On May 28, 1775, the Committee of Safety in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, drafted and signed the Mecklenburg Resolves which called for independence from Great Britain. This is considered the first formal declaration for independence drafted in the thirteen colonies.
On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island became the first colony to formally declare its independence from Great Britain. The leaders in Rhode Island were tired of waiting for the Continental Congress to make such a declaration. Ironically, they were the last colony to ratify the US Constitution as they were not certain if they wanted to be part of the United States or their own tiny independent nation.
A growing number of delegates at the Continental Congress were calling for a unified declaration of independence from Great Britain. No one really wanted to go on record as being the first person to be guilty of treason by introducing an independence measure.
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On this day, June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee, found the courage and patriotism to do what no one else would dare do. He wrote the following resolution and formally introduced it to the Continental Congress:
“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.”
Lee was from a wealthy Virginia family that included legislators, diplomats and military officers. After being educated in England, he started his public career in 1757 as a justice of the peace in Virginia. A year later he was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. After Great Britain enacted the Stamp Act in 1765, Lee drafted the Westmoreland Resolutions that condemned the Stamp Act and called for its repeal.
In 1774, Lee was appointed to the Continental Congress where he was soon known for his powerful oratory abilities. He used those abilities to speak about the idea of independence from Great Britain.
On this day, June 7, 1776, he put his words to paper and introduced his resolution calling for independence. This led to a series of debates that revealed that there were six colonies; Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, who did not support the idea of declaring independence from Great Britain. Their reluctance to vote in favor of Lee’s Resolution caused the Continental Congress to delay the vote until July 1, 1776.
During the vote delay, others in Congress wanted to be prepared for a Lee’s Resolution to be passed so they selected a committee of five members of Congress to prepare a draft for an official declaration of independence. The committee of five consisted of: John Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Thomas Jefferson (Virginia), Robert R. Livingston (New York) and Roger Sherman (Connecticut). Just as Lee was known for his speaking skills, Jefferson was known for his writing skills, so he was given the task of penning the soon to be historic document.
On June 28 1776, Jefferson’s draft was presented to the Continental Congress.
On July 1, 1776, the Continental Congress resumed debate on Lee’s Resolution. Verbally, it seemed that most of the delegates favored Lee’s Resolution, but they delayed the formal vote for another day in order to make sure it was a unanimous vote.
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted on Lee’s Resolution. Twelve of the 13 colonial delegations voted yes, while New York’s delegation abstained. They were not sure if the people of New York were in favor of declaring independence or not. John Adams believed that July 2, 1776 would be a ‘most memorable epoch in the history of America.’ However, July 2, 1776 faded into obscurity due to the final formal vote being delayed for 2 more days, giving Jefferson time to make some editorial changes to the draft.
On July 4, 1776, a formal vote was taken and Lee’s Resolution was passed, paving the way for the members of the Continental Congress to sign their names to the now historic Declaration of Independence. In doing so, they all knew that it made them traitors in the eyes of the British crown.
Most Americans were never taught that it was the Lee Resolution that led to the drafting and passage of the Declaration of Independence. Had Richard Henry Lee not written and introduced his resolution, who knows when we would be celebrating our nation’s birthday.
Sources for the above includes: Lee Resolution; Lee Resolution presented to Continental Congress; Richard Henry Lee and The Declaration of Independence; Richard Henry Lee’s Independence Resolution; July 2, 1776: A Look Back At The Lee Resolution; Richard Henry Lee Biography; Today, May 31, 1775: Mecklenburg Resolves – Legend v. Fact; Today, May 4, 1776: First American Colony to Declare Independence from Great Britain.