For over a year, the Continental Congress supervised a war against a country to which it proclaimed its loyalty. In fact, both the Congress and the people it represented were divided on the question of independence even after a year of open warfare against Great Britain. Early in 1776, a number of factors began to strengthen the call for separation. In his stirring pamphlet “Common Sense,” published in January of that year, the British immigrant Thomas Paine (1737-1809) laid out a convincing argument in favor of independence. At the same time, many Americans came to realize that their military might not be capable of defeating the British Empire on its own. Independence would allow it to form alliances with Britain’s powerful rivals–France was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Meanwhile, the war itself evoked hostility toward Britain among the citizenry, paving the way for independence.
In the spring of 1776, the provisional colonial governments began to send new instructions to their congressional delegates, obliquely or directly allowing them to vote for independence. The provisional government of Virginia went further: It instructed its delegation to submit a proposal for independence before Congress. On June 7, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee (1732-94) complied with his instructions. Congress postponed a final vote on the proposal until July 1, but appointed a committee to draft a provisional declaration of independence for use should the proposal pass.
The committee consisted of five men, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) of Pennsylvania. But the declaration was primarily the work of one man, Thomas Jefferson, who penned an eloquent defense of the natural rights of all people, of which, he charged, Parliament and the king had tried to deprive the American nation. The Continental Congress made several revisions to Jefferson’s draft, removing, among other things, an attack on the institution of slavery; but on July 4, 1776, Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence.