The United States is celebrating its independence today, but some historians say the nation was actually born during the meeting of the first Continental Congress that convened on Sept. 5, 1774. Most of the men chosen as delegates had never met one another, but they had similar goals because of what they had read and heard in speeches.
Some of the better known delegates were George Washington, Patrick Henry, John and Samuel Adams, John Jay and Roger Sherman. Not everyone agreed about how to proceed, but a compromise was worked out between those who wanted independence and those who wanted a solution with Great Britain.
The Congress published a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, but still expressed loyalty to the king and people of Great Britain. It set May 10, 1775, as the date for a meeting of the second Continental Congress in case the British government refused to heed its petitions and protests over unfair taxes and laws.
British Gen. Thomas Gage, who was in North America, had other ideas. His unsuccessful attempt to seize military supplies at Concord, about 20 miles from Boston, on April 18, 1775, sparked the battles of Lexington and Concord that marked the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.
Paul Revere spread the word about the conflicts and farmers with their flintlocks joined a militia around Boston that grew to 16,000 men who held Gage under siege in Boston. Then came the Battle of Bunker Hill that was actually fought on Breed’s Hill. Although the colonial troops lost, it was considered a moral victory. British Gen. William Howe’s loss of over a thousand men was double that of the Americans. One report said one-eighth of all the British officers killed in the war fell at Bunker Hill.
The Continental Congress then had two choices: Should it treat the battles as local matters or should it take responsibility in the name of all the colonies and declare armed resistance to Great Britain? As one report said, “It adopted the latter courageous decision.”
A famous pamphlet called “Common Sense,” written by Thomas Paine, set the wheels in motion for the Declaration of Independence. Paine wrote that God planned the colonies to be the nucleus of a great American nation, eventually to cover a continent.
Paine added that the new nation was to be an example to the world of a people free from the tyranny of kings and nobles. The future belonged to America. Let her accept her birthright by immediately breaking off all connection with Great Britain.
Over 100,000 of Paine’s pamphlets were sold. George Washington called it “sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning.” Edmund Randolph said next to King George, Thomas Paine was the man responsible for the Declaration of Independence.
Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution in Congress saying the colonies had a right to be free and independent states and all connections between them and Great Britain ought to be totally dissolved.
Lee’s resolution was introduced in June of 1776, and a committee was formed to prepare a public paper (the Declaration) justifying the actions of Congress in case it should vote for independence. The committee included Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson was asked to write the Declaration of Independence.
The Continental Congress adopted Lee’s resolution on July 2, 1776. John Adams predicted the date would be celebrated “as the most memorable epoch (the beginning of a distinctive period) in the history of America.” However, the Congress didn’t accept the Declaration until July 4, the date we annually celebrate independence.
“Our Country’s History,” a text I used when I taught American history for over four years, said the Declaration accomplished five things: It cleared the air, put an end to the farce of fighting against a king while still claiming loyalty and it called upon colonists to choose between loyalty to the United States or to the government of Great Britain. The Declaration also offered France and Spain, England’s rivals, a chance to help the Americans, and it gave this country’s army a cause worth fighting for.
Washington had the Declaration read to his troops on July 9, 1776. “The general hopes,” said the order of the day, “that this important event will serve as an incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of this country depend (under God) solely on the success of our arms.”
What Washington hoped for came to pass, and the United States gained its independence from Great Britain with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The men involved in the war and in the writing of the Declaration of Independence took extremely bold steps in their day to gain this country’s freedom and independence, and some gave their lives for the cause. Many others have made the same sacrifices since then to protect our freedom and independence, and our celebration today helps us remember them all.