer.
On July 1, John Dickinson and Adams engaged in a titanic debate over whether America should declare its independence while a dramatic thunderstorm raged outside. The next day, Congress voted for independence by passing Lee’s resolution. Caesar Rodney of Delaware famously rode through the night to join his delegation to push it in favor of independence. John Rutledge and his fellow South Carolinians decided to switch their vote for the resolution for the good of America.
Dickinson and Morris abstained from the final vote as did the entire New York delegation. The vote was thus unanimous in favor of independence. It was a hard-fought battle over a decisive break with Great Britain between principled men who voted, and had deliberated according to their consciences. They disagreed with one another—sometime vehemently—and then accepted the result.
The Congress then considered and edited the document much to Jefferson’s chagrin. It adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4 and enunciated the natural rights principles of the American republic. Congressional president John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson affixed their signatures to the document that day. New York belatedly voted for independence more than a week later.
Most of the delegates did not sign the document that day, however. Most of them signed the document on August 2. Morris added his signature despite his earlier opposition, though Dickinson never did. Matthew Thornton of New Hampshire was elected to Congress in the fall and retroactively signed the document in early November. Other statesmen who did not sign the document included Robert Livingston, who was recalled to New York, and George Clinton resigned his seat and returned to New York state politics before they could sign.
The debate over independence, the ratification of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights demonstrated that history is ruled by continency. The fate of America could have turned out very differently had individuals not made certain decisions, or debates took a different turn. Perhaps most importantly, the vigorous debate over independence was proof of the strength of republican principles of self-government during the American founding. The people and their representatives, not a king, would determine their own destiny.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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