After nearly a year of war and attempted negotiation with King George III and the British parliament, it became clear that the colonies in the New World would continue to be under harsh rule without representation. In January 1776, the Continental Congress met to discuss the matter.
Public support for independence from the British Empire was growing amongst the colonies. Only the “middle colonies” of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland who were benefiting financially being part of the British Empire were against independence. When these colonies sent delegations to the Continental Congress, each of their conventions did not allow them to vote for independence.
As the war with Great Britain dragged on and the attempt at tightening their reigns on the colonies persisted, the populous cry for independence grew. Delegates were set back to their governments and representatives sent to the middle colonies to convince them that the colonies had to declare independence for their own survival. As colonies began to line up with the independence movement, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and South Carolina remained reticent on the subject.
Of the four hold outs, Pennsylvania and Maryland had governments with strong ties to the colonial governors who still had influence. John Adams wrote a draft preamble to explain the independence resolution. Part of the way the resolution was written was, in effect, to overthrow the colonial governments of Pennsylvania and Maryland so that it would be replaced by a popular government. On May 15, 1776, that preamble was passed. The colonies had taken their first step toward independence.
Delegates left the congress and returned to their own colonial conventions. Maryland, whose delegates walked out of the congress in protest, continued to reject the notion of independence. Samuel Chase returned to Maryland and convinced them to allow their delegates to approve the motion of independence. Pennsylvania, New York, and South Carolina remained against the declaration while the Delaware delegates were split.
On June 11, 1776, the “Committee of Five” was appointed to draft a declaration. Committee members were John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. Although no minutes were kept from the committee meetings, it was accepted that the resulting document was largely Jefferson’s work. The Committee of Five completed the draft on June 28, 1776.
Debate on the draft declaration began on July 1. After a long day of speeches a vote was taken. Maryland voted yes but Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted no. The New York delegation abstained with out authority from their government to vote. Delaware could not vote because its delegate was split on the question. Edward Rutledge of South Carolina moved to postpone the vote until the next day.
Although there is no written history on what happened that evening, there had to have been lobbying by supporters of independence because on July 2, South Carolina voted yes followed by a turnaround by the Pennsylvania delegation that also voted yes. New York with no authority from their government continued to abstain. With the Delaware delegation deadlocked, this set up the historical ride of Caesar Rodney. Rodney was one of Delaware’s representative to the Continental Congress. He was in Dover attending to other business when he learned that Thomas McKean and George Read were deadlocked on the vote of independence. Rodney rode 80 miles from Dover to Philadelphia to vote with McKean to allow Delaware join eleven other colonies voting in favor of independence.
With 12 votes for independence and one abstention, the Continental Congress approved the declaration. Jefferson then set forth to make the agreed upon corrections to the document. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence. The document was sent to the printer for publication and distribution to the public.
Although historians debate exactly when the final document was signed, it is accepted that the final signatures were added on August 2, 1776. Since New York approved the resolution of independence on July 10, the New York delegation is included amongst the signatures.
- “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and was used as the model for the reverse of the $2 Federal Reserve Note. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
- Bicentennial half-dollar reverse and Franklin half-dollar images courtesy of the author.
- All other coin images courtesy of the U.S. Mint
- All other images courtesy of Wikipedia.