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The Lee Resolution, also known as the resolution of independence, was an act of the Second Continental Congress declaring the United Colonies to be independent of the British Empire. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia first proposed it on June 7, 1776, after receiving instructions from the Virginia Convention and its President, Edmund Pendleton (in fact Lee used, almost verbatim, the language from the instructions in his resolution). Voting on the resolution was delayed for several weeks while support for independence was consolidated. On June 11, a Committee of Five (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston) was appointed to prepare a document to explain the reasons for independence. The resolution was finally approved on July 2, 1776, and news of its adoption was published that evening in the Pennsylvania Evening Post and the next day in the Pennsylvania Gazette. The text of the document formally announcing this action, the United States Declaration of Independence, was approved on July 4. It was the 4th, and not the 2nd, that would come to be celebrated as Independence Day for the new country.
When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, few colonists in British North America openly advocated independence from Great Britain. Support for independence grew steadily in 1776, especially after the publication of Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense in January of that year. In the Second Continental Congress, the movement towards independence was guided principally by an informal alliance of delegates eventually known as the "Adams-Lee Junto", after Samuel Adams and John Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia.
On May 15, 1776, the revolutionary Virginia Convention, then meeting in Williamsburg, passed a resolution instructing Virginia's delegates in the Continental Congress "to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain". In accordance with those instructions, on June 7, Richard Henry Lee presented the resolution to Congress. The resolution, seconded by John Adams, had three parts:
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.
Congress as a whole was not yet ready to declare independence, however, because the delegates from some of the colonies, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, had not yet been authorized to vote for independence. Voting on the first clause of Lee's resolution was therefore postponed for three weeks while advocates of independence worked to build support in the colonial governments for the resolution. Meanwhile, a Committee of Five was appointed to prepare a formal declaration so that it would be ready when independence, which almost everyone recognized was now inevitable, was approved. The committee prepared a declaration of independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, and presented it to Congress on June 28, 1776.
Approval and declaration
The declaration was set aside while the resolution of independence was debated for several days. On July 2, the resolution of independence was approved by twelve of the thirteen colonies. Delegates from New York still lacked instructions to vote for independence, and so they abstained on this vote, although on July 9 the New York Provincial Congress would vote to "join with the other colonies in supporting" independence.
Although it would shortly be outshone by the much more famous declaration, the Lee Resolution's passage was contemporaneously reported as the colonies' definitive declaration of independence from Great Britain. The evening of July 2, the Pennsylvania Evening Post reported:
This day the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE and INDEPENDENT STATES.
The Pennsylvania Gazette followed suit the next day with its own brief report:
CONTINENTAL CONGRESS declared the UNITED COLONIES FREE andINDEPENDENT STATES.
After passing the resolution of independence on July 2, Congress turned its attention to the text of the declaration. Over several days of debate, Congress made a number of alterations to the text, including adding the wording of Lee's resolution of independence to the conclusion. The final text of the declaration was approved by Congress on July 4 and sent off to be printed.
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.
Adams's prediction was off by two days. From the outset, Americans celebrated Independence Day on July 4, the date the much-publicized Declaration of Independence was approved, rather than on July 2, the date the resolution of independence was adopted.
The latter two parts of the June resolution were not passed until months later. The second part regarding the formation of foreign alliances was approved in September 1776, and the third part regarding a plan of confederation was passed in November 1777.
Congressional journal entries
The following are entries relating to the resolution of independence and the Declaration of Independence in the Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, from American Memory, published by the Library of Congress:
- Friday, June 7, "certain resolutions respecting independency" are moved and seconded; discussion set for Saturday
- Saturday, June 8, Congress considers the resolutions but postpones a decision
- Monday, June 10, Congress postpones the first of Lee's resolutions for three weeks, but appoints "a committee to prepare a declaration to the effect of the said first resolution".
- Friday, June 28, the committee reports its draft of the declaration, which is ordered "To lie on the table."
- Monday, July 1, Congress begins "to take into consideration the resolution respecting independency"
- Tuesday, July 2, Congress agrees to the resolution, begins to consider the declaration
- Wednesday, July 3, further consideration of the declaration
- Thursday, July 4, the Declaration of Independence is approved. The text of the Declaration on this day's entry of the published Journal, as well as the list of signatures, is copied from the engrossed version of the Declaration, which was created and signed at a later date. This misleading entry is one origin of the popular myth that the Declaration had been signed on July 4.
- Monday, July 15, Congress learns that New York now supports independence
- Friday, July 19, Congress orders that the Declaration "be fairly engrossed on parchment"
- Friday, August 2, the Declaration of Independence is signed by members of Congress
- Boyd, Evolution of the Text, 18; Maier, American Scripture, 63. For text of the May 15 Virginia resolution, see Yale.edu.
- Maier, American Scripture, 42.
- Maier, American Scripture, 43.
- Burnett, Continental Congress, 191.
- Pennsylvania Evening Post, July 2, 1776
- Pennsylvania Gazette, July 3, 1776
- Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, "Had a Declaration..." [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. Masshist.org, Butterfield, L.H., ed. Adams Family Correspondence. Vol. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.
- Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. Originally published 1945. Revised edition edited by Gerard W. Gawalt. University Press of New England, 1999. ISBN 0-8444-0980-4.
- Burnett, Edward Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Norton, 1941.
- Hogeland, William. Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010. ISBN 1-4165-8409-9; ISBN 978-1-4165-8409-4.
- Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997. ISBN 0-679-45492-6.
- Text of Lee's Resolution from the Avalon Project at Yale Law School
- Lee Resolution (1776), one of the "100 milestone documents" of the Our Documents initiative, published by the U.S. government
- Presentation of the Lee Resolution from National Archives and Records Administration as part of their Charters of Freedom presentation of the Declaration of Independence.