Was May 15, 1776, Independence Day?

I’m going around saying that the story I tell in Declaration, despite its centrality, is little known. Yet one of the better-known dates, pivotal to the story, is Wednesday, May 15, 1776, when the Congress voted to add a preamble to a resolution it had passed on Friday, May 10. Because John Adams co-sponsored the May 10 resolution, and wrote the preamble that was tacked on its front on May 15, adoption of the preamble was an important moment both in Adams’s emergence as the “colossus of independence” and in the Congress’s movement toward declaring independence. Many founding-father biographers and writers on the Continental Congress have therefore mentioned and even dwelled on that day.

Some have even said that on May 15, America effectively declared independence. Adams certainly liked to think so.

But the context in which the preamble was adopted, and the political work that Adams intended it to do — outside the Congress — has been glossed over, at least in most books for general readers. The inside story, which I try to bring to life in Declaration, raises many issues that certified narratives of events of 1776 have naturally found difficult to cope with. For the Adams preamble isn’t an edifying document, and May 15, though Adams rightly thought of it as “an epoch” in American independence, wasn’t an edifying day.

The realpolitik can be unsettling — but it’s more fun than the whitewashed version. The preamble brought in Monday had been written quickly over the weekend to adjust an unintended effect of the resolution passed the previous Friday. Adams, along with Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, had brought the original resolution into the Congress as part of a secret attempt to overturn the government of Pennsylvania, the Congress’s mighty host, which opposed independence. Pennsylvania controlled the reconciliationist middle-colony bloc, making a declaration of independence impossible. The pro-independence coalition — actually led by Samuel Adams (John was then known mainly as Samuel’s younger second cousin and top operator) — plotted to get the elected government of Pennsylvania thrown out and taken over by pro-independence elements there, thus swinging the keystone colony’s great weight over to independence. As their local allies prepared the working-class committees and militias to take over the province, the Adamses tried to maneuver the Congress into supporting a local uprising against the Pennsylvania assembly.

Hence the May 10 resolution. It proposed that the Congress recommend to those states which, amid the imperial crisis, lacked working governments that they end their old governments and create new ones that would conduce to their happiness. But the real target was Pennsylvania, where the Adamses’ local allies were actually organized and ready to put in a pro-independence government, on the authority only of committees and militias.

On its face the proposed resolution was bizarre. The Continental Congress was not in a position to tell, unsolicited, its member states what to do about their governments. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania had a working representative government in place, committed to American rights (though not to independence), and he knew the Adamses’ were secretly organizing locally against him. In the Congress, he had every reason to object strenuously to the measure as overbearing, illegal, and driven by a hidden Massachusetts agenda against his representative government.

But Dickinson was smart. Instead of arguing, he embraced the resolution, shifting the frame. Since Pennsylvania did have a working government, a veritable model for the colonies that didn’t, he said, the resolution obviously couldn’t apply to it. The Congress then passed the resolution on the understanding that Pennsylvania was exempted. The resolution’s real purpose had been deftly vitiated.

Score one for Dickinson. But then, unwisely, he left town.

So on Monday morning, May 13, with Dickinson gone, in came John Adams with a preamble to the resolution. It wasn’t really a preamble. It re-framed the entire meaning of the resolution. It was far longer than the resolution itself, with John Adams written all over it: hectoring, accusing, piling on. It shoved Pennsylvania back into the scope of the resolution, on a novel technicality, shared with an article that Thomas Paine had meanwhile published in Philadelphia (Forester 4, “To the People”), part of the Adamses’ concerted effort at once to galvanize the street against Dickinson and manuever the Congress against Pennsylvania. Local radical leaders readied themselves to tell the militias, committees, and the street as whole that the Congress, with adoption of the preamble, was about to support them in removing the assembly.

Reconciliationists in the Congress argued desperately — especially James Wilson of Pennsylvania — against overreaching by the Congress and uprising in the streets, but they lacked Dickinson’s finesse, and they’d lost control of the narrative. On May 15, the preamble passed, with many of the Congressmen still not understanding what they were unleashing on their host colony’s elected government. The Pennsylvania State House, where the Congress met in the Pennsylvania assembly’s regular room, was about to become a scene of genuine revolution. All politics is local. …

So maybe May 15 really was, as John Adams liked to say, America’s first independence day. Thanks to him, one of the oldest elected, representative governments in the English-speaking world was set up to be overturned, “extralegally” (a polite term), by an unelected populist militia, to which John Adams wouldn’t have given an inch in Massachusetts.  American politics can be — and certainly was in 1776 — a rough business.

5 thoughts on “Was May 15, 1776, Independence Day?

  1. In addition, the carefully-worded May 15 preamble repeats the basic colonial position (which first appeared in Connecticut in 1764) that allegiance to the sovereign depends on his protection. This was a basic point in the exposition of natural law in Calvin’s Case (1609), which formed a fundamental part of the colonial argument. The May 15 preamble also called on “reason and conscience” — the time-honored legal authorities for converting natural law into judicial decisions — as the bases for the colonial leaders to forswear their oaths of allegiance to the King of England.

  2. The 15th May Resolution of Independence – a signed copy by John Hancock, President is filed in the Connecticut Historical Society as one of Silas Deane correspondence that returned home with him when he died at sea. His family provided them to this historical society, Have a related article posted along with a digital copy of the signed copy and a copy printed by Dunlap and distributed to the NC Archives. See web site http://www.ncssar.com/ and look for information posted that adds to the Declaration of Independence story. Your article tells what happened here and how its real failure was covered. There is a agent for the French who was here with the capacity to tell them what had to be done, write a declaration.

  3. I have read with interest Becker and Phillips’ “Historic Data Reflecting Additional Information Related to the Declaration of Independence.” I agree that the discovery of a signed copy of the congressional resolution of May 10 and 15 illustrates the colonial leaders’ central preoccupation with obtaining French support in their struggle, and it also highlights the importance of the resolution itself. However, there is no reason to imagine a French secret agent in the midst of the Continental Congress, as the legal training of the congressional leaders – with special attention to John Adams — is fully sufficient to explain the ongoing push toward the formal Declaration of Independence in following weeks.

    John Adams came to the Continental Congress in 1774 with the mission of getting the colonies to unite around a declaration of independence that embodied the Ciceronian “safety and happiness” definition of governmental legitimacy (as reiterated in the pages of the neo-Ciceronian legal philosophers Hutcheson, Burlemaqui, and Vattel) which had become orthodox political doctrine in Massachusetts by the early 1760s, and which was widespread in other colonies as well, especially Pennsylvania.

    Adams’s pursuit of these twin goals was stymied for the next two years, as some delegates to the Continental Congress who publicly embraced the “safety and happiness” doctrine (such as John Dickenson and James Wilson of Pennsylvania, where neo-Ciceronian legal philosophy was pervasive anddeeply rooted) opposed independence. On the other hand was John Rutledge, the towering political eminence in the “Land of Locke” (as Adams described South Carolina in his diary), who was inclined toward independence but refused to embrace the “safety and happiness” doctrine.

    Adams knew from the beginning that he needed Virginian support in order to attain his twin goals, and his chief Virginian ally was Richard Henry Lee. Adams and Lee jointly introduced the June resolution which led to the formal Declaration of Independence, and they also jointly introduced the May 10 resolution, and the two of them were on the committee that drafted this resolution’s May 15 preamble, together with Edward Rutledge.

    Edward’s elder brother John Rutledge (who was later recognized by Alexis de Tocqeville as the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution) was called back home from Congress in early 1776, but he gave instructions to Edward, also a congressional delegate from South Carolina, to preserve unity among the colonies as the struggle in Congress for independence reached a climax.
    As South Carolina had been the leading holdout in Congress against a public enunciation of the “safety and happiness” doctrine, it was essential that Edward Rutledge be part of the committee that drafted the May 15 preamble to the resolution of May 10. Accordingly, Edward Rutledge joined John Adams and Richard Henry Lee on the committee that drafted the May 15 preamble to the May 10 resolution, publicly signaling South Carolina’s acquiescence in the decision to promulgate a statement (for the very first time) of the “safety and happiness” doctrine as the fundamental natural-law motivation for the colonial leaders as they publicly foreswore their oaths of allegiance to King George III.

    After the resolution was passed, Adams wrote in his diary that “it was independence itself: but We must have it with more formality yet.” Every congressman knew that a formal declaration was necessary to achieve independence because that was what Vattel said in the era’s preeminent treatise on international law, The Law of Nations. As Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1775, in a letter of thanks to the publisher of a FRENCH edition of The Law of Nations, Vattel’s book was “continually in the hands of the members of our congress.” There is simply no reason to look any further for an explanation of why John Adams and his colleagues knew in May that a formal declaration of independence was still necessary.

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