This Day in History: Virginia calls for a Declaration of Independence
On this day in 1776, the Virginia state legislature takes an action that would ultimately lead to our Declaration of Independence.
Armed conflict with Great Britain had been pending for more than a year. Virginia’s legislators were losing patience. America, they resolved, was in a “state of extreme danger.” Under the circumstances, they concluded, “we have no alternative left but an abject submission to the will of those overbearing tyrants, or a total separation from the Crown and Government of Great Britain.”
Naturally, Virginia chose independence!
The legislature instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to make the same proposal to the other colonies. The “eternal law of self-preservation” demanded nothing less.
Richard Henry Lee forwarded the Virginian resolution to John Adams. “[T]he exultation here was extreme,” Lee wrote. “The british flag on the Capitol was immediately Struck and the Continental hoisted in its room.” Adams was glad to see the resolution, and he remarked upon the fact that other states were coming to similar conclusions.
“Is it not a little remarkable,” Adams wrote Lee, “that this Congress and your Convention should come to Resolutions so nearly Similar, on the Same day . . . ?” Decades later, Adams would express a similar thought, but in more detail.
His description shows why so many of our Founders felt that the hand of God was helping during America’s early years.
“The American Revolution was not a common event,” Adams wrote. After all, the “colonies had grown up under constitutions of government so different, there was so great a variety of religions, they were composed of so many different nations, their customs, manners, and habits had so little resemblance, and their intercourse [direct communication] had been so rare, and their knowledge of each other so imperfect, that to unite them in the same principles in theory and the same system of action, was certainly a very difficult enterprise. The complete accomplishment of it in so short a time and by such simple means was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together — a perfection of mechanism which no artist had ever before effected.”
On June 7, 1776, Lee finally presented a resolution to Congress. That resolution was short and to the point, declaring that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States . . . .” Adams had long been ready to declare independence, and he seconded Lee’s motion.
A few days later, three committees were appointed: One was to draft a declaration of independence, a second was to draft a plan for a confederation among the colonies, and a third was to prepare a plan for forming foreign alliances. A delay would follow while these committees went to work. The delay served a purpose, however. It gave some delegates time to contact their state legislatures and to determine the extent of their authority. Were they authorized to vote for independence?
By the first week of July, of course, the delays would be largely over. The colonies would vote to separate from Great Britain.
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (June 7, 1776)
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (June 11, 1776)
Letter from John Adams to Richard Lee (June 4, 1776)
Letter from John Adams to Hezekiah Niles (February 13, 1818)
Letter to John Adams from Richard Lee (May 18, 1776)
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998 edition)
Preamble and Resolution of the Virginia Convention (May 15, 1776)
Richard Henry Lee Resolution in the Second Continental Congress proposing independence for the colonies (1776)