All America Looks Up to Virginia;” Virginia and the Declaration of Independence

Second Continental Congress (July 1775-January 1776)

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Second Continental Congress (July 1775-January 1776) Between May and November the conservatives maintained a sizable majority in Philadelphia. The radicals recognized this and were extremely careful not to get ahead of public opinion. On July 3 George Washington took command of the army at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Two days later Congress approved the Olive Branch Petition, affirming American loyalty to Great Britain and entreating George III to prevent further bloodshed. On July 6 Congress adopted The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, explaining why the thirteen colonies had taken up arms. In the fall Congress began focusing on commerce and trade and on military affairs.

Richard Henry Lee assumed a more active role in Congress in the fall of 1775, openly attacking British rule in America on the floor. Relying heavily on information from his brothers Arthur and William in London, Lee established closer ties with English radicals who agreed with him that ties between the colonies and the Crown were part of a voluntary agreement, and that theoretically they could be dissolved. After George III proclaimed the colonies in a state of rebellion and seeking independence, Lee began talking more openly about this. In his opinion Britain had forced America into a position “contrary to our earnest, early and repeated petitions for peace, liberty, and safety.”

Declaring independence and establishing governments to protect constitutional rights were closely linked in the minds of Americans. Richard Henry Lee recognized this early on, and throughout the winter of 1775-1776, he focused his energies on how best to accomplish independence. On December 23 Lee left the Second Continental Congress and returned to Virginia, hoping to persuade the Convention to replace the colony’s Committee of Safety with a new government.

By February 1776 Richard Henry Lee’s thinking focused on what he considered the three steps Americans must take to preserve their rights and liberties. He was convinced that new state governments had to be established, and a collective declaration of independence issued to the world. Lee believed that independence was necessary before America could solicit aid from foreign nations or establish military and trade alliances. No nation would aid a people who still claimed attachment to a mother country.

In Philadelphia Benjamin Harrison was named chairman of a new department for foreign affairs. A week later he was assigned to the Committee of Secret Correspondence to communicate with America’s supporters in Britain and Ireland. In December Harrison proposed that Congress fit out one or two vessels to deal with ex-Virginia governor Dunmore’s raids on the Chesapeake Bay.

In late October George III announced to Parliament that the American colonies were in a state of rebellion and seeking independence. Details of the king’s speech reached Congress on January 7, 1776 amid confusing reports that the town of Norfolk, Virginia, had been shelled and destroyed by British naval vessels. The severity of the situation only worsened when news arrived that on December 22 George III had authorized his navy to begin seizing and attacking American ships.

These reports were damaging blows to conservatives still trying to stem the rising tide for independence. For conservatives, however, the king’s speech offered a ray of hope for the conservatives because it proposed sending commissioners to America with authority to iron out differences between the colonies and London. James Wilson, a leading Pennsylvania conservative, pressed Congress to send a response to the king, indicating that Congress was in favor of reconciliation.

On February 13 the conservatives presented a poorly written Address to the People of the United States, calling on Congress to communicate directly with the people and “inform them of our Transactions and of the present State of Affairs.” The Address pointed out that in the event of war, the people would be called on to make great sacrifices. “Much was said about Independency,” wrote one delegate, “and the Mode and Propriety of stating our Dependence on the King.” The Address sparked a hot exchange of opinions but failed to produce the desired effect, and Congress voted to table it. This was an important victory for the radicals. Ten days earlier the Address might have been accepted, but now the conservatives were on the defensive. From this point forward independence was an open topic in Congress.

Talk of commissioners continued to be an obstacle to those considering independence from Britain. “There is a certain Ld Drummond,” Francis Lightfoot Lee informed his brother Richard Henry, “who persuades the fools who are gaping after a reconciliation, that he is in the secrets of the inner Cabinet, that the sincere wish is to make up with America, upon her own terms.” It was an absurd idea, Francis Lightfoot continued, but “many friends & well meaning people are taken in & wish loudly for Congress to send deputies home.” The radicals, he told his brother, needed him in Philadelphia. On March 5 George Wythe had proposed that only Congress should be allowed to negotiate a peace settlement, but his motion was voted down 8 to 3. Francis Lightfoot Lee became concerned that the independence movement was losing steam, and that his brother’s voice was sorely needed in Philadelphia. He encouraged him to return as soon as possible. On March 11, Richard Henry Lee resumed his seat in the Congress.

The Virginia delegation to Congress was not inactive in Lee’s absence. It was openly working in support of resistance to what it viewed as hostile depredations. Benjamin Harrison was placed on a standing Committee of the Marine charged with creating an American navy. On March 15 he was made chairman of the Committee of the Whole, an important position that placed him in the center of the most important Congressional affairs. George Wythe too had begun to see independence as the sole remaining alternative available to the colonies, and he worked closely with John Adams to push the radical agenda. Wythe seized several opportunities to argue the colonies’ right to contract alliances with foreign governments.

Still, the pace of progress toward independence remained slow. Thomas Nelson explained his frustrations in a letter to a friend: “Independence, confederation, foreign alliance, are as formidable to some of the congress, I fear a majority, as an apparition to a weak, enervated woman.”

Then, on March 19, 1776 Richard Henry Lee and George Wythe made the boldest move to date: they offered a proposal making the king responsible for America’s miseries rather than Parliament. This proposal stunned the delegation, and a debate lasted for four hours before the measure was defeated. The Lee-Wythe proposal, however, showed clearly that allegiance to the king was evaporating.

The Virginians pressed Congress on other fronts as well. Wythe and Benjamin Harrison took the floor and argued that letters of marque should be issued to American vessels so they could attack British shipping. Finally, in late March Congress authorized several armed colonial to begin cruising the seas in search of British trade vessels. This marked another significant step toward American independence: in Europe issuing letters of marque preceded declarations of war.

The door to reconciliation was closing. When James Wilson of Pennsylvania and several other conservatives prepared an address to Congress against independence, George Wythe adamantly opposed it on the floor, and in the end it was not read before Congress. Wythe served on other important committees, including a three man committee charged with documenting hostilities committed against Americans since March 1775.

Congress had other concerns besides independence. For more than a year, the delegates had been encouraging individual colonies to assume the role of self-government, but there had been little agreement on what form continental or state governments should take. All that Congress had been able to achieve on this front was to enact plans for foreign trade and alliance.

The militants now began pushing Congress more forcefully to recommend that each colony establish a government and that a confederation of these new governments be established. Richard Henry Lee and John Adams urged Congress to assume the lead in the movement for permanent separation from Britain. Congress must become the focal point of the independence movement, the radicals reasoned. The American people were looking to Congress to steer and guide them, and Congress must provide that leadership. The collapse of royal government in Virginia and in the other colonies threatened to create civil anarchy. More British forces had begun arriving, and the threat of war loomed high. Thomas Nelson sensed the urgency: “We have only two months, if that, to guard against the whole power of Great Britain.”

The Virginians scratched off letters to delegates of the upcoming convention at Richmond. If the Convention acted decisively, said Richard Henry Lee, and set an example for the other twelve colonies by “taking up Government,” and sending instructions to Philadelphia for their delegates to “pursue the most effectual measures for the Security of America,” this might shift the balance in favor of declaration of independence in Philadelphia. Lee was also aware of the critical role Patrick Henry would play in the Convention, and on April 20 wrote him that “Ages yet unborn, and millions existing at the present, must rue or bless that Assembly, on which their happiness or misery will so eminently depend.”

The radicals now attempted to seize the initiative from the conservatives and plot Congress’ direction. British reinforcements, they argued, had already arrived in Boston. A British military campaign was set to be launched in the upcoming spring and summer. Norfolk, Virginia had been burned. British mail service had been stopped and post offices closed. Congress took initial steps in December to suppress loyalist sympathizers and began laying a foundation for a permanent navy. On November 9 it adopted an oath of secrecy.


Fourth Virginia Convention, December 1-11, 1775 (Richmond) and January 14-20, 1776 (Williamsburg) The line between radicals and conservatives was clearly drawn when the Fourth Virginia Convention met in Richmond on December 1. The colony had appealed to Congress for aid in suppressing ex-governor Dunmore. On December 4 Congress advised it to continue resisting Dunmore and authorized the establishment of a government “during the continuance of the present dispute between Great Britain and these colonies.” The conservatives now knew that hope of preserving Virginia’s political connection with Britain had dissipated, and that the independence movement was gaining irreversible momentum. The convention empowered the Committee of Safety to be the source of governmental authority in Virginia.

None of the previous Conventions had openly discussed independence, but that changed in the first week of November. On the seventh Dunmore issued a proclamation that sent shock waves reverberating through the colony. He declared martial law and offered freedom to slaves and indentured servants who joined his forces at Norfolk. Shortly thereafter, he commenced a campaign of terror against the colony, ravaging the coast along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, burning homes and buildings, destroying crops, and arresting inhabitants suspected of supporting the radicals. The convention decided that citizens loyal to the king should no longer be permitted to remain in Virginia as neutrals, and they began departing in large numbers. By year‘s end most of those with irreconcilable differences had fled.

On December 15, 1775 the Fourth Virginia Convention selected Carter Braxton to fill Peyton Randolph’s vacant seat in Congress. Politically inactive prior to the Revolution, Braxton was a conservative member of the James-York River planter/merchant clique, a very strong bloc in Virginia politics. Like his predecessor Randolph, Braxton supported the established tidewater bloc against the liberal challenge. His election to Congress was a reward for loyalty to the conservatives, not for notable political achievement. Like most of them Braxton favored reconciliation with England, and he placed great stock in the reports that commissioners were on their way from London. He expected a negotiated settlement that would return his the colonies and Britain to peace. Braxton believed that independence was far off: America was in too defenseless a condition to break with Great Britain. “A delusive bait,” he called independence, “which men inconsiderately catch at, without knowing the hook to which it is affixed.”

Braxton was wary of what awaited him in Congress. Rumors had been circulated by a young Philadelphia doctor that he was being sent to turn the Virginia delegation against independence. In truth, his political views were similar to the man he replaced in Congress. He arrived in Philadelphia uncommitted to radical action. Braxton was not willing to rush headlong into revolution while options other than war existed. He believed that the possibility of reconciliation through commissioners needed to be more widely publicized, and that the “independency” faction had deliberately avoided doing so. Braxton also disliked the radical rhetoric of equality and human rights, viewing it simply as a pretext for “mob rule” to undermine the monarchical features of the English Constitution.

Braxton presented his credentials to Congress on February 23, 1776. He was to serve on numerous committees, half of which involved the examination of routine military correspondence. Braxton served on at least six committees dealing with finance, counterfeiting, and prisoner exchange; he also chaired one which was assigned the task of suppressing loyalist activities.

Richard Henry Lee kept George Washington apprised of the situation in Philadelphia through his regular correspondence. Although Lee had returned to Virginia in late December, he remained well informed through the letters he received on an almost daily basis from his brother Francis Lightfoot Lee.

Military affairs also brought Lee into closer contact with Benjamin Harrison. Harrison and George Wythe had worked closely with John Adams and the New Englanders to press Congress to outfit American naval vessels. Since then Harrison had become more involved in Continental military affairs. On January 17 he presented a committee report for the regulation and recruitment of American forces; a week later he was assigned to the new War Office. His standing among the independence men increased and he began to assume a more important role. He traveled to New York to confer with General Charles Lee about the defense of New York City. On February 14 Congress met in Committee of the Whole (the whole membership of Congress sitting as a committee) to consider terms and conditions under which American ports would be opened March 1.

Harrison and Wythe represented the radicals well in the debates. Wythe argued that the American colonies had a right to enter into alliances with other nations and that Congress should not continue professing to be the king’s subjects. “In what character shall we treat?” pleaded Wythe, “as subjects of Great Britain – as rebels? Why should we be so fond of calling ourselves dutiful subjects?” In a speech on March 3, Wythe stated that “the colonies have a Right to Contract Alliances with Foreign Powers,” but that first “We must declare ourselves a free people.”

Harrison, however, was not ready to open American ports. This was not a decision, he argued, that Congress should make. It would be an open admission that America was longer part of the British Empire and would invite full scale war. Harrison also expressed concerns over the escalating military situation in New York and New England. New England was dragging the other colonies into a cauldron, and he was not yet prepared for that. On February 22 he called on Congress to give the New England colonies $3,000,000 and allow them to “carry on war in their own way.”

By February the independence movement in Philadelphia almost ground to a halt as rumors of peace commissioners swirled through the colonies. Even Patrick Henry, Virginia’s most vocal militant, momentarily allowed himself to get caught up in talk of commissioners coming “to treat for peace.” Many in Philadelphia began to turn to the Virginia delegation for leadership, knowing that impetus for separation from Britain had to come from a region outside New England. By November 1775, and perhaps earlier, Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson had accepted the idea of American independence. Francis Lightfoot Lee, George Wythe, and Thomas Nelson were in favor of separation as early as January or February 1776, and Benjamin Harrison no later than March.

Thomas Nelson was not taken in by the talk of commissioners. “If terms should be proposed,” he wrote Patrick Henry, “they will savor so much of despotism, that America cannot accept them.” Besides, war had already commenced and those that had fomented it in the colonies would never escape retribution. Dunmore also continued his depredations along the Virginia coast. “We are now carrying on a war and no war,” argued Nelson. “The British seize our property wherever they find it, either by land or sea; and we hesitate to retaliate… Away with such squeamishness, say I.” George Washington confided to members of his inner circle that he was insulted by the idea of peace commissioners, and that he had little patience with those who wanted to wait and see if they would appear. He worried that talk of conciliation might stall the growing momentum for independence and reduce the effect of recent efforts to increase the size and strength of the Continental Army.

The independence movement continued to gain momentum in Virginia. “This doctrine,” wrote a Hanover County doctor, “is become popular, and newspapers are full of writings in favor of it and inflaming the resentments of the people against Great Britain.” In April Cumberland, Charlotte, James City, and Buckingham and Fincastle Counties instructed their delegates at the Virginia Convention to support independence, and on May 12 a traveler passing through Petersburg wrote: “On my way through Virginia, I found the inhabitants warm for independence.”

Two factors lay behind the seismic shift in public opinion in Virginia. First, there was the destruction of Norfolk on January 1, 1776. This heavy-handed display of British naval firepower shocked the populous and turned it against Virginia’s royal government. Second was the appearance in the colony in February of a pamphlet entitled Common Sense. Published in London on January 10, it circulated wildly, becoming an instant best seller. Tens of thousands of copies of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet were sold in Britain before it made its way across the Atlantic Ocean. More than 120,000 copies of Common Sense were purchased in the colonies before it ended its publication run, and no one knew how many more people read it. “By private letters which I have lately received from Virginia,” wrote George Washington to his friend Joseph Reed, “I find Common Sense is working a wonderful change there in the minds of many men.”

Carter Braxton was confused by the shift in public opinion at home and remained convinced that independence was far off. But the radicals were not. Richard Henry Lee returned from Virginia to Congress in March and Thomas Jefferson arrived on May 14. Both men had been in position to gauge the rapid shift in public opinion for independence. Many conservative leaders in the colony were also adjusting their views of the changing circumstances. By May the idea of “independency” had captured Virginia, and those who failed to pick up the shifting winds saw their popularity decline.


Fifth Virginia Convention (May 6-July 5, 1776)

The Fifth Virginia Convention met at the old capitol in Williamsburg on May 6, 1776. Sixty-six counties were represented by 131 delegates. Most of the old delegates were there, but many new members also appeared. Virginia was now determinedly toward complete independence from Britain.

On May 15 a preamble and resolutions written by Edmund Randolph were presented. Patrick Henry and Thomas Nelson had previously agreed that the latter would introduce a motion for independence to the Convention and that Henry would second it. Unlike Henry, Nelson was not a captivating speaker. But on this occasion Nelson surprised the assemblage with a vocal and unequivocal call for independence: the people of Virginia were oppressed by the king and Parliament. Their petitions and protests had been ignored. There was absolutely no way, Nelson argued, that Virginia could return as subjects under British domination now that war had begun. He then called for the Convention to instruct its delegates in Philadelphia to declare for colonial independence. “I am clearly of the opinion that we must,” he wrote a friend that evening, “as we value the liberties of American, or even her existence, without a moment’s delay, declare for independence.”

After much debate it was “Resolved unanimously, that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress, be instructed to propose that respectable body to declare the united colonies free and independent states.” A committee was then appointed to prepare a Declaration of Rights and a plan of government “as will be most likely to maintain peace and order in this colony and secure substantial and equal liberty to the people.” The British flag on the capitol was taken down and replaced by a continental flag.

On June 29 the Convention adopted George Mason’s plan for Virginia’s new state Constitution. A portion of Thomas Jefferson’s draft for a constitutional government in Virginia was adopted as the preamble, and Patrick Henry was elected the state’s first governor. Virginia became an independent commonwealth three days before the United States in Congress formally declared colonial independence from Great Britain.


Second Continental Congress (May 14–June 11, 1776) Thomas Jefferson appeared more interested in affairs in Virginia than those in Philadelphia when he arrived there on May 14. Jefferson had hoped that the Virginia Convention would recall some of its congressional delegates to help write a new state constitution and wanted a hand in the project. Jefferson was unaware that Thomas Nelson was preparing to leave Williamsburg to deliver the convention’s resolution recommending American independence. All of the southern colonies had already authorized their delegations to vote for independence, but Virginia would make the formal motion for it. Thomas Nelson, who had introduced and won approval for the Virginia Resolutions, was selected to deliver them to the Virginia delegation in Congress.

Exactly when the notion of independence came before Congress is difficult to determine. The Journals of Congress and personal correspondence of the delegates present a picture of careful maneuvering between the conservatives and the more militant independence group.

Benjamin Harrison and George Wythe had repeatedly spoken publicly of independence. “I have hobbled along under the fatal attachment to Great Britain,” observed Harrison. “I felt that attachment as much as any, but I feel a stronger one to my country.” George Wythe had favored for some time the adoption of defensive military measures but had long held the position that the colonies had “to declare ourselves a free people.”

Thomas Jefferson had settled on a deliberate strategy that eventually would lead to a declaration of independence: create a continental confederation, and then negotiate with foreign countries – particularly France. On May 8 Thomas Nelson wrote Richard Henry Lee that the “spirit of the people” cried out for a declaration of independence.

Even Carter Braxton, the most conservative member of the Virginia delegation, was no longer opposed to the inevitable, but rather its timing. There remained ideological differences between the American colonies. Border claims “and a variety of other matters” remained unsettled. “Previous to Independence,” wrote Braxton, “all disputes must be healed and Harmony prevail. A grand Continental league must be formed and a superintending Power also. When these necessary Steps are taken and we see a Coalition formed sufficient to withstand the Power of Britain, or any other, then I am for an independent State and all its Consequences, and then I think they will produce Happiness to America. It is a true saying of a Wit – We must hang together or Separately.”

The Virginia delegation was heavily involved in the affairs of Congress in the spring and summer of 1776. In January Benjamin Harrison presented a report for recruiting American forces. On the twenty-fourth was appointed to a committee for the creation of a War Office, and in mid-February in a speech to Congress Harrison stated that his love for his country was greater than his love for Great Britain. On February 16 George Wythe proposed that America had the right to enter into foreign alliances. “In what character shall we treat” he asked Congress, “as subjects of Great Britain, -- as rebels?” He continued to talk of alliances: in March Wythe repeatedly took the floor to argue that the American colonies “must declare ourselves a free people” before opening trade to foreign countries.

In the first week of June Thomas Jefferson was appointed to a committee to consider the handling of individuals who provided intelligence or supplies to the British. Carter Braxton was placed on a committee to consider ways and means of establishing a network of express riders throughout the colonies. Braxton was added to yet another committee the following day. George Wythe and Francis Lightfoot Lee were appointed to a committee to draw up documents for the exchange of prisoners. Meanwhile Richard Henry Lee, following delivery of Virginia’s resolutions by Thomas Nelson, redrafted and condensed them into his soon to be famous resolution to congress.

On Friday morning June 7, Richard Henry Lee motioned to president John Hancock of Massachusetts for recognition from the floor. Lee introduced a four sentence resolution urging Congress to declare independence from Great Britain. The first sentence was the most famous: “that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” The motion was seconded by John Adams and a vote was taken. South Carolina and Pennsylvania opposed the resolutions. New York abstained. The resolutions passed but because of pending business they were referred to the Committee of the Whole and scheduled for the next day.

Debate over the independence resolutions began in earnest Saturday June 8 and consumed the entire day. It was quickly apparent that many delegates who actually favored eventual independence were opposed to the issuance of a declaration at this time. It was too drastic a step, they argued, and such a radical course of action should be presented to the people first.

The conservatives presented nineteen reasons for opposing a declaration at this time. They thought it was unwise to bring the temper of foreign countries to the test. What if America was unable to secure a foreign alliance? Were the colonies really resolved to demonstrate the sincerity of their purpose by dependence on themselves alone if necessary? The liberals countered with twenty-seven reasons of their own for independence. At seven o’clock that evening chairman Benjamin Harrison reported that the Committee of the Whole had not reached a decision on the Lee resolutions and they were tabled until Monday.

On Monday June 10 the Second Continental Congress again resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole. The moderates expressed their reluctance to declare independence. The conservatives argued that Congress should not declare independence without submitting the proposal to the people first. After further debate Benjamin Harrison reported to the committee that Congress had voted 7 to 5 to postpone decision on the independence resolution for three weeks until July 1. Although Richard Henry Lee and the radicals had not secured victory, they now knew that the proposal for independence would eventually pass. A final vote on the issue had been postponed in deference to the state delegations that were still divided and for those needing additional time to communicate with their state governments.

Three committees were created on June 11: one to prepare articles of confederation, a second to draw up a treaty with France, and a third to write a declaration of independence.

The declaration was far less important to Congress than a treaty with France and a continental alliance. Nevertheless, a five man committee was established to prepare a declaration in the likely event that the independence resolution was adopted. On the advice of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson was nominated. In the balloting that followed, Jefferson received the most votes and under convention rules became chairman of the committee charged with the task of drawing up a declaration of independence.

Richard Henry Lee was not put on the committee because he was preparing to return to Virginia to be with his sick wife, and Carter Braxton and Benjamin Harrison were considered too conservative. This made Jefferson the only southerner, and more importantly, the only Virginian on the committee. The other members - John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman - had other committee assignments that they considered more important. John Adams convened the committee of five and the drafting the declaration was passed on to Jefferson.


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