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Toward Independence, Continental Congress

pure republic, republican manifesto, battles of Lexington, Hessians, republican revolution

In September 1774 every colony but Georgia sent delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Congress refused to recognize the authority of Parliament and instead sent a petition to the king. The petition stated the principle that Parliament could not legislate for the colonies without their consent and extended this principle beyond taxation to any legislation.

While the British army occupied Boston, Massachusetts established a provincial congress that met in Concord. The new congress became the de facto government of Massachusetts. The British responded by sending an army out from Boston to seize arms and American leaders at Concord. They were met by Massachusetts militiamen, and colonial protest turned into revolutionary war at the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. A Second Continental Congress met the following month and proclaimed the militia that had routed the British in the countryside a Continental Army, with George Washington as its leader. In August, King George III proclaimed the colonies to be in rebellion. The British army, after a costly victory at the Battle of Bunker Hill, left Boston and sailed for Nova Scotia. With that, there was virtually no British military presence in the rebellious 13 colonies.

Through 1775 and into 1776, the Americans fought without agreeing on what the fight was about: Many wanted independence, while others wanted to reconcile with the king but not with Parliament. The pamphlet Common Sense by Anglo-American philosopher Thomas Paine presented powerful arguments opposing kings and supporting a pure republic. It changed the minds of many colonists.

The British hired about 30,000 German mercenaries (Hessians) to help put down the Americans, and that, too, convinced some Americans that there could be no reconciliation. Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence. Thomas Jefferson, a congressman from Virginia, took on the job of writing the first draft. Congress voted for independence on July 2, 1776, and signed the formal declaration two days later.

The Declaration of Independence was primarily a list of grievances against the king. But the opening paragraphs amounted to a republican manifesto. The preamble declared (and committed future generations of Americans to the proposition) that “all men are created equal,” and that they possess natural rights that include “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Perhaps most important, the declaration insisted that governments derive their powers only by consent of the governed. Protest against British colonial rule had been transformed into a republican revolution.

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