The Lee Resolution, also known as the resolution of independence, was a three–part resolve by the Second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, to declare the United Colonies rightfully independent of the British Empire, to establish a plan for ensuing American foreign relations, and to establish a plan of a confederation to unite them officially. The resolution is named for Richard Henry Lee of Virginia who proposed it to Congress, after receiving instructions from the Virginia Convention and its President, Edmund Pendleton. Some sources indicate Lee used, almost verbatim, the language from the instructions in his resolution. Voting on the first part of the resolution was delayed for several weeks while state support and legislative instruction for independence were consolidated, but the press of events indicated the other less-discussed parts should immediately proceed. On June 11 Congress decided to establish three committees to develop the resolution's parts, and appointed a Committee of Five (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston) to prepare a document to explain the reasons for independence. The following day, another committee of five (John Dickinson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Benjamin Harrison V, and Robert Morris) was appointed to prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers, and the third committee of thirteen members was appointed from each colony to prepare a draft of a constitution for confederation of the states.
The independence portion of the resolution was the first approved by Congress, on July 2, 1776. 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, and is celebrated as Independence Day.
The committee drafting a plan of confederation, chaired by John Dickinson, presented their initial results to Congress on July 12, 1776. Long debates would follow on such issues as sovereignty, the exact powers to be given the confederate government, whether to have a judiciary, and voting procedures. The final draft of the Articles of Confederation were prepared during the summer of 1777 and approved by Congress for ratification by the individual states on November 15, 1777, after a year of debate. Although in use from that time, it would be almost four years before final ratification by all states, on March 1, 1781.
The committee appointed to prepare a plan of treaties made its first report on July 18, largely in the writing of John Adams; while prompt action was planned, it was delayed, and a limited printing of the document was authorized. Over the next five weeks it would be reviewed and amended by Congress. On August 27, the amended plan of treaties was referred back to the committee to develop instructions pursuant to the amendments, and two additional members (Richard Henry Lee and James Wilson) were added to the committee; two days later the committee was empowered to prepare further instructions as deemed proper, and report back to Congress. The formal version of the plan of treaties was adopted on September 17. On September 24, Congress approved negotiating instructions for commissioners to obtain a treaty with France, based on the template provided in the plan of treaties; the next day Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Thomas Jefferson, were elected commissioners to the court of France.
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 proposed the resolution to Congress and it was seconded by John Adams.
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 at that moment, 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.
As noted above, the two latter parts of the Lee 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 approved in November 1777, but finally ratified in 1781.
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 part of Lee's resolution for three weeks, but appoints "a committee to prepare a declaration to the effect of the said first resolution".
- Tuesday, June 11, Congress establishes three committees to pursue the three part resolution, and names five members of the first "to prepare the declaration".
- Wednesday, June 12, Congress appointments members of the other two committees. One of 13 members to "prepare and digest the form of a confederation", and the other of five members to "prepare a plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign powers".
- 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.
- Friday, July 12, The committee appointed to prepare articles of confederation delivered their draft, which was read.
- Monday, July 15, Congress learns that New York now supports independence
- Thursday, July 18, The committee appointed to prepare a plan of treaties to be entered into with foreign states or kingdoms delivered their draft, which was read.
- 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
- Tuesday, August 27, The amended plan of treaties was referred back to the committee to develop instructions regarding the amendments made by Congress. The committee size was increased by two members.
- Thursday, August 29, the committee for the plan of treaties was empowered to prepare further appropriate instructions, and report back to Congress.
- Tuesday, September 17, Congress discussed the amended plan of treaties to be proposed to foreign nations, and [secretly] passed the plan of a treaty be proposed to His Most Christian Majesty.
- Tuesday, September 24, Congress resumed consideration of the instructions to the agent [commissioner] regarding the pursuit of the plan of treaty with France, debated it by paragraph, amended it, and approved it.
- Thursday, September 26, 1776 Congress elects three commissioners to the court of France, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Thomas Jefferson. They also resolve "That secresy shall be observed until the farther Order of Congress; and that until permission be obtained from Congress to disclose the particulars of this business, no member be permitted to say any thing more upon this subject, than that Congress have taken such steps as they judged necessary for the purpose of obtaining foreign Alliance."
- Saturday, November 15, 1777, Congress approves the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union for ratification by the individual States.
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- Milestones: 1776-1783: The Model Treaty, 1776, Department of State, Office of the Historian. from archive.org
- 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.