Declaring Independence

It was the end of June 1776. Gen. George Washington reported the arrival of some 50 British ships near New York harbor - and the distress of American soldiers for lack of arms. The Revolutionary War was expanding, and the Continental Congress had still not agreed whether to declare independence.

Distinguished historian Pauline Maier of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology takes up the story in these words, used with permission by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., from her new book "American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence," copyright (c) 1997 by Pauline Maier.

On July 1, Congress again resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole "to take into consideration the resolution respecting independency." The debates went on through most of the day, but they were, John Adams claimed, a waste of time, since nothing was said "but what had been repeated and hackneyed in that Room before an hundred Times, for Six Months past."

Details survive only of an impassioned but hopeless speech by John Dickinson, who indeed recapitulated much of what had been said in the debates of June.

Finally, "at the request of a colony," the delegates agreed to delay their final decision until the following day. Jefferson told the story: nine colonies had voted in favor of declaring Independence (the four New England states, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia); South Carolina and Pennsylvania opposed the motion; Delaware's two delegates split, and New York's delegates abstained because their twelve-month-old instructions allowed them to do nothing that would impede reconciliation.

Then Edward Rutledge of South Carolina asked that the Final Congressional decision be put off until July 2 because he thought his delegation, though it disapproved of the motion, would then vote in favor "for the sake of unanimity."

When Congress reconvened on July 2, it received correspondence from Washington and others, mostly relating to the military situation. It ordered the publication of one letter from Lieutenant Colonel Campbell to General Howe, and referred others to the "Board of War and Ordnance," a five-member committee that had been set up in June, except for the paymaster general's weekly account, which it submitted to the "Board of Treasury." Congress then received from the Committee of the Whole the resolutions Richard Henry Lee had first proposed almost a month earlier.

When the vote was put, the nine affirmative votes of the previous day had grown to twelve: not only South Carolina voted in favor, but also Delaware - the arrival of Caesar Rodney broke the tie in that delegation's vote - and Pennsylvania.

Because John Dickinson and Robert Morris abstained on July 2, the four-to-three vote of Pennsylvania delegates against Independence on the previous day became a three-to-two vote in favor of Independence. A week later New York's Provincial Congress convention allowed its delegates to add the colony's approval to that of the other twelve colonies.

THE politics of patience - of slackening the pace of the "fleetest sailors" until they kept pace with the "dullest and slowest," that all might arrive at their destiny together - had triumphed. Public unanimity disguised differences of judgment on timing but not on Independence itself. In the end, there was no alternative; even the most hesitant agreed on that.

With Independence itself adopted, Congress again resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole to consider the document written to "declare the causes" of the colonies' separation from Britain.

Other issues kept interrupting the Committee's discussions. On July 3, the British landed on Staten Island, and, while New Jersey militiamen were helping defend New York, threatened the Jersey coast.

Congress asked Pennsylvania's Committee of Safety to send as many troops as it could to help defend Monmouth, New Jersey, and ordered a circular letter written to county committees in Pennsylvania requesting them to raise troops and send them to Philadelphia "as fast as raised" (except for those from Bucks, Berks, and Northampton counties, which were sent to New Brunswick, New Jersey). Congress also authorized its Marine Committee to hire shipwrights to go to Lake Champlain on terms that Congress defined (each man would get "34 dollars and two-thirds per month" and rations that included a half pint of rum per day).

And yet, as the British began to bring the greatest fleet and the largest army ever assembled in North America into action against the Americans, Congress devoted the better part of two days to revising the draft declaration of Independence.

Wars, it understood, were not won by ships and sailors and arms alone. Words, too, had power to serve the cause of victory.

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