Papers of John Adams, volume 4

Editorial Note Editorial Note
Editorial Note

No member of the congress played a greater role in 1775 and 1776 in bringing about a separation of the American colonies from Great Britain than John Adams, even if we make allowances for his tendency in old age to push back into time the moment when he became unequivocally committed to independence. His influence was exerted right up through the adoption of the formal resolution itself, but his contribution to the language of the Declaration of Independence was slight. He readily admitted that, and by 1805 he was uncertain whether he had made any contribution at all ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:336–337).

The admission did not bother him, for, as he saw it, the fact of declaring independence was the critical matter. In 1776 he never imagined, nor did most delegates, that the words which declared the colonies free and independent would play the role in American history that they have. This accounts for his writing to Abigail that 2 July would 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” ( Adams Family Correspondence , 2:30). The ideas of the Declaration were common enough among Americans and had been for years. “Hackneyed,” John Adams later called them. Moreover, in mid-summer of 1776 there was need for haste (JA to Samuel Chase, 1 July, below; JA to Timothy Pickering, 6 Aug. 1822, Works , 2:514). In the view of a majority in the congress, formal separation had already been too long delayed; the people in most of the colonies had plainly indicated that they were ready for the step. In the face of such urgency, what matter the words? The draft was written by an acknowledged master penman. Why waste time quibbling? But the members of the congress took considerable pains with Jefferson's handiwork, and even the greatest admirers of Jefferson today believe that the rephrasing and excisions of the congress gave the document more force, here and there, and made it politically more feasible.

A formal declaration of independence became an unavoidable issue on 7 June, when Richard Henry Lee introduced his three-part motion resolving that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and 342independent States,” that measures should be taken to form alliances with foreign powers, and that a scheme of confederation should be drafted and sent to the several colonies for their approval (John H. Hazelton, The Declaration of Independence: Its History, N.Y., 1906, photograph of Lee's resolution in his handwriting, facing p. 108). Adams seconded Lee's motion. No record of this fact has been found other than a statement in Adams' Autobiography, but there is no reason to doubt his word, for it is unlikely that he would have become confused about so simple a matter. There is no need, however, to accept his further statement that the records omit mention of his and Lee's names because Secretary Thomson, as a member of the group opposed to Adams and others who were pushing for extreme measures, deliberately excluded them. The secretary never included the names of makers of motions nor their seconders.

Lee was speaking in behalf of the Virginia delegation, for that colony on 15 May had resolved that its delegates should propose to the congress a declaration of independence. The Virginia resolution had been laid before the congress on 27 May, but Lee did not offer his motion until eleven days later. Obviously among those desiring independence soon there was some consultation about the appropriate time to make a motion. Samuel Adams knew at least one day in advance when Lee would rise for the purpose ( JCC , 4:397; 5:425; Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:475). According to Jefferson's notes of the proceedings, taken at the time, the pressure of other business caused discussion of Lee's motion to be put off until the 8th, when the congress in committee of the whole spent virtually the entire day on it, with the debate continuing on the following Monday, 10 June.

Those who argued against the motion—John Dickinson, James Wilson, Edward Rutledge, and others—believed that it was premature. For one thing, the Middle Colonies had not yet modified their instructions to their delegates on the question of independence. For another, it was best to wait for the American agent's report on the attitude of France. Adams was one of several who spoke in favor of Lee's motion. Unfortunately, although Jefferson summarized in some detail what was said on each side, he did not attach names to particular arguments. Several, however, seem characteristic of Adams: a declaration would merely acknowledge an already existing fact; regulation of American trade by Parliament was owing, not to any right but to the colonies' acquiescence; allegiance to the King had been dissolved by his declaring the colonies out of his protection and making war on them. No doubt there are others as well ( JCC , 5:427; Jefferson, Papers , 1:309–313).

Those opposed to a declaration sought delay. Edward Rutledge confessed to John Jay that he would move to postpone a vote “for 3 Weeks or Months.” As it was, the vote on Lee's motion was put over until 1 July; but, so that no time would be lost, the congress agreed to appoint a committee to draft a formal declaration to be ready if the delegates should vote for independence (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:476–477; 343 JCC , 5:428–429). The congress chose Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston for the committee. Adams and Jefferson later gave somewhat different accounts of how it happened that Jefferson made the draft for the committee's consideration. In essence, Adams claimed that the two men were members of a subcommittee, and that he pressed the chore upon his younger colleague for a variety of political and personal reasons; Jefferson simply said that he was chosen by the committee of five (JA, Diary and Autobiography , 3:336; Julian P. Boyd, The Declaration of Independence, Princeton, 1945, p. 10–11). Scholars now generally agree that Jefferson showed his draft first to Adams and then to Franklin before he presented it to the entire committee (but see Julian Boyd's penetrating discussion of the evidence, Jefferson, Papers , 1:404–406, note).

At an early stage of the revisions that Jefferson's draft underwent, Adams copied off the entire document. By the calculations of Julian Boyd, who has made in books and articles a masterly analysis of the texts of the Declaration of Independence, “only sixteen of an ultimate total of eighty-six alterations had been made when Adams transcribed it, and these were chiefly of a minor character” (Declaration of Independence, p. 18). The Adams copy is extremely important for demonstrating the evolution of the text from Jefferson's “original Rough draught,” as he called it, which exists now only as a much marked-up document, to the Declaration so familiar today. The copy is also important for another reason. Adams' laboriously transcribing it when he did suggests that he was satisfied with Jefferson's work before it had undergone much alteration, so much so that on 3 July he sent the copy to his wife. In her reply to her husband of 14 July, Abigail remarked, “I cannot but feel sorry that some of the most Manly Sentiments in the Declaration are Expunged from the printed coppy. Perhaps wise reasons induced it.” Because the copy was in his handwriting, she may have concluded that he had written the Declaration and was quick to defend his work. She also had strong feelings about the evil of slavery, which Jefferson's draft condemned ( Adams Family Correspondence , 2:46–49 and notes).

In his old age Adams expressed some reservations about the language of the Declaration that he claimed to have had at the time of its composition. Although he was “delighted” with Jefferson's attack on the slave trade, he knew that the southern members would not accept that part of the Declaration; and Adams objected to Jefferson's calling George III a tyrant: “I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document” (JA to Timothy Pickering, 6 Aug. 1822, Works , 2:514). The two identifiable contributions that Adams made to the wording and noteworthy changes that Jefferson made before Adams took his copy are indicated in the annotation to the copy (below).

The report of the committee of five was delivered to the congress and read on 28 June, but discussion of it had to wait until the members had 344acted on Lee's resolution calling for independence ( JCC , 5:491). As agreed, debate in the committee of the whole began on 1 July. That a majority in favor of independence would prevail was a foregone conclusion, but for obvious reasons the members wanted unanimity if it could be secured. The prospects were excellent. All but two of the doubtful colonies had apparently fallen into line. On 14 June, Pennsylvania had repealed its instructions to its delegates which had forbidden them to support independence; on the 22d New Jersey had empowered its delegates to vote for independence, as had Maryland on the 28th. Delaware also gave its delegates “full Powers” (JA to James Warren, 20 May, note 5, above; Force, Archives , 4th ser., 6:1628–1629; JA to Samuel Chase, 14 June and note 5, above). Meanwhile, the New York delegates wrote home, urgently asking for instructions if the vote should go in favor of independence. In its answer the New York Convention declared it “imprudent” to raise the question of independence with its constituents when they were being asked to consider a new government. Feeling that it lacked any clear mandate from the people on independence, the Convention refused to instruct the delegates on that subject, leaving them unable to act (Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:477; Force, Archives , 4th ser., 6:814).

The debate ran on for most of the day, and, when the vote was taken in the committee of the whole, Pennsylvania and South Carolina stood opposed; Delaware, with only two of its three delegates present, was divided and therefore not counted; and New York, despite the private sentiments of its delegates, perforce abstained. When the committee of the whole rose and reported, Edward Rutledge, who had opposed a declaration, sought to defer the official vote until the next day, when he thought members of his delegation might vote in favor of the resolution for the sake of unanimity. On 2 July, Rutledge's anticipations were fulfilled; Caesar Rodney, summoned by Thomas McKean, rode posthaste and arrived in time to break the tie in the Delaware delegation; and enough Pennsylvania delegates took advantage of the freedom recently granted them by the Assembly, which was now a discredited body anyway, to carry that province into the favorable column. Only New York remained on the fence; its delegates were unable to join the other twelve United Colonies until the New York Convention gave them authorization on 9 July (Jefferson, Papers , 1:314; McKean to Caesar A. Rodney, 22 [Sept.?] 1813, in Burnett, ed., Letters of Members , 1:534).

According to John Adams, the extended debate on 1 July produced no new arguments on either side; but in his Autobiography, he recalled that Dickinson “in a Speech of great Length, and all his Eloquence” combined and summarized all that had been said before on independence. When no one rose to reply, Adams reluctantly got to his feet to show the weaknesses in the carefully prepared oration that he had just heard. Later Adams remembered that Dickinson had spoken with “Politeness and Candour: and was answered in the Same Spirit” ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:396; JA to Samuel Chase, 1 July, below). Dickinson's speech has been carefully 345reconstructed from his notes, but Adams spoke extemporaneously and in later years could recall no details of what he had said except his expressed wish that he could have had the speaking powers of the great orators of Greece and Rome on that historic occasion. That he was correct in saying that he replied to Dickinson rather than the other way around is borne out by a thoughtful analysis of Dickinson's speech ( Diary and Autobiography , 3:396–397; J. H. Powell, “Speech of John Dickinson Opposing the Declaration of Independence, 1 July, 1776,” PMHB , 65:458–481 [Oct. 1941]). In his Autobiography, Adams describes himself as speaking a second time, repeating most of what had been said, for the benefit of newly elected and late-arriving delegates from New Jersey, although two years later, in a letter to Mercy Otis Warren, he mentions speaking only once (JA to Mrs. Warren, 17 Aug. 1807, MHS, Colls. , 5th ser., 4 [1878]: 465–469).

Whether Adams spoke once or twice, contemporaries left warm tributes to the importance of his efforts on that day. George Walton in a letter to Adams in 1789 wrote of his able and faithful development of the great question. Richard Stockton's son recalled that his father, a New Jersey delegate, called Adams “the Atlas of American Independence.” And in 1813 Jefferson described Adams as “the pillar of [the resolution's] support on the floor of Congress, it's ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered” and reportedly referred in 1824 to Adams as “our Colossus on the floor,” adding, “He was not graceful or elegant, nor remarkably fluent, but he came out occasionally with a power of thought and expression, that moved us from our seats” (all quoted by Hazelton, Declaration of Independence, p. 161–162).

Once Lee's resolution on independence had passed, the congress turned immediately to the Declaration itself, and for parts of three days the committee of the whole worked over its language. Adams' Autobiography makes no mention of the work of revision or whether he said anything in defense of Jefferson's composition. The omission only confirms the belief that for Adams, even as late as 1805, the significant thing was not the cadences of Jefferson's prose or the enshrinement of noble ideals by which Americans could measure their performance, but the fact of independence, for which he had labored for so many months.

A Declaration by<a xmlns="" href="#PJA04d199n1" class="note" id="PJA04d199n1a">1</a> the Representatives of the United States of America in general Congress assembled, 28 June 1776 Continental Congress A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in general Congress assembled, 28 June 1776 Continental Congress
A Declaration by1 the Representatives of the United States of America in general Congress assembled
ante 28 June 1776 2

When in the Course of human Events it becomes necessary for a People to advance from that Subordination, in which they have hitherto remained and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the equal and independent Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Natures God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Man- 346 image 347 kind requires that they Should declare the Causes, which impell them to the Change.

We hold these Truths to be self evident;3 that all Men are created equal and independent; that from that equal Creation they derive Rights inherent and unalienable; among which are the Preservation of Life, and Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; that to Secure these Ends, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the governed; that whenever, any form of Government, Shall become destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter, or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in Such Form, as to them Shall Seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence indeed will dictate that Governments long established Should not be changed for light and transient Causes: and accordingly all Experience hath Shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to Suffer, while Evils are Sufferable, than to right themselves, by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, begun at a distinguish'd Period, and pursuing invariably, the Same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute4 Power, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off Such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and Such is now the Necessity, which constrains them to expunge their former Systems of Government. The History of his present Majesty,5 is a History, of unremitting Injuries and Usurpations, among which no one Fact Stands Single or Solitary to contradict the Uniform Tenor of the rest, all of which have in direct Object, the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be Submitted to a candid World, for the Truth of which We pledge a Faith, as yet unsullied by Falshood. He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation, till his Assent Should be obtained; and when So suspended he has neglected utterly to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature,6 a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.7

He has dissolved Representative Houses, repeatedly, and continually, 348for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions, on the Rights of the People.

He has refused,8 for a long Space of Time after Such Dissolutions,9 to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their Exercise, the State remaining in the mean Time, exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion, from without, and Convulsions within—

He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither; and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has Suffered the Administration of Justice totally to cease in some of these Colonies, refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing judiciary Powers.

He has made our Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and amount of their Salaries:

He has created a Multitude of new Offices by a Self-assumed Power, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our People and eat out their Substance.

He has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies and Ships of War.

He has affected to render the military, independent of, and Superiour to, the Civil Power:

He has combined10 with others to subject Us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their pretended Act of Legislation; for quartering large Bodies of armed Troops among Us; for protecting them by a Mock Tryal from Punishment for any Murders they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States; for cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World; for imposing Taxes on us without our Consent; for depriving us of the Benefits of Trial by Jury; for transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences: for taking away our Charters, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments; for suspending our own Legislatures and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for US in all Cases Whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, withdrawing his Governors, and declaring us, out of his Allegiance and Protection.

He has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

He is at this Time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries 349to compleat the Works of death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with Circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

He has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes, and Conditions of Existence.

He has incited treasonable Insurrections of our Fellow Citizens,11 with the Allurement of Forfeiture and Confiscation of our Property.

He has waged cruel War against human Nature itself, violating its most Sacred Rights of Life and Liberty in the Persons of a distant People who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into Slavery in another Hemisphere, or to incur miserable Death, in their Transportation thither. This piratical Warfare, the opprobrium of infidel Powers, is the Warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain, determined to 12

He has prostituted his Negative for Suppressing every legislative Attempt to prohibit or to restrain an execrable Commerce, determined to keep open a Markett where Men Should be bought and Sold, and that this Assemblage of Horrors might Want no Fact of distinguished Die

He is now exciting those very People to rise in Arms among US, and to purchase that Liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the People upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off, former Crimes committed against the Liberties of one People, with Crimes which he urges them to commit against the Lives of another.

In every Stage of these Oppressions we have petitioned for redress, in the most humble Terms; our repeated Petitions have been answered by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every Act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a People who mean to be free. Future Ages will Scarce believe, that the Hardiness of one Man, adventured, within the Short Compass of twelve years only, on So many Acts of Tyranny, without a Mask, over a People, fostered and fixed in the Principles of Liberty.

Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of attempts of their Legislature, to extend a Jurisdiction over these our States. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here, no one of which could warrant So Strange a Pretension. That these were effected at the Expence of our own Blood and Treasure, 350unassisted by the Wealth or the Strength of Great Britain: that in constituting indeed, our Several Forms of Government, We had adopted one common King, thereby laying a Foundation for perpetual League and Amity with them: but that Submission to their Parliament, was no Part of our Constitution, nor ever in Idea, if History may be credited: and We appealed to their Native Justice and Magnanimity, as well as to the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which were likely to interrupt our Correspondence and Connection. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity, and when Occasions have been given them by the regular Course of their Laws of removing from their Councils, the Disturbers of our Harmony, they have by their free Election, reestablished them in Power. At this very Time too, they are permitting their Chief Magistrate to send over not only Soldiers of our common Blood, but Scotch and foreign Mercenaries, to invade and deluge Us in Blood. These Facts have given the last Stab to agonizing Affection, and manly Spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling Brethren. We must endeavour to forget our former Love for them, and to hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind Enemies in War, in Peace Friends. We might have been a free and a great People together; but a Communication of Grandeur and of Freedom it seems is below their Dignity. Be it So, Since they will have it: The Road to Happiness and to Glory13 is open to Us too; We will climb it, apart from them,14 and acquiesce in the Necessity which denounces our eternal Seperation!15

We therefore the Representatives of the united States of America in General Congress assembled, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these States, reject and renounce all Allegiance and subjection to the Kings of Great Britain, and all others, who may hereafter claim by, through, or under them; We utterly dissolve and break off all political Connection which may have heretofore Subsisted between Us and the People or Parliament of Great Britain, and finally We do assert and declare these Colonies to be free and independent States, and that as free and independent States they shall hereafter have Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which independent States may of Right do. And for the Support of this Declaration, We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

MS in JA's hand (Adams Papers); written on four folio pages made from a large folded sheet of paper like that used by Jefferson for his draft; several small tears partially obscuring a word or two.

351 1.

Jefferson substituted “by” for “of.” Identification of this and other changes that were made before JA made his transcript is based on Boyd, The Declaration of Independence, p. 22–25. This work includes photographs of Jefferson's draft, JA's copy, and other pertinent documents. It should be noted that JA followed his own preference in capitalizing letters and words.


JA made his copy before the committee of five made changes and thus before the committee reported to the congress.


Boyd has argued persuasively that the substitution of “self-evident” for “sacred and undeniable” was Jefferson's work.


Jefferson substituted “reduce” for “subject” and “under absolute” for “to arbitrary.”


After he had made his copy, JA suggested substituting “the present King of Great Britain” for “his present majesty.” In a marginal note to his draft, Jefferson indicated that JA wrote in this alteration.


In his draft Jefferson inserted “in the legislature” above the line.


Jefferson substituted “only” for “alone,” which was erased.


Jefferson substituted “he has refused” for “he has dissolved.”


“After such Dissolutions” is inserted above the line in Jefferson's draft. A marginal note attributes the change to JA.


The first three letters of this word are hardly legible because of a blot in JA's copy.


Jefferson substituted “citizens” for “subjects,” which was erased.


JA started to continue on here as does Jefferson's draft, not observing at first that “determined to keep open . . . bought & sold” was bracketed for omission. The phrase was interlined below after “execrable commerce,” but “determined” was changed to “determining,” an alteration that JA overlooked.


Jefferson substituted “to happiness & to glory” for “to glory & happiness.”


Jefferson substituted “apart from them” for “separately,” which he had substituted for “in a separate state.”


Jefferson substituted “denounces” for “pronounces” and “eternal separation” for “everlasting Adieu.” In summary, before JA made his copy he made only a single alteration in Jefferson's draft (see note 9, above). All the other changes here noted were made by Jefferson in the course of writing and before JA did his copying. Additional changes were made in the committee of five, but apart from the one mentioned in note 5 (above), it is impossible to tell what changes, if any, were suggested by JA. Boyd describes committee-made changes at p. 28–31.