By early 1775, the idea of declaring independence from Great Britain was growing in some areas of the American colonies. Mecklenburg County, North Carolina was the first official declaration of independence from Great Britain on May 28, 1775. They sent their declaration to the Continental Congress but it was never read to the entire Congress. Rhode Island was the first colony to officially declare independence, doing so on May 4, 1776.
Within the halls of the Continental Congress, independence was being whispered, but none of the members had the courage to actually speak out and take action for fear of the consequences. To speak out for independence amounted to treason in the eyes of the British. They would be subject to being arrested and have all of their possessions and finances confiscated by the British crown.
On June 7, 1776, one man found the courage to finally take action for the cause of independence. Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, introduced a short and powerful resolution, known now as the Lee Resolution, which called for a formal declaration of independence from Great Britain
At the time, six colonies, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, were not supportive of Lee’s resolutions and several days of debating ensued and a vote on the resolution was delayed and scheduled for July 1.
On this day, June 11, 1776, members of the Continental Congress decided it wise to be prepared if the vote on Lee’s resolutions were approved. They decided to appoint a committee from amongst their ranks to start working on a draft of what might become their official declaration of independence from Great Britain.
Five men were selected to what would become known as the Committee of Five. The committee of five consisted of: John Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Thomas Jefferson (Virginia), Robert R. Livingston (New York) and Roger Sherman (Connecticut).
Each member of the committee would go on to serve their colony/state and the nation.
John Adams went on to serve as the US Envoy to France, US Minister to the Netherlands, US Minister to the Court of St. James, 1st Vice President of the US and 2nd President of the US.
Benjamin Franklin went on to serve as the US Minister to France and Sweden, followed by President of Pennsylvania.
Thomas Jefferson went on to server as the 2nd Governor of Virginia, Delegate to the Congress of the Confederation, US Minister to France, 1st US Secretary of State, 2nd US Vice President and 3rd US President.
Robert Livingston went on to serve as the 1st Chancellor of New York, 1st US Secretary of Foreign Affairs and US Minister to France.
Roger Sherman went on to serve as the 1st Mayor of New Haven, Connecticut, US Representative from Connecticut and US Senator from Connecticut.
All five were well accomplished and were well aware of what their role on the Committee of Five was and what it might cost them – everything, but there were undaunted in carrying out their task.
Their first task was to select one of them to be the one to actually pen the draft. The two leading candidates for the job of writing the draft were John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. However, Adams believed that Jefferson was the best person to write the draft and presented the following reasons why:
“Reason first—You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.”
Jefferson accepted the task and wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Out of respect for Adams and Franklin, Jefferson showed his first draft to them for review before showing it to Sherman and Livingston. Adams and Franklin both offered changes to Jefferson’s original draft and Jefferson worked them into the draft prior to showing it to Sherman and Livingston. It is believed that the Committee of Five continued to make a number of changes to the document and that the final draft presented to Congress on June 28, 1776 was the 47th version.
Many consider Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence to be hypocritical to his own personal views. In the draft, Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal and yet at the time he owned around 100 slaves of which he did not believe to be equal.
The vote on Lee’s Resolution was delayed from July 1, 1776 to July 2, 1776. However, the vote on the 2nd was not unanimous with the New York delegation abstaining from voting. The final vote on Lee’s Resolution took place on July 4, 1776 and when it passed unanimously, the draft of the Declaration of Independence was presented to the full Continental Congress where it was approved and signed.
Sources for the above includes: Today, June 7, 1776: Resolution that Led to Declaration of Independence; Creating the Declaration of Independence; Drafting the Declaration of Independence; Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence; Congress Appoints Committee of Five to Draft the Declaration of Independence; Why They Asked Jefferson To Write The First Draft Of The Declaration of Independence; 1776: The Committee of Five Elected to Draft the American Declaration of Independence.