Documents: Revolution / Declaration of Independence

Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, a series of essays generally believed to have been written by John Dickinson, first appeared separately in newspapers from 1767 to 1768 and were later published as a single pamphlet. In response to English policies, including the Stamp Act, Dickinson’s Letters urged resistance to England but also called on the colonists to seek reconciliation with the mother country. Dickinson argued that England’s economic policy towards the colonies was reducing Americans to slavery. He warned his readers: “My dear country men, rouse yourselves and behold the ruin hanging over your heads.” However, he also urged prudence: “We cannot act with too much caution in our disputes.” He hoped that a settlement with England could be achieved if Americans united in petitioning the Crown and Parliament for redress. The Letters were reprinted and read throughout the colonies. They were also read abroad when Benjamin Franklin, serving as a colonial agent in Britain, had them reprinted.
Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech at St. John’s Church in 1775 in Richmond, Virginia, where the Virginia colonial legislature was meeting. Henry called on the legislature to take up arms in resistance against England’s tyranny. Henry spoke without notes, and no one immediately transcribed the speech. It was reconstructed by Henry’s biographer years later. In response to the presence of English soldiers in Massachusetts, Henry urged his fellow citizens to fight. He argued that repeated violations of their rights would surely mean more violations in the future. He said, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” He proclaimed that they could not fail in their attempt: millions of people “armed in the holy cause of liberty would be invincible.” He said that attempts to reconcile with the English would make the colonists into slaves. He famously concluded: “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The Lee Resolution is the name given the proposal by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia that the colonies declare independence from England. Introduced in the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, the Resolution began: 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 also called for creating foreign alliances, developing a plan for confederation, and distributing it to the colonies. Lee and the other delegates knew that this proposal would be considered treason in the eyes of the English. To allow debate and input from the colonies, the Continental Congress decided to put off the vote on the Lee Resolution until July 2, 1776. On that date, Congress voted to declare independence. The words of the Lee Resolution became part of the closing lines of the Declaration of Independence.
After the introduction of the so-called Lee Resolution in June,1776, the Continental Congress debated independence for several days and then appointed a committee made up of Thomas Jefferson (Virginia), John Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Roger Sherman (Connecticut), and Robert R. Livingston (New York) to draft a formal declaration of independence. The committee assigned Jefferson the task of writing the first draft of what became the Declaration of Independence. After completing his first draft, Jefferson presented it to Franklin and Adams who made several verbal changes which Jefferson accepted. This new version of the document was then submitted to the Continental Congress which had the final word. The Congress made several changes which angered Jefferson who said that they ruined it. One of the most important changes the Congress made was eliminating Jefferson’s 28th and final grievance in which he blamed the king for starting the slave trade in the American colonies.

The Declaration contains five different sections. The first section is a Preamble which begins with the words “when in the course of human events” and then proceeds to state that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” requires us to declare the causes which compel us to separate. The second section outlines what Jefferson calls four “self-evident truths”: (1) All men are created equal; (2) They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable natural rights among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; (3) To secure these rights governments which derive their power from the consent of the governed are established; and (4) Whenever government fails to secure the peoples’ rights, it is their right to alter or abolish it and set up a new government. This second section is where the influence of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government and George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights on Jefferson’s writing is most evident. The third and by far the longest section is a list of twenty-seven specific grievances against the King and Parliament but without using the word “Parliament.” Jefferson placed the most serious grievances, often called “war crimes,” at the end of the long list. The fourth section reminds the world that the colonists had tried to resolve their differences with England but with no success. The fifth and final section is the formal declaration of war which concludes with this famous line: “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.”

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, was the first to sign.

Thomas Paine published his short pamphlet Common Sense in January,1776, in support of the case for the American colonies seeking independence from England. Using clear, plain language, Paine rallied the colonists to support the break from England. He stated, “I am not induced by motives of pride, party, or resentment to espouse the doctrine of separation and independence; I am clearly, positively, and conscientiously persuaded that it is the true interest of this continent to be so.” Arguing for American independence, Paine denounced monarchy when he wrote: “Of more worth to society and in the eyes of God is one honest man than all the crowned ruffians who ever lived.” Writing about the absurdity of the American colonies being subordinate to England, he stated: “There is something absurd in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.” The impact of Common Sense is revealed by this fact: it is estimated that it was read by one million persons. Its impact can also be seen by its effect on leaders such as George Washington who observed that Common Sense is working a powerful change in the minds of men” and stopped offering toasts to the king at formal occasions.
Thomas Paine began the sixteen essays which comprise The American Crisis in 1776 when he was serving in the Continental Army. The first essay was written on December 23, 1776 and famously began: “These are the times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” The essays bolstered the morale of Continental troops in their fight with the English. General George Washington liked the first essay so much that he had it read to the Continental troops at Valley Forge. Inspired by Paine’s Crisis No. 1, Washington’s troops on Christmas night crossed the cold, icy Delaware River and defeated the Hessians and on January 2 defeated General Cornwallis at the Battle of Princeton. Paine’s American Crisis essays also strengthened Americans’ commitment to the break from England and to self-government. He argued that it was the responsibility of all to act. He wrote, “I call upon not a few, but all: not on this state or that state, but every state: up and help us.”
The Treaty of Paris in 1783 formally ended the Revolutionary War, and England recognized the independence of the United States. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and John Jay negotiated and signed the treaty on behalf of the United States. It recognized the thirteen colonies as free and independent, established the boundaries of the U. S. and British North America, gave the U. S. and Britain access to the Mississippi River, granted fishing rights to Americans in the Grand Banks and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and specified that the U. S. Congress would encourage the states to pay British subjects for confiscated property.