Journals of the Continental Congress

Second Continental Congress: June 8, 1776

June 8, 1776

The Journal does not provide the details of the conversation on this the first of four important days over whether to declare independence or reconcile with Great Britain. John Dickinson and Edward Rutledge say their constituents favor reconciliation. Thomas Jefferson recreates the debates from memory.

Link to date-related documents.

Journals of the Continental Congress [Edited]

The Congress took into consideration the resolutions moved yesterday.

Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole to take into consideration the resolutions referred to them; and, after some time spent thereon, Benjamin Harrison reported that the committee have not come to any resolution.

Resolved, That this Congress will, on Monday next, at 10 o’Clock, resolve itself into a committee of the whole, to take the resolutions into further consideration.

Resolved, That the Secret Committee sell to John Bayard, Joseph Deane, and William Erskine, 550 lb. of powder, and 400 lb. of swivel and grape shot, for the use of their privateer Hancock, and also 750 lbs of powder applied for earlier.

Adjourned to 10 o’Clock on Monday.

John Dickinson, Notes for a Speech in Congress [June 8-June 10]

The Sense of America as expressed is for Reconciliation. What Evidence have We of a contrary Sense? Reason & Justice deny our Right of such vast Importance to present & succeeding [generations]. It is in vain to say all Ties are dissolved. It is begging the Question. We are now acting on a Principle of the English Constitution in resisting the assumption or Usurpation of an unjust power. We are now acting under that Constitution. Does that Circumstance prove its Dissolution?  [Editor’s Note. The instructions to the Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland delegates were changed after June 10]

But granting the present oppression to be a Dissolution, the Choice of [setting?], a Restoring it, or forming a new one is vested in our Constituents, not in Us. They have not given it to Us. We may pursue Measures that will force them into it. But that implies not a Right so to force them.

Should We be justified as to our Constituents at this Time to make a Declaration of Independence at this Time? Why then to take a step that inevitably leads to it? The first would be most becoming as being most candid.

Where is the Necessity of such a Declaration? We appear strong enough to resist our Enemies this Campaign. Boston. North Carolina. It is a favorite Maxim with some, that our Commerce is so valuable, it will protect itself. (3)Let Us see whether We overrate it. At least do not let Us undervalue it, & go a begging round the World with
If We mean Independence, it is our Business to conceal our Meaning. Keep up the useful Opinion….

Do not let Us turn our Backs on Reconciliation till We find it a Monster too dreadful to approach. It will [be] a bargain-to procure the aid & naval protection of G.B. We may purchase it perhaps at a reasonable price-& in such Case would We be so unreasonable as to reject it?

The first political Wish of my Soul is for the Liberty of America. The next is for a constitutional Reconciliation with G.B. If We cannot obtain the first without relinquishing the second, Let us seek a new Establishment as the Pious Aeneas did. [Editor’s Note. Also see John Dickinson’s Notes for a Speech in Congress, in early July but before July 4, 1776]

New York Delegates to the New York Convention

Your Delegates here expect that the question of independence will very shortly be agitated in Congress. Some of us consider ourselves as bound by our instructions not to vote on that question & all wish to have your sentiments thereon. The matter will admit of no delay. Wm. Floyd, Robert R Livingston, Henry Wisner, and Francis Lewis.

[Editor’s Note.  The New York delegates were bound by their April 22, 1775, instructions to work “for the preservation and re-establishment of American rights and privileges, and for the restoration of harmony between Great Britain and the Colonies.” Responding to the letter on June 11, the Provincial Congress confirmed that the delegates were not authorized “to give the sense of this Colony on the question of declaring it to be . . . an independent State; nor does this Congress incline to instruct you on that point; it being a matter of doubt whether their constituents intended to vest them with the power to deliberate and determine on that question.” The delegates were reassured that the inhabitants of the colony would be consulted on the matter of declaration or reconciliation at “the earliest opportunity.” The provincial Congress did not submit the question before Richard Henry Lee’s resolution in favor of independence on July 2.  The New York Convention approved the Declaration of Independence on July 9 and the New York delegates signed on August 2]

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the Proceedings in Congress

Saturday June 8. They proceeded to take it into consideration and referred it to a committee of the whole, into which they immediately resolved themselves, and passed that day & Monday the 10th in debating on the subject.

It was argued by Wilson, Robert R. Livingston, E. Rutledge, Dickinson and others
That though they were friends to the measures themselves, and saw the impossibility that we should ever again be united with Gr. Britain, yet they were against adopting them at this time.
That the conduct we had formerly observed was wise & proper now, of deferring to take any capital step till the voice of the people drove us into it:
That they were our power, & without them our declarations could not be carried into effect:
That the people of the middle colonies (Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, the Jersies & New York) were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection but that they were fast ripening & in a short time would join in the general voice of America:
That the resolution entered into by this house on the 15th of May for suppressing the exercise of all powers derived from the crown, had shown, by the ferment into which it had thrown these middle colonies, that they had not yet accommodated their minds to a separation from the mother country:
That some of them had expressly forbidden their delegates to consent to such a declaration, and others had given no instructions, & consequently no powers to give such consent:
That if the delegates of any particular colony had no power to declare such colony independent, certain they were the others could not declare it for them; the colonies being as yet perfectly independent of each other:
That the assembly of Pennsylvania was now sitting above stairs, their convention would sit within a few days, the convention of New York was now sitting, & those of the Jersies & Delaware counties would meet on the Monday following & it was probable these bodies would take up the question of Independence & would declare to their delegates the voice of their state:
That if such a declaration should now be agreed to, these delegates must (now) retire & possibly their colonies might secede from the Union:
That such a secession would weaken us more than could be compensated by any foreign alliance:
That in the event of such a division, foreign powers would either refuse to join themselves to our fortunes, or having us so much in their power as that desperate declaration would place us, they would insist on terms proportionably more hard & prejudicial:
That we had little reason to expect an alliance with those to whom alone as yet we had cast our eyes:
That France & Spain had reason to be jealous of that rising power which would one day certainly strip them of all their American possessions:
That it was more likely they should form a connection with the British court, who, if they should find themselves unable otherwise to extricate themselves from their difficulties, would agree to a partition of our territories, restoring Canada to France, & the Floridas to Spain, to accomplish for themselves a recovery of these colonies:
That it would not be long before we should receive certain information of the disposition of the French court, from the agent whom we had sent to Paris for that purpose:
That if this disposition should be favorable, by waiting the event of the present campaign, which we all hoped would be successful, we should have reason to expect an alliance on better terms:
That this would in fact work no delay of any effectual aid from such ally, as, from the advance of the season & distance of our situation, it was impossible we could receive any assistance during this campaign:
That it was prudent to fix among ourselves the terms on which we would form alliance, before we declared we would form one at all events:
And that if these were agreed on & our Declaration of Independence ready by the time our Ambassador should be prepared to sail, it would be as well, as to go into that Declaration at this day.

On the other side it was urged by J. Adams, Lee, Wythe and others That no gentleman had argued against the policy or the right of separation from Britain, nor had supposed it possible we should ever renew our connection: that they had only opposed it’s being now declared:
That the question was not whether, by a declaration of independence, we should make ourselves what we are not; but whether we should declare a fact which already exists:
That as to the people or parliament of England, we had always been independent of them, their restraints on our trade deriving efficacy from our acquiescence only & not from any rights they possessed of imposing them, & that so far our connection had been federal only, & was now dissolved by the commencement of hostilities:
That as to the king, we had been bound to him by allegiance, but that this bond was now dissolved by his assent to the late act of parliament, by which he declares us out of his protection, and by his levying war on us, a fact which had long ago proved us out of his protection; it being a certain position in law that allegiance & protection are reciprocal, the one ceasing when the other is withdrawn:
That James the IId never declared the people of England out of his protection yet his actions proved it & the parliament declared it:
No delegates then can be denied, or ever want, a power of declaring an existent truth:
That the delegates from the Delaware counties having declared their constituents ready to join, there are only two colonies Pennsylvania & Maryland whose delegates are absolutely tied up, and that these had by their instructions only reserved a right of confirming or rejecting the measure:
That the instructions from Pennsylvania might be accounted for from the times in which they were drawn, near a twelvemonth ago, since which the face of affairs has totally changed:
That within that time it had become apparent that Britain was determined to accept nothing less than a carte blanche, and that the king’s answer to the Lord Mayor, Aldermen & common council of London, which had come to hand four days ago, must have satisfied every one of this point:
That the people wait for us to lead the way (in this step):
That they are in favor of the measure, though the instructions given by some of their representatives are not:
That the voice of the representatives is not always consonant with the voice of the people, and that this is remarkably the case in these middle colonies:
That the effect of the resolution of the 15th of May has proved this, which, raising the murmurs of some in the colonies of Pennsylvania & Maryland, called forth the opposing voice of the freer part of the people, & proved them to be the majority, even in these colonies:
That the backwardness of these two colonies might be ascribed partly to the influence of proprietary power & connections, & partly to their having not yet been attacked by the enemy:
That these causes were not likely to be soon removed, as there seemed no probability that the enemy would make either of these the seat of this summer’s war:
That it would be vain to wait either weeks or months for perfect unanimity, since it was impossible that all men should ever become of one sentiment on any question:
That the conduct of some colonies from the beginning of this contest, had given reason to suspect it was their settled policy to keep in the rear of the confederacy, that their particular prospect might be better even in the worst event:
That therefore it was necessary for those colonies who had thrown themselves forward & hazarded all from the beginning, to come forward now also, and put all again to their own hazard:
That the history of the Dutch revolution, of whom three states only confederated at first proved that a secession of some colonies would not be so dangerous as some apprehended:
That a declaration of Independence alone could render it consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us, or even to receive an Ambassador from us:
That till this they would not receive our vessels into their ports, nor acknowledge the adjudications of our courts of Admiralty to be legitimate, in cases of capture of British vessels:
That though France & Spain may be jealous of our rising power, they must think it will be much more formidable with the addition of Great Britain; and will therefore see it their interest to prevent a coalition; but should they refuse, we shall be but where we are; whereas without trying we shall never know whether they will aid us or not:
That the present campaign may be unsuccessful, & therefore we had better propose an alliance while our affairs wear a hopeful aspect:
That to wait the event of this campaign will certainly work delay, because during this summer France may assist us effectually by cutting off those supplies of provisions from England & Ireland on which the enemy’s armies here are to depend; or by setting in motion the great power they have collected in the West Indies, & calling our enemy to the defense of the possessions they have there:
That it would be idle to lose time in settling the terms of alliance, till we had first determined we would enter into alliance:
That it is necessary to lose no time in opening a trade for our people, who will want clothes, and will want money too for the payment of taxes:
And that the only misfortune is that we did not enter into alliance with France six months sooner, as besides opening their ports for the vent of our last year’s produce, they might have marched an army into Germany and prevented the petty princes there from selling their unhappy subjects to subdue us.

It appearing in the course of these debates that the colonies of N. York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland & South Carolina were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem, but that they were fast advancing to that state, it was thought most prudent to wait a while for them, and to postpone the final decision to July 1. But that this might occasion as little delay as possible, a committee was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence the Committee were J. Adams, Dr. Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston & myself.

Committees were also appointed at the same time to prepare a plan of confederation for the colonies, and to state the terms proper to be proposed for foreign alliance. The committee for drawing the Declaration of Independence desired me to do it. (I did so) it was accordingly done and being approved by them, I reported it to the house on Friday the 28th of June when it was read and ordered to lie on the table.

Edward Rutledge to John Jay

The Congress sat till 7 o’clock this Evening in Consequence of a Motion of R. H. Lee’s resolving ourselves free & independent States. The Sensible part of the House opposed the Motion…. They saw no Wisdom in a Declaration of Independence, nor any other Purpose to be answered by it, but placing ourselves in the Power of those with whom we mean to treat, giving our Enemy Notice of our Intentions before we had taken any Steps to execute them & there by enabling them to counteract us in our Intentions & rendering ourselves ridiculous in the Eyes of foreign Powers by attempting to bring them into an Union with us before we had united with each other.

For daily experience evinces that the Inhabitants of every Colony consider themselves at Liberty to do as they please upon almost every occasion. And a Man must have the Impudence of a New Englander to propose in our present disjointed State any Treaty (honorable to us) to a Nation now at Peace. No Reason could be assigned for pressing into this Measure, but the Reason of every Madman, a Show of our Spirit. The Event however was that the Question was postponed. It is to be renewed on Monday when I mean to move that it should be postponed for 3 Weeks or a Month.

In the meantime the plan of Confederation & the Scheme of Treaty may go on. I don’t know whether I shall succeed in this Motion; I think not, it is at least Doubtful….

The whole Argument was sustained on one side by R. Livingston, Wilson, Dickinson & myself, & by the Powers of all New England, Virginia & Georgia on the other.

[Editor’s Note.  On Monday, June 10, Congress postponed until July 1 further consideration of Richard Henry Lee’s resolution on independence.]

Edited with commentary by Gordon Lloyd.