What factors finally pushed the Second Continental Congress to declare independence in July 1776?

Declaration of Independence BroadsideBy the spring of 1776 when the Second Continental Congress reconvened in Philadelphia, the Patriots were winning the hearts and minds of many Neutrals and more people were demanding a formal and complete break with the Mother Country. There were several calls for independence across the thirteen colonies.

On April 12, 1776, the North Carolina Provincial Congress sitting at Halifax, North Carolina voted to direct its Congressional delegation to vote for independence. This vote today is known as the Halifax Resolves. This would be the first call by any colonial government to its delegates in Philadelphia to vote for independence. On May 4, 1776, the Colony of Rhode Island declared itself free and independent of Great Britain.

Though North Carolina was the first colony to direct its delegates to vote for independence, the delegates were not specifically instructed to move the Continental Congress to declare itself independent of Great Britain. The first colony to direct its Congressional Delegation to propose independence from Great Britain was Virginia. Meeting in Williamsburg on May 15, 1776, the Virginia Convention, the provisional revolutionary government which had replaced the Royal government in Virginia, voted without opposition to instruct its delegates in Philadelphia to declare “the United Colonies free and independent states.” Richard Henry Lee, one of Virginia’s delegates, presented a three-part resolution to Congress on June 7, 1776. This motion, known today as Lee’s Resolution, proposed that Congress declare independence from Great Britain. The Resolution also sought to form foreign alliances and prepare a plan of colonial confederation. Lee’s motion was seconded by John Adams.

Though the resolution had wide-support in Congress, there was a motion to delay discussion of the resolution for three weeks. One of the many factors that had delayed congressional action was the fact that few delegations had sufficient guidance from their home colonies as to how to vote. In fact, several delegations were under strict orders to vote against independence. It was hoped this period of delay would be utilized by the various delegations to seek guidance from their home governments.

The move for independence by the Second Continental Congress would be consolidated in the final weeks of June. On June 14, 1776, the Connecticut Assembly instructed its delegates to support independence. On June 15, 1776, New Hampshire and Delaware authorized its delegates to join the movement to declare the colonies independent. After having Royal Governor William Franklin, the son of Benjamin Franklin, arrested, New Jersey chose new delegates and authorized them on June 21, 1775 to vote for independence.

As the movement for independence was gathering strength and it appeared likely independence would be approved, Congress appointed a committee of five delegates to actually draft an official declaration of independence. Though composed of five members, most of the writing of the initial declaration was done by Thomas Jefferson.

After waiting for delegations to receive guidance from their home colonies, Congress again considered the question of independence on July 1, 1776. Instead of referring the important question to one particular committee and asking the committee to report back, Congress opted to decide the issue as a committee of the whole body. After debating the issue, Congress voted on the resolution proposed by Virginia. Each colony was given one vote in Congress and delegations voted on the question within their delegations. Nine colonies voted in favor of independence. Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against declaring independence. The New York delegation had not received guidance from their state as to how to vote and therefore abstained from voting. Delaware was split when one of their delegates voted in favor of independence, one delegate voted against, and the third was absent.

On July 2, 1776, Congress again took up the question of independence for a final vote. On this decisive day, only the delegation from New York voted to abstain. South Carolina and Pennsylvania reversed their decision from the day before and voted for independence. Caesar Rodney, the third Delaware delegate, who had not voted on July 1 traveled from Delaware to cast the deciding vote within the Delaware delegation. Rodney’s action added Delaware to the colonies in support of declaring America independent of Great Britain.

After voting for independence, Congress turned to the wording of the Declaration of Independence. Congress made a number of changes to the draft written by Thomas Jefferson. On July 4, 1776, the final wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved and the document was forwarded to John Dunlap, a printer, for publication.

In the same month, General Howe, who had been forced to abandon Boston in March 1775, returned from Great Britain with the largest British Army ever to land in North America. This army, composed of over 30,000 soldiers, including several thousand Hessians from a number of small German states, began landing on Staten Island. General Washington quickly discovered how difficult it was to defend New York City from an enemy with superior naval and military power. Congress had made the fateful step in July 1776 and declared itself independent of Great Britain. The next seven years would mark America’s struggle on the road to independence.