“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.”
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams
John Adams came to the Continental Congress convinced that it must vote for independence. But for a long, long time he was in the minority. Offering armed resistance to constituted authority, as had happened at Lexington and Concord a month before the Second Continental Congress convened, was a big step. But even with an army already in the field, an immeasurably greater step would be to state officially that there could be no settlement on any terms but complete rupture of political relations. The delegates hesitated.
Afterward, when everybody knew how it came out, the men who didn’t want to break with England were scorned as timid, or as insufficiently patriotic. But suppose it were today, and you were forced to decide, and to declare, whether your existing government still deserved your trust and support, or by its actions had forfeited your allegiance? A wrong choice might mean confiscation or banishment, conceivably execution. And in any case, how could you know whether what came next would be better or worse?
On the one hand, “a tide in the affairs of men.” On the other hand, “from the frying pan into the fire.” Independence was a big step. Too big? Impracticable? Not even necessary? Even, perhaps, inexcusable?
For that matter, who were they to decide? Chosen in various ways, all necessarily extra-legal, their only legitimacy was, and had to be, that they represented the people of their colony. But who knew what “the people” really wanted? In that day there were no opinion polls, no electronic mass-communications media endlessly reporting fluctuations in the public pulse. At most there were broadsides and newspapers and people meeting wherever people met. In the southern colonies, a tight aristocracy monopolized economic and political power, and so their representatives pretty much knew the opinions of the few whose opinions mattered. New England, the land of near-universal literacy, was also the land of those hottest for independence. But the middle colonies were practically a bedlam of competing voices.
And, no matter how many people a colony’s delegates represented, or how many delegates a colony sent, each colony had one vote. If its delegates divided evenly, the colony was recorded as not voting. If a majority voted one way, the colony’s one vote was recorded as if it were had been unanimous. The delegates had decided that any decision to strike for independence must be unanimous, or at least unopposed, lest one colony wind up fighting to suppress or assist rebellion against the government and wishes of another. Obtaining unanimity took time.
There really ought to be a statue somewhere celebrating the contributions of King George III to the cause of American independence. The colonists initially saw their grievances as stemming from Parliament. Had he concurred, he might have kept the American colonies within the Empire on what later became Dominion status – that is, united under the same king, but with separate governing structures. The difference that would have made is unimaginable. An America whose Tories stayed, rather than fleeing to Canada, would have produced an entirely different balance of power within the various colonial societies. But the king’s vision did not extend that far. In fact, late in 1775 he told Parliament that he was thinking of hiring Hessians to shoot enough recalcitrant colonists to bring them to heel, though he didn’t put it that bluntly.
Events kept pushing in one direction. In January 1776, Common Sense appeared, and began to stir up a huge public debate, leading to much greater support for separation from Great Britain. In February 1776, word arrived of the Prohibitory Act, blockading of American ports and labeling American ships enemy vessels. (Parliament should have a statue, as well.) As Adams pointed out, Parliament had declared America’s independence for it.
But the delegates could not vote for independence unless and until their colony’s governing body allowed them to. It took from April to July to accomplish this, with the middle colonies providing the greatest resistance. We won’t go into the ins and outs of the necessary maneuvering. Suffice it so say that when it came time to vote, only New York still had not provided its delegates revised instructions.
On June 11, Congress had appointed a geographically balanced committee to draft a declaration: Adams and Roger Sherman from New England, Jefferson from the South, Franklin and Robert Livingston from the middle colonies. They agreed roughly on what to say, assigned Jefferson to write the first draft, and on June 28 presented the draft to the full Congress, which spent two days going over it, shortening it by 25%, and, most notably, removing Jefferson’s assertion that Britain had forced slavery on the colonies. On Tuesday, July 2, 1776, acting as a committee of the whole, Congress voted 12-0 for independence, New York’s delegates abstaining rather than voting no. Two days later the Congress finalized the declaration’s wording, and ordered it published.
Don’t skim over the following words, but try to hear them as people in American and Great Britain heard them in 1776.
“We must, therefore … hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends. 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; 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 that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. 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.”
It had taken more than a year (and the unwitting cooperation of king and parliament), but the other delegates had caught up to John Adams. The die was cast.