Committee of Five

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The Committee of Five presenting their work to the Congress on June 28, 1776. Painting by John Trumbull.

The Committee of Five of the Second Continental Congress drafted and presented to the Congress what became known as America's Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. This Declaration committee operated from June 11, 1776 until July 5, 1776, the day on which the Declaration was published.

Drafting of the Declaration of Independence[edit]

On Monday afternoon, June 10, 1776, the delegates of the United Colonies in Congress resolved to postpone until Monday, July 1st, the final consideration of whether or not to declare the several sovereign independencies of the United Colonies, which had been proposed by the North Carolina resolutions of April 12 and the Virginia resolutions of May 15. The proposal was moved in Congress on June 7 by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia; henceforth the resolution was known as the Lee Resolution. During these allotted three weeks Congress agreed to appoint a committee to draft a broadside statement to proclaim to the world the reasons for taking America out of the British Empire, if the Congress were to declare the said sovereign independencies. The actual declaration of "American Independence" is precisely the text comprising the final paragraph of the published broadside of July 4. The broadside's final paragraph repeated the text of the Lee Resolution as adopted by the declaratory resolve voted on July 2.

Hence, "American Independence", of these "Free and independent States," was actually declared in the Congress on the afternoon of July 2nd and reported as such afterwards, unofficially in a local newspaper that very evening and officially in the published broadside dated July 4th.[1]

On June 11, the members of the Committee of Five were appointed; they were: John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Because the committee left no minutes, there is some uncertainty about how the drafting process proceeded—accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are contradictory and not entirely reliable.[2]

What is certain is that the committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft.[3] Considering Congress's busy schedule, Jefferson probably had limited time for writing over the next seventeen days, and likely wrote the draft quickly.[4] He then consulted with the others on the committee, who reviewed the draft and made extensive changes.[5] Jefferson then produced another copy incorporating these alterations.

The committee presented this copy to the "Committee of the Whole" Congress on June 28, 1776. The title of the document was "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled."[6]

The Declaration Debated, Revised and Adopted[edit]

Throughout the Monday of July 1, the Congress debated the question of whether or not to declare independence. The debates resulted in a favorable vote 9 to 2 (with two abstentions) by the Committee of the Whole, and thus a decided majority vote for the declaration assured that a formal declaration of independence was only a matter of agreement to be reached on the timing of the adoption of the necessary resolve.[7] The Congress then heard the report of the Committee of the Whole and declared the sovereign status of the United Colonies the following day, during the afternoon of July 2. The Committee of the Whole then turned to the Declaration and it was given a second reading before adjournment.[8]

On Wednesday, July 3, the Committee of the Whole gave the Declaration a third reading and commenced scrutiny of the precise wording of the proposed text. Two passages in the Committee of Five's draft were rejected by the Committee of the Whole. One was a critical reference to the English people and the other was a denunciation of the slave trade and of slavery itself. The text of the Declaration was otherwise accepted without any other major changes. As John Adams recalled many years later, this work of editing the proposed text was largely completed by the time of adjournment on July 3. However, the text's formal adoption was deferred until the following morning, when the Congress voted its agreement during the late morning of July 4.[9][10] The draft document as adopted was then referred back to the Committee of Five in order to prepare a "fair copy," this being the redrafted-as-corrected document prepared for delivery to the broadside printer, John Dunlap. And so the Committee of Five convened in the early evening of July 4 to complete its task.[11]

Historians have had no documentary means by which to determine the identity of the authenticating party. It is unclear whether the Declaration was authenticated by the Committee of Five's signature or the Committee submitted the fair copy to President Hancock for his authenticating signature, or the authentication awaited President John Hancock’s signature on the printer’s finished proof-copy of what became known as the Dunlap broadside[citation needed] Either way, upon the July 5 release of the Dunlap broadside of the Declaration, the Committee of Five’s work was done.[12]

Also, after the July 5 release of the Dunlap broadside the public could read for itself just who had signed the Declaration. At the bottom of the broadside, thus: "JOHN HANCOCK, President, Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress". Just one signature as attested by Secretary Charles Thomson. Memories of the participants proved to be very short on this particular historic moment. Not three decades had elapsed by which time the prominent members of the Committee of Five could no longer recollect in detail what actually took place, and by their active participation, on July 4 and 5 of 1776. And so during these early decades was born the myth of a one grand ceremonial general signing on July 4, by all the delegates to Congress. The myth continues to have a very long life.[13]


  1. ^ The Pennsylvania Evening Post, a Philadelphia newspaper: the Tuesday, July 2, 1776 edition. See also Charles Warren, "Fourth of July Myths", in the William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. II, No. 3, July 1945, pp. 237-272. See also Garry Wills, INVENTING AMERICA: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978), Chapter 24: National Symbol, pp. 336-37.
  2. ^ Maier, American Scripture, 97–105; Boyd, Evolution, 21.
  3. ^ Boyd, Evolution, 22.
  4. ^ Maier,American Scripture, 104.
  5. ^, retrieved on October 29, 2013
  6. ^ Becker, Declaration of Independence, 4.
  7. ^ “Two ‘no’ votes, one divided, one withdrawn, nine votes ‘aye’. The members (as Committee of the Whole) Thomas Jefferson wrote, were ‘exhausted by a debate of nine hours, during which all the powers of the soul had been distended with the magnitude of the object.’ . . The resolution was agreed to, and recommended to pass. Independence had carried, by the skin of its New Jersey teeth. . . The next day’s vote would make it official.”, in Philadelphia historian John H. Powell’s essay, “The Day of American Independence. July 1, 1776.” Published in “GENERAL WASHINGTON AND THE JACKASS: And Other American Characters, in Portrait”. Chapter 4, pp. 119-175. [NY: A.S. Barnes & Co., Inc., 1969, p. 173]. Speculatively, an estimated time moment of 18:26 LMT appears to be the least unlikely for the official recording of this historic vote.
  8. ^ For verification of the afternoon July 2 date of this vote of Congress, see Harold Eberlein & Cortlandt Hubbard, Diary of Independence Hall (J.B. Lippincott Co., 1948), entry: Tuesday, July 2, 1776, pp. 171-72. See also John M. Coleman, THOMAS MCKEAN; Forgotten Leader of the Revolution (American Faculty Press, 1975), Chapter 11: Independence 1776, p. 174. See also Jane Harrington Scott, A GENTLEMAN AS WELL AS A WHIG: Caesar Rodney and the American Revolution (University of Delaware Press, 2000), Chapter 15: Independence is Declared, p. 117 therein. Speculatively, an estimated time moment interval of 14:00 LMT up to 18:00 LMT appears to be the period during which this day’s historic events reached completion by the vote in Congress and the newspaper report of independence declared.
  9. ^ A New Jersey delegate to Congress wrote to a friend during the early morning of the 4th, explaining Congress' recent editing of the Declaration: "Our Congress Resolved to Declare the United Colonies Free and independent States. A Declaration for this Purpose, I expect, will this day pass Congress, it is nearly gone through, after which it will be Proclaimed with all the State & Solemnity Circumstances will admit. It is gone so far that we must now be a free independent State, or a Conquered Country." So wrote Abraham Clark to Elias Dayton, in LETTERS OF DELEGATES TO CONGRESS, Vol. 4 May 16, 1776 - August 15, 1776, p. 378.
  10. ^ For verification of the late morning July 4 time of Congress' agreement to the text of the Declaration, see Paul H. Smith, "Time and Temperature: Philadelphia, July 4, 1776", in The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress, Vol. 33, No. 4, October 1976, p. 296. See also Pauline Maier, AMERICAN SCRIPTURE: Making the Declaration of Independence (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), Chapter III: Mr. Jefferson and His Editors, p. 150. Speculatively, an estimated time moment interval of 10:30 LMT up to 11:00 LMT appears to be the least unlikely period during which the voted adoption of the precise wording of the text of the Declaration was completed.
  11. ^ For corroboration of the early evening time moment of completion of the 'fair copy' of the Declaration by the Committee of Five, see Edward Channing, A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (N.Y: The MacMillan Co., 1912), Volume III: The American Revolution, 1761-1789; Chapter VII: The Declaration of Independence, pp. 182-209, wherein July 4th, p. 205. See also Edward Channing, A SHORT HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (N.Y: The MacMillan Co., 1908), Chapter V-15: The Great Declaration and the French Alliance, p. 146. Speculatively, an estimated time moment interval of 16:45 LMT up to 18:35 LMT appears to be the least unlikely period during which the committee's authenticating sign-off completed the corrected draft, the 'fair copy'.
  12. ^ The Congress left no record of when, during the night of July 4/5, President John Hancock affixed his authenticating signature to either the Committee's fair copy or the Dunlap broadside master copy (the printer's proof-copy). On the extant original copies of the printed broadside one finds this: "Signed by Order and in Behalf of the Congress, JOHN HANCOCK, President." For a scholarly appraisal of this national tragedy of the absent record of Hancock's signature moment, see Julian P. Boyd, "The Declaration of Independence: The Mystery of the Lost Original", in THE PENNSYLVANIA MAGAZINE, Vol. C, No. 4, October 1976, pp. 438-467.
  13. ^ Congress may have taken as little as 33 days from the debates of July 1 to the opening of business on August 2, in order to establish "THE unanimous DECLARATION of the thirteen united STATES OF AMERICA", being the revised-format edition of the July 4 Declaration. This 'unanimous thirteen' edition remains on permanent public display, enshrined in the rotunda of the National Archives at Washington, D.C. For a partially successful effort to piece together the fragmented record of the genesis of the Declaration's creation during this 33 day interval, see Wilfred J. Ritz, "The Authentication of the Engrossed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776", in the Cornell Law School's LAW AND HISTORY REVIEW, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring 1986, pp. 179-204. See also, Herbert Friedenwald, THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: An Interpretation and an Analysis (MacMillan & Co., 1904), pp. 138-51.

External links[edit]

  • Lee Resolution: "The Lee Resolution of June 7, 1776 born of the Virginia Resolve of May 15, 1776".
  • Dunlap broadside: The Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence, as first published on July 5, 1776, entitled "A DECLARATION By The Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA In General Congress assembled".
  • Goddard broadside: The Goddard broadside of the Declaration of Independence, as first published on January 31, 1777, entitled "The unanimous DECLARATION of the Thirteen United States of AMERICA".