Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson, Retired Missouri Supreme Court Archivist discusses Richard Henry Lee's resolution on American independence …
Friday, June 7, 1776, was anything but quiet. Resolutions respecting American independence were introduced in the Continental Congress. One resolution came from Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Mr. Lee’s resolution read:
Resolved, that these United Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free, and independent States, that they are, absolved for all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of consideration be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
The road to independence was slow and thoughtful. Its leaders were men of wealth and property. They were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, inventors, printers, farmers, and ministers. In short, rabble-rousers! This article explores, in brief, some of the fascinating facts leading up to the Declaration of Independence. (For movie buffs, 1776, also known as 1776:The Musical (1972), will be airing on July 4 on Turner Classic Movies at 10:15 PM EST. How well does the movie depict the historical events? Now back to the historical record.)
By 1774, scholars, statesmen, and political hacks both in British North America and across the pond were engaged in an intellectual debate over the powers of Parliament to legislate for the colonies. Was Westminster confined to enacting legislation impacting commerce, navigation, admiralty, and maritime law? All external legislation. Or did the legislative power of Parliament reach into everyday colonial life as internal legislation? The debates that were taking place in taverns and in the press over the jurisdiction of Parliament to legislate would, in the end, lay the foundations for today’s concept sounding in federalism.
On September 5, 1774, the Continental Congress began drafting a letter to the people of Great Britain setting forth their grievances not with King George III, but with Parliament. In years prior to George III, the English throne had been transformed into a constitutional monarchy. “Divine right of kings,” a continental concept, never took root in Great Britain. By the end of the 17th century, Parliament had placed the Crown on the “Civil List” (a legislative grant of an annual allowance) for maintaining their various estates and government. This was the beginnings of constitutional monarchy and the growth of parliamentary power. By the 1740s, Great Britain was in the midst of what scholars have termed the “Classical Age of the Constitution.” The Hanoverian, George II, followed in his father’s footsteps by disengaging himself with his ministers and government. The Crown’s powers were quickly eroding, with the “king’s ministers” flexing their muscles in exercising independent authority. When George III ascended the throne om October 25, 1760, he discovered that prerogatives once exercised by previous monarchs were being relegated the pages of English constitutional history. Parliament now possessed near absolute power, not the Crown. It is in this light that the Continental Congress addressed a letter to the people of Great Britain.
On Friday, October 21, 1774, Congress approved a second draft prepared by John Jay pf New York. The letter began:
Friends and fellow subjects:
When a Nation, led to greatness by the hand of Liberty, and possessed of all glory that heroism, maintenance, and humanity can bestow, descends to the ungrateful task of forging chains for her Friends and Children, and instead of giving support to Freedom, turns advocate Slavery and Oppression, there is reason to suspect she has either ceased to be virtuous, or been extremely negligent in the appointment of her rulers.
Notice the imagery of chains, slavery and oppression, and the phrase “extremely negligent.” The future Chief Justice of the United States was reaching out to fellow subjects, not once making mention of George III. Jay’s opening salvo was in 21st century language a strategic attack – one of surgical precision focused upon Parliament. In Jay’s world, Parliament was either a taskmaster or incompetent. There was no middle ground where John Jay the politician was concerned. Twenty years later, Jay negotiated the Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation between Great Britain and the United States, known as the Jay Treaty. In 1774, however, the gentleman from New York spoke with a politician’s voice and not that of a statesman. Let’s continue our examination of this interesting draft:
In almost every age, in repeated conflicts, in long bloody wars, as well as civil and foreign, against many and powerful nations, against open assaults of enemies, and more dangerous treachery of friends, have the inhabitants of your island, your great and glorious ancestors, maintained their independence and transmitted the rights of men, and the blessings of liberty to you their posterity.
“Long bloody wars, as well as civil,” this was an allusion to the recent past – of the English Civil War of the 1640s which led to the beheading of James I on January 30, 1649; the Interregnum; the Restoration of the Monarchy; and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Phrases such as “the blessings of liberty [and] posterity,” would find their way into the heart, mind and soul of the emerging American. Jay was engaging his cousins on the island in a tutorial of Stuart history – that the blessings of liberty prevailed over the rights of kings.
John Jay then warned his fellow subjects in plain English:
Be not surprised therefore, that we, who are descended from the same common ancestors; that we, whose forefathers participated in all the rights, the liberties, and the constitution, you so justly boast [of], and who have carefully conveyed the same fair inheritance to us, guaranteed by the plighted faith of government and the most solemn compacts with British Sovereigns, should refuse to surrender them to men, who found their claims on no principles of reason, and who prosecute them with a design, that by having our lives and property in their power, they may with greater facility enslave you.
The colonists were very much English subjects who believed that they possessed the same rights and liberties as any Englishman living on the island. Yet the Admiralty courts saw things differently as did Parliament. As for George III, Jay refers to the king and his councilors as “men who found their claims on no principles of reason” – Hanoverian princes who could hardly speak a word of English. (Parenthetically, it should be observed that George III was the first Hanoverian prince to be born in Great Britain and who could speak English. Nonetheless, Jay was playing to the passions of the day. He was toiling in the fertile political soil of what would become the American Revolution.)
In a lengthy letter to the British people, John Jay threw down the gauntlet of freedom:
The cause of America is now the subject of universal attention; it has at length become very serious. This unhappy country has not oppressed, but abused and misrepresented; and the duty we owe to ourselves and posterity, to your interest, and the general welfare of the British empire, leads us to address you on this very important subject.
Know then, That we consider ourselves, and do insist, that we ought to be free, as free as our fellow-subjects in Britain, and that no power on earth has a right to take our property from us without our consent.
Like the Declaration of Independence, the documents of September–October 1774 reflect a conscious shift in how colonists began perceiving themselves. No longer did the colonies consider themselves as purely British North America. The colonies were in the midst of forging a new nation: the United States of America.
Richard Henry Lee’s resolution of June 7, 1776, “That these United Colonies are, and of right, ought to be free and independent States, . . . absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown . . .” was an expression of what was happening throughout the colonies. The “shot heard round the world” (April 19, 1775), foretold that there would be an American independence. The issues left for the Continental Congress to decide were: 1) When; 2) How; and, 3) by What instrumentality would independence be achieved. Mr. Lee’s resolution became that instrument. Referred to a committee composed by two representatives from New England, Mr. John Adams of Massachusetts and Mr. Roger Sherman of Connecticut; two men from the Middle Colonies, Mr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Mr. Robert R. Livingston of New York; and one Southerner, Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, the committee went to work on the instrument. On July 2, 1776, Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. On July Fourth, members of Congress began signing the great document – forever declaring themselves traitors to the crown and free men!
Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson, a native of University City, Missouri, received an A.B. cum laude in English Legal History; American Legal History; and Political Science, American National Politics with an emphasis in Constitutional Law 1976; A.M. in American Legal History with an emphasis in Constitutional Law 1977; J.D., 1985, Saint Louis University; Semichah/Rabbinic Ordination 2007, Saint Louis Beis Din/Rabbinical Court. He served as the first Supreme Court Archivist – Legal Historian to the Supreme Court of Missouri (2000-2015). In retirement, Rabbi Benson teaches Hebrew to adults in Jefferson City, officiate at life cycle events throughout Mid-Missouri. He is also a provocateur of articles appearing in the Missouri Lawyer’s Weekly; St. Louis Jewish Light; and, the Catholic Missourian. His first article in JURIST appeared on July 4, 2020 titled “The Real Independence Day: July 2, 1776.”
Suggested citation: Rabbi Joseph Fred Benson, June 7, 1776, Mr. Lee’s Resolution on Independence, JURIST – Academic Commentary, July 4, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/07/joseph-benson-Mr.Lee’s-resolution-on-independence/.
This article was prepared for publication by Katherine Gemmingen, Commentary Co-Managing Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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