February 15, 2023

From Across the Colonies They Came

Choosing freedom meant engaging in a war in which the colonial delegates knew many would die.

Before the colonial delegates could reconvene in Philadelphia in May 1775, the Minutemen and British forces had met in armed conflict on the greens at Concord and Lexington. Suddenly, the Second Continental Congress was faced with an urgency that demanded action — either a decision to accept the reality that the colonies existed only to support the Mother Country with no rights of citizenship, or to unite and fight for independence.

Today, their decision to fight for independence is such a common story that we often forget the heated debates over the weeks between May and July that would ultimately result in the Declaration of Independence. We also forget that some delegates left without signing the document because each either longed for a peaceful resolution or was convinced that the fledging colonies could never defeat the greatest military in Europe. Choosing freedom meant engaging in a war in which the delegates knew many would die. Choosing freedom and knowing that defeat was a possibility also meant that the delegates could be signing their own death warrants. Two hundred and forty-seven years later, we cannot imagine an outcome that did not result in the creation of a new nation. Two hundred and forty-seven years ago, that outcome was not guaranteed; in fact, it was a distant dream.

Who were these delegates who came to Philadelphia and chose to defy the British Empire? They were ordinary men who took extraordinary action and, as a result, wrote their names on the annals of American history. Let’s glance back and reconnect.

John Adams, elected as a member of the Massachusetts delegate in 1774 to attend the congress in Philadelphia, emerged early as a leader of the “radical” faction, urging independence. In a published essay entitled “Novanglus,” he quite eloquently argued that Britain did not have the authority to tax the colonies or to legislate in any manner. By May 1775, when the delegates once again gathered, Adams was adamant that there was no turning back, and his fiery speeches had earned him the name “The Atlas of Independence.” His politically astute insight motivated his nomination of George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and led him to step aside in favor of Thomas Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence. Why? Because Virginia’s leadership was necessary for any successful move toward freedom. Massachusetts was viewed as an incendiary colony while Virginia, the first colony, had voiced support for independence but had yet to be individually targeted for British reprisals. Adams’ Revolutionary Writings (1755-1775) remains one of the best chronicles of the pre-revolutionary period.

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia had pushed for westward expansion in defiance of the Proclamation of 1763, and, as a planter and leader in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, he would become an outspoken advocate for local control of government. His colleagues chose him as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he would play a prominent role in the move toward independence. But that’s a fascinating story for the next chapter…

Connecticut’s Roger Sherman deserves his own chapter in our U. S. history; he signed the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the United States Constitution. Wow! And yet, this Founding Father often deflected comments on his leadership skills and wise counsel by referring to himself as a humble businessman. He was a businessman but had studied law and became a judge and mayor of New Haven, holding a long career in government and earning the respect of Connecticut’s citizens — and the Second Continental Congress.

“The knowledge of God and his truths have from the beginning of the world been chiefly, if not entirely confined to those parts of the earth where some degree of liberty and political justice were to be seen, and great were the difficulties with which they had to struggle, from the imperfection of human society, and the unjust decisions of usurped authority.” John Knox Witherspoon immigrated to New Jersey from Scotland in the 1760s and almost immediately gained the attention of colonists across the region. Appointed as the president of Princeton University, he was revered for his teachings on divinity and history, his lessons and “talks” often reaching back to his roots as a local Scottish minister. He joined his colleagues at the Second Continental Congress where he was the only college president and clergyman in the gathering.

Georgia’s only representative to sign the Declaration of Independence, Dr. Lyman Hall, had followed an interesting road to Philadelphia. Originally from Connecticut and a former Congregational minister, Hall had changed careers, attending medical school, and changed colonies, moving to Georgia. In Georgia, he became an advocate for independence and found himself engaged in verbal battle with the royal governor. While the colony struggled with its role in the Second Continental Congress, St. John’s Parish elected Hall to represent them. He would later be joined by the other Georgia delegates — after the Declaration had been signed.

Next week, we’ll meet four additional members of the Second Continental Congress and then spring into action.

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