On this day in 1775, the Continental Congress approves a Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.
Wait. Congressional delegates had approved an Olive Branch Petition to King George only one day earlier. (See yesterday’s post.) One day they are petitioning for reconciliation and the next day they are justifying their use of arms? What was going on?
At this point in time, it had been more than two months since the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord. The Continental Congress felt that it was time to issue a declaration, explaining why Americans had taken up arms against their mother country.
Of course, the process of drafting this Declaration wasn’t entirely smooth. Tension still existed between those Americans who wanted to reconcile with Great Britain and those who thought that attempts at reconciliation would be futile.
The first committee appointed to write the Declaration didn’t quite get the job done, so Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson were added to the committee. Jefferson, of course, would go on to author the Declaration of Independence. Dickinson was the man who had pushed for the Olive Branch Petition. He was very upset at Parliament, but he still hoped to reconcile with the King.
Jefferson took the first stab at a draft. “It was too strong for Mr. Dickinson,” Jefferson later wrote. “He still retained the hope of reconciliation with the mother-country, and was unwilling it should be lessened by offensive statements. . . . We therefore requested him to take the paper and put it into a form he could approve.”
Dickinson drafted a statement that was almost entirely new. He kept only a few paragraphs of Jefferson’s original. Interestingly, Dickinson made the section about Parliament’s abuses harsher, but then he softened the Declaration by adding a section specifically denying an American desire for independence.
As approved by Congress, the Declaration spoke of a Parliament that had claimed too much power. “What is to defend us against so enormous, so unlimited a power?” asked Congress. “Not a single man of those who assume it, is chosen by us; or is subject to our controul or influence.”
“Our cause is just. Our union is perfect,” the Continental Congress concluded. Thus, “we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to dye Free-men rather than live Slaves.”
The pleas in both the Declaration and the Olive Branch Petition would fall on deaf ears. The Declaration of Independence would follow only one year later.
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Cornelis Henri de Witt, Jefferson and the American Democracy: An Historical Study (1862)
John Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (2013)
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998 edition)
Remarks on the Life and Character of John Dickinson (Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Oct. 1890))