When the First Continental Congress adjourned in October of 1774, the delegates agreed to meet again in Philadelphia on May 5, 1775. Between the First and the Second Continental Congress, many events happened that increased the tensions between the British and the Colonists: the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Colonist defeat in Quebec. The Colonists tried wanted to protect their rights and many Patriots had decided they wanted to fight against the British oppressive taxation and laws.
When they met again in the Second Continental Congress, they debated whether they should declare independence and risk a war with Britain or should they try again to negotiate with King George III. The delegates decided to try to work out the problems in a reasonable fashion. They wrote "The Olive Branch Petition" and sent it to King George III to try to avoid war. King George III refused to read it and continued to aggravate the Colonists. Thomas Paine's Common Sense had been published in February 1776 and many were convinced there was no choice but to declare independence.
The Patriots had pushed the British out of Boston with a buildup of artillery at Dorchester and were victorious at Charleston where they fought against Admiral Howe's navy trying to capture the port city. There was a feeling of optimism, but there were some Patriots who didn't want independence if it meant war. Finally, on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee made a formal proposal that the Colonies declare their independence from England and King George III:
|RESOLVED, That these United Colonies are, and of right out 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.|
That same day Congress appointed five men to a committee led by Thomas Jefferson to write a declaration of independence for the 13 colonies. Jefferson's wrote in his journal:
|It appearing in the course of these debates that the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland & South Carolina were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem, but that they were fast advancing to that state, it was thought most prudent to wait a while for them, and to postpone the final decisions to July 1, but that this might occasion as little delay as possible a committee was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence. The Commee. were John Adams, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston and myself. Committees were also appointed at the same time to prepare a plan of confederation for the colonies, and to state the terms proper to be proposed for foreign alliance.|
Everyone on the committee agreed Thomas Jefferson was the best writer and asked him to do the actual writing. It took two weeks, from June 11 to June 28, 1776, for Thomas Jefferson to finish the declaration. Personal liberty was an important theme. He also listed all the acts passed by King George III as the main reasons for the Colonies wanting independence.
Thomas Jefferson presented the declaration of independence to Congress on July 1st. The delegates debated over parts of it. The middle colonies weren't in favor of any declaration of independence. On the first vote, only nine colonies voted in favor of declaring independence. South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York were against it. A new delegate from Delaware, Caesar Rodney, changed Delaware's vote and joined the colonies in favor of independence. Later that day twelve colonies voted for declaring independence, and New York abstained, but approved a move towards independence. On July 2nd Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was accepted.
John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, and said:
...will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward, forevermore.
You will think me transported with enthusiasm, but I am not. I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of ravishing light and glory. I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that prosperity will triumph in that days' transaction, even though we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.
On the 3rd and 4th of July, the delegates went over and over the Declaration. They made a few changes, but by the time they adjourned on July 4th, the Declaration was in its final form - the one we know today. This is why July 4th is celebrated as America's Day of Independence and not July 2nd as John Adams suggested.
As the Second Continental Congress was voting to approve a Declaration of Independence, Sir William Howe was sailing from Nova Scotia on his way to New York.