8.2: The Second Continental Congress, 1775-1781

When the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1775, the first job of the delegates was to address the Conciliatory Proposition sent to the colonies from Lord North earlier in May. Thomas Jefferson wrote the response to this Proposition that was entered into the records of the Congress in July 1775. Britain’s Conciliatory Proposition had suggested that taxes would be used only for the purposes of regulating trade, an idea that had once been acceptable to the colonies, and that any taxes collected internally would be given to the colony itself, provided that the colony in question would help defray expenses for its protection. But the petition was too little, too late. The recent conflict at Lexington and Concord was on everyone’s mind, and those who assembled in Philadelphia in May were well aware of Patrick Henry’s outburst at a meeting of Virginia leaders in March. The colonies, he insisted, “have done everything that could be done to avert the storm which is now coming on. It is vain…to cry ‘peace, peace’…The war is actually begun!” Even John Dickinson, author of the Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer and a supporter of reconciliation, was pessimistic, musing “what topics of reconciliation are now left for men who think as I do? To recommend reverence for the monarch, or affection for the mother country?…No. While we revere and love our mother country, her sword is opening our veins.”

As was the case with the First Continental Congress, the delegates to the Second Congress were a distinguished group of colonial leaders. John Hancock, a wealthy Bostonian, was chosen president of the Congress. Thomas Jefferson was present, as was Benjamin Franklin, who had come to the opinion, after months of trying to achieve conciliation in London, that independence was the only solution to the impasse between colonies and mother country. Georgia was represented at the Congress, though marginally at first, as only one delegate, Lyman Hall, attended. Despite the convictions of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, winning the majority to the cause of independence was an uphill battle, and in June the Congress decided to make one last effort at reconciliation. The Olive Branch Petition drafted that same month suggested that the colonists either be given free trade and taxes equal to those levied on citizens living in the mother country, or no taxes at all and strict trade regulations. The petition was approved on July 5, and taken to London by William Penn later that month. The king was less than gracious, especially in light of the battle of Bunker’s Hill. He refused to see Penn and, on August 23, issued a proclamation that declared the colonies to be in “open and avowed rebellion.” This did not persuade the colonials of the good intentions of the mother country, nor did a rumor circulating as early as January 1775 that a member of Parliament had derived a method of “humbling the aristocratic” Virginia planters by calling for general emancipation. Then in November, Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, fourth earl of Dunmore, released a proclamation from on board the British warship Fowey on which he had taken refuge, declaring martial law in Virginia and promising that any “indentured Servants [or] Negroes free…that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY’S troops.”

Even before the Olive Branch Petition was drafted, Congress set about preparing for war. Proclaiming that “the colonies are reduced to a dangerous and critical situation” by “hostilities that have already commenced in Massachusetts Bay,” the delegates warned the colonies that they should begin arming themselves, and the first week in June voted to borrow £6,000 for the purchase of gunpowder. On June 14 and 15, Congress created a continental army “to defend the Lives, Liberties and Immunities of the Colonists” and adopted a comprehensive set of military regulations designed to govern the troops. George Washington was appointed commander-in-chief. A week later, on June 22, the delegates approved the release of $1 million in bills of credit (paper currency). Proclaiming that it was doing so in “defense of American liberty,” Congress authorized another$1 million in July. By the end of 1775, Congress had authorized a total of \$6 million in bills of credit.

The body adjourned in early August, and when it reconvened in September, it continued mobilizing for war and began to look for help from European countries. Meanwhile, Parliament had been at work, passing early in 1776 the Prohibitory Act, which warned all American vessels that they were subject to confiscation by the British Royal Navy. In March, the Congress responded with a warning of its own. In light of the fact that the British had encouraged “Savages to invade the Country” and “Negroes to murder their Masters,” not to mention the most recent act for the confiscation of American ships, Congress specified that any British ship sailing in American waters could be seized and its merchandise considered “lawful prize.”

8.2.1: Movement toward Independence, 1775-1776

While John Dickinson was drafting the Olive Branch Petition, he was also on a committee with Thomas Jefferson that was drafting The Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms. Adopted by Congress just two days before the Olive Branch Petition, The Causes of Taking up Arms admonished Parliament for attempting “to effect their cruel and impolitic purpose of enslaving these Colonies by Violence, and have thereby rendered it necessary for us to close with their last Appeal from Reason to Arms.” The proclamation insisted: “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtably [sic] attainable.” Although the document was approved in July, 1775, it would be a year before independence was declared.

By spring 1776, however, opposition to independence had disappeared from the records of Congress. In part, this change of sentiment was influenced by the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Paine, a native of Britain, wrote about what had already been said in the preceding months in Congress, provincial assemblies, and colonial newspapers. What Paine did was to offer “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” about the condition of the American colonies. Also, members of Congress were exploring the possibility of securing aid from foreign countries, and beginning in early May, the body took an important step: on May 10 it recommended to the colonies that they adopt state governments to replace the colonial structures. Later that month, it appointed a committee consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson to prepare a declaration of independence for possible use; on July 4, this Declaration of Independence was released to the Congress and approved. Only New York withheld approval until July 15.

The Second Continental Congress was the only governing body in the American states other than the state legislatures until the approval of the Articles of Confederation in 1781. During the course of most of the war, the Congress attempted to maintain the colonial army, create coherent diplomatic policies, and direct military strategy. A committee, meanwhile, was working to draft a document uniting the states into one government; the Congress approved the Articles of Confederation in 1777 and released it to the states for ratification.

8.2.2: The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is the most important document to emerge from the Second Continental Congress. It consists of five parts: the introduction, the preamble or a statement of principles, the body of the document which consists of two parts, and the conclusion.

Annotation

The Introduction

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature…entitle them…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to the separation…

The introduction explains that at various times in history it has been necessary for one body to separate itself from another. When this occurs, it is “decent” that the reasons for the separation be stated.

The Preamble

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, Governments are instituted among Men… 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…

The preamble includes a list of principles based on the theories of English political philosopher, John Locke, who wrote 100 years earlier. According to Locke, humans living in what he called a “state of nature,” in other words, before the existence of governments, held certain “natural” rights, which he specified as life, liberty, and property. In order to better protect these rights, humans had created contracts between themselves and a ruler, which implied that, in exchange for protecting their natural rights, a ruler would receive the obedience and support of the people. If, however, their natural rights were not protected, they had the right to rebel, replacing one government with another.

Notice two things about the preamble. One is that Jefferson, a slave holder himself, included the statement that “all men are created equal.” Some controversy arose at the time over whether this statement should be put in the document, as it might be construed as hypocritical in a society in which slavery was widespread. Historian Robert Middlekauff, however, points out that there is no evidence that the inclusion of the equality of humankind created immediate public outcry or even discussion.

Second, Jefferson does not include property as one of the natural rights; rather, he substitutes “pursuit of happiness.” Although Locke did not include the latter in his list of natural rights, he did write in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1693) that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.”

The Body of the Document

Obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers;

Made Judges dependent on his Will alone;

Kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures;

Quartered large bodies of armed troops among us;

Protected [British officials] from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these States;

Imposed taxes upon us without our consent…

The body of the Declaration consists of two parts. The first part contains a lengthy list of the misdeeds of king and Parliament. Included in this list are grievances that had been stated before in the Resolves of the Stamp Act Congress and the various colonial petitions to George III. The king, the document insisted, had performed the deeds listed in the body.

In all, there are around thirty grievances enumerated; in this list can be seen many of the themes that were obvious during the colonial protests of the 1760s and 1770s: taxation must come only from bodies in which the taxed were represented, armies should not be maintained in times of peace and no troops should be arbitrarily quartered in the homes of colonials, and Royal officials should not be allowed to return to England for trial, especially when the charge was murder against colonists.

The second section of the body explains the endeavors the colonists had taken in the past, short of outright rebellion, to right these wrongs: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury

The Conclusion

WE THEREFORE, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world…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…

And so, the document concludes, only one action remains open to the American colonists: they must declare their independence from Great Britain and become “free and independent states.”

The Declaration was released from committee and read into the records of the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. After accepting its text and signing the manuscript, Congress released the document first as a broadside that was distributed en masse to the public; unfortunately, this first manuscript copy of the Declaration has been lost. The document that is usually thought to be the actual Declaration of Independence is the copy that was signed on August 2, 1776 and is currently housed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

8.2.3: Before You Move On...

Key Concepts

The Second Continental Congress gathered in May, 1775 to consider the response of George III to the petition drafted by the First Continental Congress in 1774. A month before they assembled, the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord had taken place, and Congress decided to try one last time at reconciliation with the mother country. It soon became obvious, however, that it was too late to patch up the differences that had been building for over 100 years. Slowly, Congress came to the conclusion that independence was the only option for the American colonies; therefore a committee was created to draft a statement for independence. The committee released the Declaration of Independence to Congress on July 4, 1776, and it was soon released to the new states. No longer would the Americans fight for a “redress of grievances,” but rather for their independence from the mother country.

Test Yourself

Exercise $$\PageIndex{1}$$

The rationale that Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence came primarily from the theories of John Locke.

a. True

b. False

a

Exercise $$\PageIndex{2}$$

Which of the following documents was NOT one drafted by the Second Continental Congress?

a. The Prohibitory Act

b. The Declaration of Independence

c. The Olive Branch Petition

d. The Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms

a

Exercise $$\PageIndex{3}$$

In the Conciliatory Proposition, the mother country gave in to most of the demands of the American colonists.

a. True

b. False

b

Exercise $$\PageIndex{4}$$

The Declaration of Independence consists of ______ sections:

a. One

b. Two

c. Three

d. Four

e. Five