Second Continental Congress: June 20, 1776
June 20, 1776
Congress decides to leave Saturdays free for committee meetings and creates additional committees. James Wilson secures the signatures of 22 delegates concerning his “Behavior on the Subject of Independency.”
Link to date-related documents.
Journals of the Continental Congress [Edited]
A letter of the 17th from General Washington, and a letter from the President of the convention of New Jersey, were laid before Congress, and read.
Resolved, That in order to give time to the several committees, to prepare for the house the matters referred to them, it be a standing rule of Congress, that adjournments from the Friday evening, be always to Monday morning, unless on any particular occasion, the Congress shall order otherwise.
A petition from Carpenter Wharton was presented to Congress, read and referred to the Board of War and Ordnance.
The Congress took into consideration the report of the committee on the cartel made between Brigadier General Arnold and Captain Foster, for exchange of prisoners; and, after some debate, further consideration was postponed till tomorrow.
Resolved, That a committee of three be appointed to draw up rules and regulations for the conduct of Congress during debates: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert Treat Paine.
The Committee of Claims reported that there were eight claims due. Approved.
Resolved, That a committee of five be appointed to consider what provision ought to be made for such as are wounded or disabled in the land or sea service, and report a plan for that purpose: Robert Treat Paine, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Lyman Hall, William Ellery, and Francis Lewis.
Adjourned to 9 o’Clock tomorrow.
James Wilson’s “Behavior on the Subject of Independency”
[Editor’s Note. Robert Whitehill, one of two “additional” representatives elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly on May 1, 1776, sent letters to friends concerning Wilson’s position on Independence. He argued that the revision of the instructions to the Pennsylvania delegates in Congress meant that Wilson could now be required to abandon his public opposition to Independence on the grounds that he lacked explicit instructions to vote in favor. He was no longer bound by the prior instructions of the electorate to oppose independence. Wilson defended his “behavior on the subject of independency”—privately in favor and public against and prudently postpone–and secured the signatures of 22 delegates who signed off on the accuracy of his private-public-postpone position. Whitehill and Wilson were to clash again over the ratification of the Constitution in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention as well as out of doors]
Whereas it has been represented to the Congress that Reports have been circulated concerning Mr. Wilson one of the Delegates of Pennsylvania to the Disadvantage of his Public Character and that Misrepresentations have been made for his Conduct in Congress.
We the Subscribers Members of Congress do therefore certify, that in a late Debate [June 7 on Richard Henry Lee’s motion] upon a Proposition to declare these Colonies free and independent States, Mr. Wilson after having stated the Progress of the Dispute between Great Britain and the Colonies, declared it to be his opinion that the Colonies would stand justified before God and the World in declaring an absolute Separation from Great Britain forever, and that he believed a Majority of the People of Pennsylvania were in Favor of Independence, but that the Sense of the Assembly (the only representative Body then existing in the Province) as delivered to him by their Instructions was against the Proposition, that he wished the Question to be postponed, because he had Reason to believe the People of Pennsylvania would soon have an Opportunity of expressing their Sentiments upon this Point, and he thought the People ought to have an Opportunity given them to Signify their opinion in a regular Way upon a Matter of such Importance-and because the Delegates of other Colonies were bound by Instructions to disagree to the Proposition, and he thought it right that the Constituents of these Delegates should also have an Opportunity of deliberating on the said Proposition and communicating their Opinions thereon to their respective Representatives in Congress.
The Question was resumed and debated the Day but one after Mr. Wilson delivered these Sentiments, when the Instructions of the Assembly referred to were altered, and new Instructions given to the Delegates of Pennsylvania. [June 8] Mr. Wilson then observed that being un-restrained, if the Question was put he should vote for it; but he still wished a Determination on it to be postponed for a short time until the Deputies of the People of Pennsylvania who were to meet should give their explicit Opinion upon this Point so important and interesting to themselves and their Posterity; and also urged the Propriety of postponing the Question for the Purpose of giving the Constituents of several Colonies an Opportunity of removing their respective Instructions, whereby [Unanimity] would probably be Obtained.
Thomas Stone, Samuel Adams, John Alsop, Edward Rutledge, John Hancock, Francis Lewis, Arthur Middleton, William Whipple, Joseph Hewes, Thomas Willing, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Treat Paine, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Thomas Nelson Junior, William Ellery, Robert Morris, Benjamin Harrison, J. Rogers, John Adams, William Floyd, Henry Wisner, and Stephen Hopkins.
Edited with commentary by Gordon Lloyd.