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The Olive Branch and the Declaration of Independence

Was the Declaration of Independence really necessary? Or was it widely understood by the end of 1775 that the American colonies were already engaged in a war for independence? The key to answering these questions about July 4, 1776 begins with the events of July 5, 1775, when the Second Continental Congress approved the Olive Branch Petition.

Drafted by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and signed by delegates from twelve North American coloniesGeorgia did not decide to send delegates until later in 1775the Olive Branch Petition was a final attempt at reconciliation. In flowery language, the petition attempted to convey the “tender regard" the colonists felt "for the kingdom.” The petitioners assured the King that they remained “faithful subjects…of our Mother country.” Congress wanted the King to intervene on their behalf and repeal a number of “statutes and regulations adopted for the administration of the colonies” by Parliament, which they claimed had stoked colonial rebelliousness.

Olive Branch
Petition to George III, King of Great Britain, 1775. Signatures of the Second Continental Congress.

With the benefit of hindsight, the Petition seems incredibly far-fetched. Some serious people at the time, though, wanted to find a plan for reconciliation. Adam Smith argued that to stave off rebellion, North America should gain representation in Parliament with the understanding that “[t]he seat of Empire would then naturally” move there after some time. Despite ten years of agitation, the window for reconciliation had not necessarily closed.

As we know, the Petition was a tough sell. For all intents and purposes, the colonists and England were already at war. The Battles of Lexington and Concord had taken place nearly three months earlier, and Bunker Hill even more recently. So the colonists tried their best to explain away the violence. They claimed that British officials’ dogged determination to enforce policies opposed by the colonists led to “open hostilities” and  “compelled us to arm in our own defence.” What choice, the colonists asked, did they have but to defend themselves? On the very the next day, July 6th, 1775, Congress issued a “Declaration of the Necessity for Taking up Arms” which attempted to justify their military response to British policies.  Given this “Declaration,” was the Olive Branch Petition totally disingenuous?

When the petition finally did arrive, the King refused to see it. The King made his position clear before he even received the Olive Branch.  In light of “various disorderly acts committed in disturbance of the publick peace, to the obstruction of lawful commerce, and to the oppression of our loyal subjects,” the King declared that the colonists were in “open and avowed rebellion” and “levying war against us.”  He then went on to outline some measures aimed at suppressing the rebellion in the colonies and support for it in England.  

Arthur Lee
"...we were told that as his Majesty did not receive it on the throne, no answer would be given."

In October, the King took an even harder line in a speech to Parliamentthe library holds a contemporary copy or draft of this document as well. Congress raised an Army, was in the process of raising a Navy, and assumed a number of other governing powers that seemed to suggest the colonists had forsaken their connection to the mother country. Worse yet, they unleashed a “torrent of violence” on the King’s loyal subjects in the colonies. Ultimately, the King concluded that the “rebellious war … is become more general, and is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.”

The King did not need to see a Declaration of Independence. He was convinced the colonists were already engaged in a war for independence. And for their part, the colonists had already issued a “Declaration” that attempted to justify their military actions as legitimate. This all begs the question: by the end of 1775, what was left to declare?

Why did Congress feel the need to declare independence from an Empire that already acted as though the colonies were engaged in an independence movement? Did doing so amount to anything more than telling the British something they already knew? And if that was the case, why did it take so long to do after it became clear that the Olive Branch Petition failed?

One answer comes from comparing the opening statements of the two documents.  Whereas in the Olive Branch Petition, Congress identified themselves as representatives of twelve colonies; in the Declaration, Congress claims to speak for the “United States of America.”  The intervening months amounted to a critical period of self-definition. 

Americans tend to focus almost exclusively on the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration’s second paragraph. Ironically, our intense focus on Declaration’s humanitarian principlesthat all men are created equaldivorces the document from the particular historical moment in which it was written. The Declaration’s self-assured tone belied the fact that self-conscious American unity was newfangled, tenuous, and imperiled. Grappling with the meaning of the Olive Branch, and entertaining the possibility that the events of 1775 and 1776 could have unfolded differently, allows us to better understand both how the Declaration came to be and what it was supposed to do.

In honor of the upcoming 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act, the New York Public Library has put on display a set of documents from its collections that cover the entire span from 1765 to 1776. Documents include the manuscript version of the Olive Branch Petition, a contemporary printing of the “Declaration of the Necessity for Taking up Arms,” and the first New York printing of the Declaration of Independence. Sparking the Revolution: No Taxation Without Representation will be open for public viewing in the McGraw Rotunda, on the 3rd floor of the Stephen A Schwarzman Building, through July 13th. Of course the exhibit also coincides with the Fourth of July. "Sparking the Revolution" contextualizes America's various Declarations within a long chain of events and focuses our attention on the whole American Revolution.

About the Early Manuscripts Project

With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.

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