On this day in 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopts a written Declaration pronouncing approval of the Lee Resolution for independence which passed July 2, 1776. From the steamy confines of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the Declaration announced that the thirteen American Colonies then at war with the Kingdom of Great Britain would regard themselves as thirteen independent sovereign states no longer under British rule; a nation was born.
By the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain had been at war for more than a year. Relations between the colonies and their mother country had been degrading since 1763, ironically the year American settlers helped Britain bring the French and Indian war to victorious closure in the Northeast.
Almost immediately after expelling the French, the British Parliament began enacting a series of measures to increase revenue from the colonies, such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, in an apparent good faith belief that these measures were the legitimate means of having the colonies pay their fair share of costs to remain protected in the British Empire.
Whilst many firebrands and essayists argued that Parliament should have no dominion whatsoever over the Colonies, the arrangement of a British Commonwealth was foreseen as late as 1774 by American writers such as Samuel Adams, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson. As such Parliament would act as the legislature of Great Britain, but the Colonies, each with their own legislatures, would remain connected to the empire only through their allegiance to the Crown.
The issue of Parliament’s authority over the colonies became a crisis after Britain passed the Coercive, or Intolerable Acts in 1774, to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party the year previous. In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to coordinate a response, organized a boycott of British goods and petitioned the king for repeal of the acts. And yet, even after the Shot Heard ‘Round the World in April 1775, King George’s call for foreign assistance to put down the American rebellion, and his statement that “blows must decide whether they (the colonies) are to be subject to this country or independent,” many held out hope for some reconciliation.
Finally, in the confluence of the Brit’s passage of the Prohibitory Act (a naval blockade) and publication of Thomas Paine’s call to action in “Common Sense,” the course was set for inexorable, historic rupture. Having convened shortly after Lexington and Concord, support in the sporadic Second Continental Congress for a declaration of independence was at last consolidated in the final weeks of June 1776.
On July 2, considering the resolution drafted by the “Committee of Five,” comprised in part of Franklin, John Adams and Jefferson, South Carolina reversed its previous position and voted for independence. The tie in the Delaware delegation was broken by the timely arrival of sickly Caesar Rodney, who voted for independence, and Pennsylvania’s delegation deadlock was broken through two abstentions. Thus, the resolution of independence had been adopted with twelve affirmative votes and New York’s abstention; with this, the colonies formally and robustly severed all political bonds with Great Britain.
Looking last to artful English language usage surrounding the Declaration, one sentence is seen as perhaps the most beautiful and consequential ever written: “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.”
For his part, contemporaneous to his signature, convention president John Hancock remarked “We are about to brave the storm in a ship made of paper. And how it will end, only God will know.”