By June 1776, the British had taken over Boston, attempted to confiscate the arms of the local militias (leading to Paul Revere’s Ride and the Battles of Lexington and Concord). After their defeats at Lexington & Concord, the British determined to pacify Boston by force at the Battle of Bunker Hill. While the British prevailed, 400 Patriot volunteers took 1,000 British regulars with them.
The last Olive Branch Petition to the King had been returned from London and read aloud to the Congress by President John Hancock. The King had resolved to ignore them and also brand them traitors; all who did not immediately capitulate and surrender would face death.
The British were regrouping after a temporary withdraw from Boston while sending fleets and German mercenaries up the Hudson to New York and up the Delaware to Philadelphia. The only thing standing between the Continental Congress and total British victory were the river defensese in Delaware.
On June 7th, 1776, Mr. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a Declaration of Independence. After a lengthy debate led by John Adams, a 20 day recess was called to allow delegations to seek instructions from their constituent assemblies. As British marched into New York, the Provincial Assembly was forced to flee and the New York delegation was put in a precarious position: obey last instructions and vote against or vote rogue and invite the British to burn the city to the ground. The Continental Congress re-convened on July 2nd and unanimously declared independence – with New York abstaining to prevent the British sack of the city.
Two days later the Congress would agree on the very wording of the Declaration, drafted by Thomas Jefferson but heavily edited by the Continental Congress as a whole.
At this point in time the war could have very easily been lost and there were no guarantees that even the politicians leading the effort would escape British judgement. This vote marked these men for death and they would spend the better part of the next month sneaking in and out of the city to sign the Declaration.
“I am apt to believe that July 2nd will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.– John Adams, to his wife Abigail Adams, July 2nd, 1776.
No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. — Thomas Jefferson, First Draft of the Constitution of Virginia, 1776.
A free people ought not only to be armed, but disciplined. — George Washington, First Annual Address, to both House of Congress, January 8th, 1790
I ask who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. — George Mason, Address to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 4th, 1788.
Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops. — Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, October 10th, 1787.
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the best and most natural defense of a free country.” — James Madison, First Annals of Congress 434, June 8th, 1789
A militia when propery formed are in fact the people themselves. — Richard Henry Lee, Federal Farmer No. 18, January 25th, 1788