As we celebrate the 235th anniversary of our country’s independence, it is instructive to consider just how the delegates to the Second Continental Congress arrived at that historic moment of declaring: “As Representatives of the United States of America,” that “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.”
If you’re like me, you got a lump in your throat at the finale to the musical “1776.” There, in Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall on the evening of July 4, 1776, as the Liberty Bell tolled, delegates responded to a roll call of their names by filing to the front table and signing the Declaration of Independence. But that’s not how it happened.
The Congress voted July 2 to approve a resolution by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia declaring our independence. That’s what prompted John Adams to predict in a letter to his wife: “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”
However, it was on July 4 that the Congress amended and then approved the Declaration of Independence, which was drafted by a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others. The roll call on approval was not of delegates, but of colonies, because each had just one vote. The Declaration of Independence was not engrossed until Aug. 2, at which time John Hancock, as president of the Congress, suggested that each delegate sign the document. (Ordinarily, legislative enactments are only signed by the presiding officer and clerk.)
Hancock may be credited, at least legendarily, with the first presidential signing statement for purposely making his signature so large that “John Bull [the king] could read it without his spectacles.” In truth, his was simply the first signature on a blank page. Not all delegates were present for the signing on that day, and they affixed their signatures later.
What we tend to forget is that the Second Continental Congress, which opened on May 10, 1775, was not convened for the purpose of declaring independence, even though fighting had broken out between colonists and British troops the previous month at Lexington and Concord. On the contrary, like the First Continental Congress, the second was an advisory assembly to the states called for the emergency purposes of seeking a redress of grievances from the Crown, restoring the rights and liberties of the colonists and seeking peace and harmony with Great Britain. When the Congress’ attempts at petitioning the Crown to these ends were repeatedly rebuffed by the king and parliament, the war for independence became inevitable.
What made the Continental Congress unique was its illegality: It operated outside the authority of the Crown. Delegates necessarily met in secret and were keenly aware that their treasonous behavior was punishable by hanging. Franklin’s quip after independence was declared about either hanging together or hanging separately was no laughing matter.
The Congress often had to hastily relocate to avoid being captured by advancing British troops, and delegates sometimes had difficulty finding each other when they tried to reassemble. One Virginia delegate, after searching unsuccessfully in Annapolis and Philadelphia for the interim “committee of the states” during a recess, angrily declared it was “a prostitution of the name of government to apply it to such a vagabond, strolling, contemptible crew as Congress.”
The Second Continental Congress, though still a consultative body, slowly began to assume governing responsibilities to address wartime needs. In June 1775, it voted to borrow money for gun powder, to raise companies of riflemen and to unanimously appoint George Washington, a delegate from Virginia, to command “all the continental forces, raised or to be raised, for the defense of American liberty.” The day after Washington’s appointment, plans were adopted to organize an army of 15,000 men. Congressional committees began exercising the functions of government — precursors of today’s defense, state and postal departments.
The weaknesses of such a unicameral government, with no separate executive or judiciary, would gradually be exposed. Meanwhile, successor Congresses under the Articles of Confederation would stumble forward with term-limited Members (no more than three annual terms in any six years) and with each state having just one vote. After their colonial experiences, the sovereign states were not anxious to cede more powers to a central government, especially the power to tax.
Nevertheless, legislative practices inherited from the British Parliament and colonial legislatures were adopted by Congress and endure today. The Continental Congresses were profiles in courage and innovation, but they could also be frustratingly painful examples of how not to govern a new nation.
Together with the states, the Congresses were laboratories of democracy that benefited from the scientific method of trial and error, and plenty such learning experiences informed delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Even so, we continue to be a work in progress.
Don Wolfensberger is director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former chief of staff of the House Rules Committee.