On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of five men to work on a draft of a document to declare their independence. The committee consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. Known as the “Committee of Five,” these men labored over a draft, while the rest of the delegates continued to debate whether or not the colonies should declare their independence or continue to use diplomatic means to reach an agreeable peace with Great Britain.
By early July, the declaration was almost complete, yet debate continued over whether or not to sign such an important document. One of the delegates, the Rev. John Witherspoon, addressed the Convention, admonishing them:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, and we can perceive it now before us. To hesitate is to consent to our own slavery. That noble instrument upon your table, which insures immortality to its author, should be subscribed this morning by every pen in this House. He that will not respond to its accents and strain every nerve to carry into effect its provisions is unworthy the name of freeman! For my own part, of property I have some, of reputation more. That reputation is staked, that property is pledged on the issue of this contest; and although these gray hairs must soon descend into the sepulchre, I would infinitely rather that they descend thither by the hand of the executioner than desert at this crisis the sacred cause of my country!”
The Rev. John Witherspoon was not only a well-known minister of the Gospel, he was also a widely known educator and college president. Shortly after hearing the words of Rev. Witherspoon, the delegates signed the document that was titled, The United States Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Witherspoon’s educational legacy included nine of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, one U.S. President (James Madison), one U.S. Vice-President, 28 U.S. Senators, 49 U.S. Congressmen, three U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 34 other judges, 10 federal Cabinet officers, 12 state governors and numerous state legislators.
Every one of these signers of the Declaration of Independence knew that their signatures meant they were declaring themselves as sworn enemies of the British crown. They knew by signing their name they stood to lose all of their wealth, possessions, and lives. They were willing to sacrifice everything for the cause of political and religious freedom.
News of the Declaration of Independence spread throughout the colonies– mostly through the local churches.
After receiving a copy of the newly signed Declaration, the executive council for the Massachusetts Bay issued the following order:
“In Council July 17, 1776. Ordered, that the Declaration of Independence be Printed, and a copy sent to the Ministers of each Parish of every denomination, within this State; and that they severally be required to read the same to their respective congregations as soon as divine service is ended in the afternoon, on the first Lord’s Day after they shall have received it: and after such Publication thereof, to deliver the said Declaration to the Clerks of their several Towns or Districts, who are hereby required to record the same in their respective Town or District Books, there to remain as a perpetual Memorial thereof.”
During that time, the Second Continental Congress debated an overarching governing system for the 13 colonies. Although each colony insisted on self-rule, many of their leaders recognized the need to form a centralized government to help unify the states and better coordinate their efforts against Great Britain.
Benjamin Franklin had drafted a plan called the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, and made sure that the Continental Congress understood it was only a draft proposal. Despite the support of Thomas Jefferson and several other delegates, Franklin’s draft was tabled.
One of the main sources of contention was deciding how much power would be given to a central government and what power and authority would be maintained by the states. The arguments continued for over a year after delegates signed the Declaration of Independence.
When the British captured Philadelphia in 1777, the need for a central governing document became more apparent and the delegates sat down and drafted the first governing document for the United States, known as the Articles of Confederation.
The issue of state sovereignty was addressed at the beginning of the Articles of Confederation in Article II:
“To all to whom these Presents shall come, we the undersigned Delegates of the States affixed to our Names send greeting.
Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union between the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts-bay Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The Stile of this Confederacy shall be
‘The United States of America’.
Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.”
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
In November, 1777, the Articles of Confederation was sent to the states to be ratified by their state legislatures. Virginia was the first state to ratify it on December, 16, 1777. Other states followed Virginia’s lead, but not all of them were eager to sign.
In June 1778, the Continental Congress reconvened and learned that Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey refused to ratify the Articles of Confederation. They were concerned about representation granted to states based partially upon their holding of western lands. If these other states would relinquish their claims to western lands, the three small states would agree to ratify.
After some persuasion, Delaware and New Jersey agree to the terms of the Articles of Confederation. New Jersey ratified the Articles of Confederation on November 20, 1778 and Delaware followed with ratification on February 1, 1779, but Maryland continued to hold out.
Maryland refusal to ratify led some delegates to pass resolutions to exclude Maryland from the formation of a national government, but those resolutions were squelched by other delegates.
In 1780, a number of Maryland towns in the Chesapeake Bay area were targeted by the British. Maryland leaders turned to France for naval help. French Minister Anne-César De la Luzerne replied by urging Maryland to ratify the Articles of Confederation. At the same time, Virginia agreed to give up their western land claims. This was sufficient for the Maryland legislature who voted to ratify the Articles of Confederation on March 1, 1781.
The ratification of the Articles of Confederation required ratification of all 13 states, and with the ratification of Maryland, the Articles of Confederation were officially ratified on this day, March 1, 1781, giving the United States of America their first governing document.
Additional sources include: Articles of Confederation are ratified; Articles of Confederation; The Christian Pathway to the Constitution of the United States; Articles of Confederation, 1777–1781; ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION; The Articles of Confederation; THE BILL OF RIGHTS.