Nearly a month after the conflicts at Lexington and Concord, delegates gathered together in the city of Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. Their goal was to resume where the First Continental Congress had left off the following year, and although independence may have been on the minds of many, it was still a subject that had yet to be openly discussed by the Congress.
Who were these men who put aside their lives and came together to alter the course of America’s history? Some of them you know, some you don’t. For instance, three future presidents were in attendance; George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Adam’s cousin Samuel was also in attendance as was Benjamin Franklin. Are you aware that there were at least two physicians in attendance as well; Benjamin Rush and Josiah Bartlett?
People look back on this event almost as if it were something out of a Hollywood movie, but they fail to realize the solemnity under which these men gathered together; the Colony of Massachusetts had openly engaged in armed conflict with the King’s men and their actions may very well draw the ire of the King upon all the Colonies. Yet at the same time, they too had suffered under the increasingly oppressive laws passed by Parliament. People read about Atlas, the Titan who was condemned to hold the world upon his shoulders for eternity; well these men also had heavy burdens on their shoulders; as the choices they made would affect the future of the American Colonies.
Prior to adjourning the previous October, the First Continental Congress had sent a petition to King George III hoping to avoid a full blown conflict with Britain. When the Second Continental Congress met the following spring they had yet to receive the King’s response. It was highly unlikely that the Colonies petition would do any good, as a letter written by John Adams to a friend had been intercepted by the Kings men in which Adams declared that there had been enough talk of peace and reconciliation; that the Colonies should have already raised a Navy and taken British sailors prisoners. When word of this reached the King it was enough to convince him of the insincerity of their petition, and he refused to even read it. The delegates were essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place; either acquiesce to whatever laws were passed by Parliament, or go to war to defend their rights.
In June, the Virginia delegation, headed by Richard Henry Lee, received authorization from their State Legislature to propose independence, and towards the end of June Lee read the following to the delegates of the Convention:
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.
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
Even after all the Colonies had endured at the hands of King George and Parliament, the idea of an independent America was one which many were not ready to consider. Yet the Congress had heard Lee’s resolution and assigned a Committee of Five to draft such a declaration. This committee, possibly at the suggestion of John Adams, chose a young Thomas Jefferson to be the principle author of that document. Jefferson reluctantly accepted the task at hand, not knowing that what he was about to write would contain the most oft repeated political phrase ever written by man.
When people hear the name Thomas Jefferson, I wonder what passes through their minds. Do they say, yeah, I’ve heard of him, and that’s all they think? Are they aware that Jefferson could read and write in Greek and Latin; that he was an inventor and an avowed collector of Native American artifacts?
I don’t think people today can even get their heads around the intelligence of some of our Founding Fathers. I look at the scribblings I write and compare them to the garbled English I see people use on the social media site Facebook and I wonder what kind of education those people got. Then I look at the things some of our Founders wrote, and compare it to what I write and I am ashamed to even think that I come close to the knowledge and writing skill they possessed.
At the top of my list of Founding Fathers is Thomas Jefferson; the knowledge that this one man possessed is absolutely mind boggling. James Madison, the so-called Father of our Constitution, wrote the following about Jefferson in a letter to Samuel Harrison Smith, “He was certainly one of the most learned men of the age. It may be said of him as has been said of others that he was a “walking Library,” and what can be said of but few such prodigies, that the Genius of Philosophy ever walked hand in hand with him.”
Over a century later, when President John F. Kennedy hosted 49 Nobel Prize winners at the White House, he is said to have commented, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
When Jefferson wrote something, he pondered each word, each sentence carefully; there was no wasted effort and no superfluous phrasing; he said what needed to be said, and he said it in such a way that it almost rang of poetry. I can only imagine how our Declaration of Independence may have sounded had they chosen anyone but Jefferson to write it.
When Jefferson sequestered himself away for the task assigned to him, he sought, not only to write a simple declaration stating that the Colonies sought independence and a list of the grievances against the King of England, he sought to write a formal declaration on the nature of our rights and the reasons for which governments exist, and those by which governments can be altered or torn down.
Even so, when Jefferson presented his first draft to the Committee of Five, they edited it down by nearly one fourth; as they felt some of what he had written would cause some delegates to the Congress to oppose it.
For instance, in his original draft Jefferson stated, “…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…”, thereby laying the blame for slavery at the feet of the King of England. Regardless of what was edited out, and how the sentence structure was altered, a final document was prepared and ready for the Congress to receive or reject.
I wonder if people today think about what took place in the days immediately preceding the voting to seek independence; do they think the delegates just unanimously decided, “Hey, we’ve had enough of old King George. Let’s write up a quick document declaring our independence and get on with it.” Is that what people think took place? I often think that is exactly what people think.
There were many in attendance who did not want independence, and when it came time to vote on Jefferson’s document they voted against it. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania voted against it, as did James Duane, Robert Livingston and John Jay of New York. Carter Braxton, Robert Morris, George Reed and Edward Rutledge opposed it, but voted in favor to give the impression of unanimous consent.
Many an impassioned argument was heard by the members in attendance; both for and against independence. One of the most memorable ones, at least for me, came from John Adams, who stated, “Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote. It is true, indeed, that in the beginning we aimed not at independence. But there’s a Divinity that shapes our ends…Why, then, should we defer the Declaration?…You and I, indeed, may rue it. We may not live to see the time when this Declaration shall be made good. We may die; die Colonists, die slaves, die, it may be, ignominiously and on the scaffold. Be it so. Be it so.
“If it be the pleasure of Heaven that my country shall require the poor offering of my life, the victim shall be ready…. But while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country.”
In closing out this segment I would like to leave you with a few final words. I could have provided a few sundry quotes from the Declaration of Independence, but that would not do what Jefferson accomplished true justice. You need to find some time alone and sit down and read what Jefferson wrote and let it sink down into your hearts. You need to feel the soundness of his reasoning and let the truth of his words rise up in your breasts until you too understand the foundation upon which everything America was to stand for would be built.
At the same time you must remember the solemnity of the occasion when the delegates were called upon to vote for or against Jefferson’s creation. Thirty five years after the vote was taken, and independence gained, Dr. Benjamin Rush sat down to write about that memorable day in a letter to John Adams, stating, “Do you recollect the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up, one after another, to the table of the President of Congress, to subscribe what was believed by many at that time to be our own death warrants?”
That, above all things, is what you must remember about the day which saw 56 delegates vote to make America a free country; that they did so at the risk of everything they had. What they did showed the degree to which they were willing to stand up for their beliefs and a level of courage that is, if you ask me, relatively non-existent in this country today.
For better or worse the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence had burnt all bridges, there was no going back to the way things were; they would either gain their independence or they would die on the battlefields or the gallows.
Part 5: From Beginning to End ~ How America Lost It’s Soul
The primary topic of discussion for the Second Continental Congress was whether or not the Colonies should support Boston and join in their rebellion against the Crown. So it almost seems inevitable that when Richard Henry Lee introduced his resolution suggesting a complete and irrevocable dissolution of the ties which bound the Colonies to England that a committee was formed to draft a declaration of independency. Yet there is more to Lee’s resolution than simply declaring that the Colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”
You have to realize, that at this moment in time the Colonies, although subject to the jurisdiction and authority of the Crown, were essentially independent from each other. Lee’s resolution also called for them to join together loosely in a confederation for their mutual benefit. The result of this suggestion was the Articles of Confederation; our nation’s first Constitution.
This wasn’t the first time such a suggestion was made; so the delegates were not absolutely certain that any proposal for a confederation would be accepted by the legislatures of each Colony.
Twenty two years earlier, Dr Benjamin Franklin proposed the Albany Plan which would have established a confederation of the Colonies during the French and Indian Wars. The plan was soundly rejected by all Colonies, so it was not certain that things would go any differently this time either.
Nonetheless, on June 12, 1776, the day after a committee was chosen to draft our Declaration of Independence, another committee, this time consisting of 13 individuals, was chosen to draft a document outlining the proposed confederacy. This committee met for a month, and on July 12 presented their completed document to the Congress. It was then debated and amended over the course of another year, until in 1777 the finished document was approved and forwarded to the States for their consideration.
Virginia was the first State to ratify these Articles of Confederation, doing so on December 16, 1777, and Maryland was the last to do so, agreeing to them on February 2. 1781.
I think now would be a good time to bring up the subject of true sovereignty. Sovereignty is defined as the absolute or supreme political authority in a nation or state. Although it does not directly come out and say so, our Declaration of Independence declares that this sovereignty is held by the people, “…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…“
When it was proposed that this confederation be formed, most Colonies had already written, or were in the process of writing their own Constitutions to establish governments to represent the citizens of each Colony. After all, that is all that a constitution is; the act of a people constituting a form of government; declaring the shape it will take, the powers it will exercise on behalf of those it represents, and any limitations that might be imposed upon it.
This principle is so vitally important for you to understand, so I wish to discuss it a bit further. I have used the word delegate numerous times so far in my writings, but I am not sure if you truly understand what it implies. To delegate is to give another power to act on your behalf. A power of attorney is a form of delegated power; it can be general, or it can be very specific; depending upon what powers you want that delegate to exercise on your behalf.
The delegates to the Continental Congress were acting on the authority of the States they represented; they could not agree to anything without that authority having been expressly granted them by the States which chose them. Today people call those they elect politicians, when the correct term would be representatives, or delegates to the government established by the people in 1789. Any system of government based upon the idea that all political power is ultimately held by the people is a system in which the power to enact law is a delegated authority; and not to be exercised beyond the specific limits for which it was originally delegated.
Therefore, as the people had already delegated the authority to govern on their behalf’s to State governments, the delegates to the Continental Congress could not unilaterally decide that the States must submit to becoming members of a Confederation; that choice must be made by the representatives of the citizens of each State. And as each State was extremely reluctant to agree to anything which would weaken its authority, it was not without some doubt that any proposal for a Confederation might not be approved unanimously.
We do not have a confederation today, so it is highly unlikely that most people know what one is. One definition; the one which I prefer to use, states that a confederation consists of “…a number of full sovereign states linked together for the maintenance of their external and internal independence by a recognised international treaty into a union with organs of its own, which are vested with a certain power over the member ‘states’, but not over the citizens of these states.“
Under a confederation, the government established by whatever document creates the confederation can only pass laws that directly affect the States as entities. The government of the confederation cannot pass laws that say the people must do this, or refrain from doing that; it can only direct the laws it enacts upon the legislatures of the States.
Think of a confederation as a large scale version of a Neighborhood Watch program in which homeowners unite together to pass ordinances which protect their neighborhood. The individuals within that neighborhood are still free to govern the internal workings, or politics, of their home which the Neighborhood Watch protects them from crime and other dangers.
You have to remember, all power, particularly political power, is inherent in the people. The people had already established governments for their States to govern the affairs of these States. For a confederated government to have any power and authority, it must be delegated to them. In other words, the States must accept that they relinquish certain powers and hand those powers over to the government of the confederation.
The ratified Articles of Confederation were our nation’s first constitution; as they established our first centralized government. Up until that point, each State had been an entirely independent and self-governing entity. So forming a confederacy was a big deal back then; it was not something that was done hastily and without a great deal of thought on the part of the individual States.
Now would be a good time to plant a seed for future discussion. Why is it that it took 4 years, in the midst of war against England, for the States to ratify the Articles of Confederation, yet it took only a year to ratify the Constitution once it was sent to the States for their consideration?
Although it did take 4 years to ratify the Articles of Confederation, the Congress established by that document acted as the de facto government of the United States throughout its war with England. It only became the de jure government when the Articles of Confederation were finally ratified by Maryland in 1781.
As our nation’s first constitution, The Articles of Confederation bears a certain amount of study to see what it says. For one thing, there was no Executive, nor was there any Judiciary; just a Congress representing the States. Secondly, the powers reserved to the States were extensive and those granted to the Congress were few, and expressly delegated. But more importantly, any law passed by the Congress had to be confirmed, or accepted by the Legislatures of all 13 States before it could go into effect.
The Articles of Confederation were written in such a way as to ensure the sovereignty and independence of each State; only granting Congress the necessary powers to manage the general affairs of the nation.
Yet all this was done in a time of grave emergency; the ongoing war for independence. A war which I will discuss in Part 6 of this ongoing series…
~ The Author ~
Neal Ross, Student of history, politics, patriot and staunch supporter of the 2nd Amendment. Send all comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you liked Neal’s latest column, maybe you’ll like his latest booklet: The Civil War: (The Truth You Have Not Been Told) AND don’t forget to pick up your copy of ROSS: Unmasked – An Angry American Speaks Out – and stay tuned – Neal has a new, greatly expanded book coming soon dealing with the harsh truths about the so-called American Civil War of 1861-1865. Life continues to expand for this prolific writer and guardian of TRUE American history.