Committee of Five

The Committee of Five of the Second Continental Congress drafted and presented to the Congress what became known as America's Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776. This Declaration committee operated from June 11, 1776 until July 5, 1776, the day on which the Declaration was published.

Drafting of the Declaration of Independence

On Monday afternoon, June 10, 1776, the delegates of the United Colonies in Congress resolved to postpone until Monday, July 1st, the final consideration of whether or not to declare the several sovereign independencies of the United Colonies, which had been proposed by the North Carolina resolutions of April 12 and the Virginia resolutions of May 15. The proposal was moved in Congress on June 7 by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia; henceforth the resolution was known as the Lee Resolution. During these allotted three weeks Congress agreed to appoint a committee to draft a broadside statement to proclaim to the world the reasons for taking America out of the British Empire, if the Congress were to declare the said sovereign independencies. The actual declaration of "American Independence" is precisely the text comprising the final paragraph of the published broadside of July 4. The broadside's final paragraph repeated the text of the Lee Resolution as adopted by the declaratory resolve voted on July 2.

Hence, "American Independence", of these "Free and independent States," was actually declared in the Congress on the afternoon of July 2nd and reported as such afterwards, unofficially in a local newspaper that very evening and officially in the published broadside dated July 4th.

On June 11, the members of the Committee of Five were appointed; they were: John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Because the committee left no minutes, there is some uncertainty about how the drafting process proceededâ€"accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are contradictory and not entirely reliable.

What is certain is that the committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft. Considering Congress's busy schedule, Jefferson probably had limited time for writing over the next seventeen days, and likely wrote the draft quickly. He then consulted with the others on the committee, who reviewed the draft and made extensive changes. Jefferson then produced another copy incorporating these alterations.

The committee presented this copy to the "Committee of the Whole" Congress on June 28, 1776. The title of the document was "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled."

The Declaration Debated, Revised and Adopted

Throughout the Monday of July 1, the Congress debated the question of whether or not to declare independence. The debates resulted in a favorable vote 9 to 2 (with two abstentions) by the Committee of the Whole, and thus a decided majority vote for the declaration assured that a formal declaration of independence was only a matter of agreement to be reached on the timing of the adoption of the necessary resolve. The Congress then heard the report of the Committee of the Whole and declared the sovereign status of the United Colonies the following day, during the afternoon of July 2. The Committee of the Whole then turned to the Declaration and it was given a second reading before adjournment.

On Wednesday, July 3, the Committee of the Whole gave the Declaration a third reading and commenced scrutiny of the precise wording of the proposed text. Two passages in the Committee of Five's draft were rejected by the Committee of the Whole. One was a critical reference to the English people and the other was a denunciation of the slave trade and of slavery itself. The text of the Declaration was otherwise accepted without any other major changes. As John Adams recalled many years later, this work of editing the proposed text was largely completed by the time of adjournment on July 3. However, the text's formal adoption was deferred until the following morning, when the Congress voted its agreement during the late morning of July 4. The draft document as adopted was then referred back to the Committee of Five in order to prepare a "fair copy," this being the redrafted-as-corrected document prepared for delivery to the broadside printer, John Dunlap. And so the Committee of Five convened in the early evening of July 4 to complete its task.

Historians have had no documentary means by which to determine the identity of the authenticating party. It is unclear whether the Declaration was authenticated by the Committee of Five's signature or the Committee submitted the fair copy to President Hancock for his authenticating signature, or the authentication awaited President John Hancock’s signature on the printer’s finished proof-copy of what became known as the Dunlap broadside Either way, upon the July 5 release of the Dunlap broadside of the Declaration, the Committee of Five’s work was done.

Also, after the July 5 release of the Dunlap broadside the public could read for itself just who had signed the Declaration. At the bottom of the broadside, thus: "JOHN HANCOCK, President, Signed by order and in behalf of the Congress". Just one signature as attested by Secretary Charles Thomson. Memories of the participants proved to be very short on this particular historic moment. Not three decades had elapsed by which time the prominent members of the Committee of Five could no longer recollect in detail what actually took place, and by their active participation, on July 4 and 5 of 1776. And so during these early decades was born the myth of a one grand ceremonial general signing on July 4, by all the delegates to Congress. The myth continues to have a very long life.


External links

  • Lee Resolution: "The Lee Resolution of June 7, 1776 born of the Virginia Resolve of May 15, 1776".
  • Dunlap broadside: The Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence, as first published on July 5, 1776, entitled "A DECLARATION By The Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA In General Congress assembled".
  • Goddard broadside: The Goddard broadside of the Declaration of Independence, as first published on January 31, 1777, entitled "The unanimous DECLARATION of the Thirteen United States of AMERICA".


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