Declarations of Independence in 1776

by Stephen Schechter, Russell Sage College

The Continental Congress was not the first American legislature in 1776 to come up with the idea of independence or a document declaring it. The United States Declaration of Independence did not suddenly appear, fully formed, one day before the members of the Continental Congress. Rather, the ideas that it captured arose from a confederal process begun long before the United States became a constitutional confederation.  As we are a country of state and federal constitutions, so we were a country in 1776 of provincial and continental declarations of independence – and local ones, too.

Pauline Maier’s classic study, American Scripture (Vintage, 1997), examines the roles of provincial and even local governments in the making of the Declaration of Independence. On April 12, 1776, the Fourth Provincial Congress of North Carolina adopted the first official declaration. Later known as the Halifax Resolves, these resolutions called for independence from Great Britain and, in the spirit of inter-state cooperation, recommended that other states do the same. The Halifax Resolves also instructed North Carolina’s delegates at the Continental Congress to declare independence from Great Britain.

Later in April and May 1776, four Virginia counties and three South Carolina counties instructed their provincial legislatures to enact declarations of independence. Rhode Island followed on May 4 with an act repealing an earlier act that supported British allegiance. Then came Virginia with instructions to its congressional delegates on May 15, the same day the Continental Congress approved the preamble to a resolution on independence written by John Adams. Taking cognizance of his home Virginia’s instructions, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution in early June in the Continental Congress calling on that body to declare independence.

In June, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and — after petitions from four of its counties — Maryland, all sent instructions to their Continental Congress delegates to vote for independence. These instructions typically contained their own versions of independence declarations. Then, on June 29, Virginia took the matter one step further and called for independence in the preamble to its state constitutional preamble. New Jersey did the same on July 2. Not to be outdone, fifty-eight Massachusetts towns and two New York towns adopted some form of declaration or instruction to provincial bodies between early May and July 4, 1776.

As in so many other public matters, independence was not a single act but a complex of intergovernmental actions. Happy 4th!