Lee Resolution: Declaring the Thirteen Colonies Free

On June 21, 2024, the exhibition Road to Revolution opened in the National Archives Building. The series features National Archives records that tell the story from colonial resistance to American independence and the diverse experiences of the nation’s founding generation. Today’s post from Mary Ryan on the Lee Resolution is an update of her 2002 Prologue magazine article.

The Lee Resolution, approved by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 2, 1776, declared the thirteen colonies free from Great Britain.

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, tall and imposing, a gifted orator who was educated in England, was one of the fiercest advocates in the American colonies of independence from Great Britain.

As the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1776, Lee took the floor on June 7 to offer a resolution that presented to the delegates, clearly and unequivocally, the question of breaking with Britain. It also called for alliances with other countries and a “plan for confederation.”

The call for independence—a radical, treasonous move—stated: “Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from 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.”

John Adams of Massachusetts seconded the motion, and debate ensued for several days. But on June 11, a twenty-day recess was called so that delegates from some of the colonies could get new instructions from home on how to vote on the matter.

On July 1, debate resumed—but without Lee. He had returned home during the break to help Virginia form its state government or to attend to his ailing wife or for both reasons, according to various historical accounts. In his absence, Adams argued for the resolution. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, who believed a break with England was premature, argued against it.

The next day, July 2, twelve delegations approved the resolution. None were opposed; New York did not vote because its members did not yet have instructions from home.

The delegates then took up Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence; after making a number of revisions and deletions, they approved it on July 4. (The plan for making treaties with other nations was approved in September 1776, and the plan for a confederation in November 1777.)

Lee remained active in the affairs of the new nation and of Virginia. He was elected president of the Continental Congress in 1784–1785 for a year’s term. In 1787 he opposed the new Constitution because it gave too much power to the central government.

A few years later, as a U.S. senator, Lee proposed what is now the tenth amendment to the Constitution, which grants to the states and to the people all power not delegated by the Constitution to the federal government. Lee died in 1794.

Join us on July 4 as we celebrate our nation’s birthday! Visit us online to find out about events in Washington, DC, and around the country. And learn more about the Declaration of Independence, which is on permanent display in the National Archives Building.

One thought on “Lee Resolution: Declaring the Thirteen Colonies Free

  1. As a retired Librarian and a person who worked with archives, I so appreciate all the work that you do.

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