On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress listened as Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a resolution declaring the United States independent from Great Britain:
“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.”
It was a bold move. Several states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina were not yet ready to support this potentially fatal step. Failure to approve the resolution could lead to the collapse of the shaky alliance between the 13 colonies. An earlier proposal by John Adams on May 15 declaring that “it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed” barely passed. Four colonies voted against it and the delegation from Maryland stormed out of the room in protest.
Congress agreed to delay the vote on Lee’s Resolution until July 1. During that time, Congress appointed a committee to draft a formal declaration of independence to accompany the resolution. Consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson, the committee selected Jefferson to be the primary author of the document. A rough draft of the document was presented to Congress for review on June 28.
Debate followed. And on July 2, 1776, the Congress voted to approve the resolution that had been proposed a month earlier – declaring the United States independent from Great Britain. After voting for independence, Congress turned its attention to Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a statement explaining their decision. Members debated and revised the wording of the Declaration, finally approving a final version of the document on July 4. (There is some debate on when the document was actually signed with the National Archives suggesting an August 2 date.)
We celebrate on the 4th but John Adams understood that it was the fateful vote two days earlier that is what we are really observing. In his famous letter to Abigail:Read more