Many colonial leaders agreed with the sentiments
expressed by Thomas Paine in Common Sense. At the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia,
plenty of spirited debates took place in the meeting hall. Many of the most intense arguments
revolved around the question, should the colonies declare their independence from British rule?
What did the colonial leaders decide? On June 7, 1776, Virginia’s Richard Henry
Lee, following instructions from his home colony, proposed a bold resolution: “That
these colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states.; that they
are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown; and that all political connections
between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
Some delegates feared that the colonies were not ready to declare independence, while others
feared the power of Britain to crush the rebellion. As the debates took place, a Committee of
Five was formed to draft a Declaration of Independence. The committee included Thomas
Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.
Jefferson wanted Adams to write the document, but, just as Adams had done with backing Washington
for command of the Continental Army, stood steadfast in his resolve that he knew the
right individual for the task. Adams understood the dissatisfaction that many of the members
of Congress had with him over the firm stands he had taken in the debates over independence.
He believed that any resolution drafted by him stood no chance of passing a vote.
Franklin could have been the right man for the job, but many in the Congress were suspicious
of him due to the loyalty of his son to the British crown. Livingston did not fully support
the idea of declaring independence, and Sherman expressed a lack of confidence in his writing
abilities. In the end, Adams insisted that Jefferson
write the document, and once again, geography played an important role. Adams knew that
most of the New England delegates had grown unpopular in Congress, and a Declaration of
Independence written by a Virginian would once again send a clear message to the Crown
about colonial unity. Jefferson drew on the ideas of English philosopher
John Locke who had written about the natural rights to life, liberty, and property in his
essay Two Treatises of Government almost a century before. Locke also wrote that people
formed governments to protect their rights, and that when a government interferes with
such rights, that the people could rightfully overthrow that government.
Although Jefferson adopted many of Locke’s ideas, he consulted “neither book nor pamphlet”
directly. He later wrote that the Declaration was “intended to be an expression of the American
mind and to give that expression the proper tone and spirit it called for by that occasion.”
As Jefferson locked himself into a room on the second floor of a brick house on the corner
of Market and Second streets in Philadelphia, he was in full agreement with his friend John
Adams who argued “that a more equal liberty than had prevailed in other parts of the earth
must be established in America.”