On June 7th, 1776 Richard Henry Lee brought a daring resolution before the Continental Congress:
"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."
On Saturday, June 8th, Lee's resolution was referred to a committee of the whole and delegates spent most of that day as well as Monday, June 10th debating the idea independence.
Then, in anticipation of a protracted debate, the Congress appointed various committees to begin to draft a declaration of independence, framing a set of articles for governing the country, and establishing diplomatic ties with foreign allies, most notably the French, Spanish and Dutch. When the committee drafting the declaration first met, there was a discussion of who would be the first to try to craft a document for the committee to work on. The most obvious choice was John Adams, but he deferred to his younger colleague, Thomas Jefferson. Despite being only thirty-two years old, Jefferson had already established a reputation as a solid writer and thinker with the publication of his pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Now he was given the awesome task of composing the Americans' public defense of independence.
When he began his first drafts of the declaration, Jefferson was anxious about events back in Virginia. The Convention was considering a new state constitution, and he wanted to be sure that the new document reflected the political lessons the colonists had learned over the past two decades of conflict with England. Needing some assurance that his views would be made known, he composed a few drafts of his own proposed state constitution and sent them off to Williamsburg. With only a few weeks before the July 1 debate on independence, Jefferson knew that he had to begin to put some of his thoughts to paper.
The first question that Jefferson had to address was the legitimacy of the Congress making a declaration of independence. In the past, the colonists had argued that their resistance was justified because it violated their rights as British citizens. But in recent years, the apologists for the Crown maintained that as colonists, they could not claim those rights and were subject to whatever rules the King and Parliament created. The Crown had absolute authority, they argued. Jefferson was faced with a second question: who was the audience to whom the declaration was directed? Was it just the King and people back in England? Or was the audience much wider?
Jefferson found one answer to both questions. Rather than relying on British law for their defense, the Americans would appeal to fixed moral standards of the natural law, or the law of nations, to make a worldwide public announcement of their new form of government and defense of their actions. The declaration would be a message to the world and to posterity about the propriety of their defensive actions against the oppressive British Empire.
Jefferson knew that with this approach, he had a lot of history to draw from. Not only were there a number of resolutions, protests and declarations that were submitted to the British since the Stamp Act crisis over a decade ago, he could reach back in time to use the language of the Dutch Declaration of Independence of 1581, when the Dutch Protestants freed themselves from Roman Catholic Spain. The Reformation had also birthed a wealth of political literature, transmitted through the French Huguenots, the Dutch Reformed, the Scottish Covenanters, and the English Puritans, that emphasized the limited and contractual nature of government. Such works, like Samuel Rutherford's Lex, Rex (1644) and the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1572), which John Adams stated was a major influence in his political thinking, made the case that when rulers put themselves above the law to violate it, they become felons according to the law and can be resisted. It was from the Reformation that America received its belief in the contractual basis of society.
But not only did he have a good deal of historical precedent to draw on, he had the pattern of covenant lawsuits portrayed all throughout the Old Testament--and especially the Minor Prophets. If, as the Americans contented, Parliament and Crown had violated their covenantal agreements with their colonies, then the pattern of issuing a covenant lawsuit carried the justification of spiritual faithfulness as well as the justification of political expeditiousness.
There were other points to be made. One of the primary ideas Jefferson wanted to convey was that the Americans were being driven by necessity. The English were bringing troops to America to subdue it by force. They were burning towns and attacking innocent civilians. The Continental Congress had a duty to protect their citizens. It also needed to be made clear that the Americans were not grasping for power--this was not an American revolution. Quite the contrary; they were resisting the revolution by the English that asserted the unlimited powers of King and Parliament over the colonies. Not only had the English violated the terms of the colonial charters, they were infringing on the inalienable rights given by God to all people. Finally, the declaration had to state the level of resolve by the Americans. This had to be a complete and final separation from England, and the members of the Continental Congress had to affirm their absolute commitment to uphold it.
With these things in mind, Jefferson composed his first few drafts of the declaration. Making some revisions, he submitted it to the committee, where John Adams and Ben Franklin proposed some small alterations. Otherwise, the committee was submitted the American Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress for its review and consideration on June 29.
The day arrived when Congress was scheduled to consider Lee's motion for independence. Jefferson’s declaration was read aloud. Many members rose to speak, with the assembly leaning towards independence but still divided. John Dickinson said that time should be given to prepare and approve the articles of government. John Adams rose and gave a passionate defense for declaring independence. Yet, only nine of the thirteen states were prepared to support Lee’s motion. But before retiring for the day, a note arrived from General Washington informing the Congress that he anticipated the British to attack in New York at any moment. Congress agreed to take a vote the next day.
When the matter was taken up that following morning, July 2, 1776, it was clear that South Carolina and New York were now prepared to support the resolution. A vote was called and the motion for independence was approved without a single dissenting vote. But the cautious patriots wanted to be absolutely certain they were taking the right step, so they delayed making their vote public for a few more days.
On July 4, the Congress made some changes were suggested to the draft declaration, and once approved later that day, the representatives began to sign the covenant. On July 8, Congress ordered that copies of the Declaration of Independence should be made and distributed to the public. Thus, the immortal words resounded:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, government are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."
The Declaration documented a train of abuses perpetrated by the British Empire and the attempts by the colonies to resolve the differences through peaceful means. But in the end, it was now clear that the time had come for the United States to take their leave from England. The American states were now free and independent. With a final appeal to Heaven, the Congress concluded the declaration with an unequivocal statement of their commitment: "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."
As word traveled throughout the states about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there were celebrations from north to south. But the British were not about to agree so easily. General Washington was trying desperately to hold onto New York, and there were British troops amassing in several states and in Canada to smash the growing rebellion. Now that the Americans had declared their freedom from England, they would have to fight to secure it.