Common Sense and the Declaration of Independence

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the motives of those who argued for and against independence
  • Explain the activities of the Second Continental Congress leading to the Declaration of Independence

Colonial Responses

Following the events at Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775 in Philadelphia, and the Congress struggled to organize a response. The radical Massachusetts delegates—including John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock—implored the Congress to support the Massachusetts militia, who without supplies were laying siege to Boston. Meanwhile, many delegates from the Middle Colonies—including New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia—took a more moderate position, calling for renewed attempts at reconciliation. In the South, the Virginia delegation contained radicals such as Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson, while South Carolina’s delegation included moderates like John and Edward Rutledge. The moderates worried that supporting the Massachusetts militia would be akin to declaring war.

The Continental Congress struck a compromise, agreeing to adopt the Massachusetts militia and form a Continental Army, naming Virginia delegate George Washington commander in chief. They also issued a “Declaration of the Causes of Necessity of Taking Up Arms” to justify the decision. At the same time, the moderates drafted an “Olive Branch Petition,” which assured the king that the colonists “most ardently desire[d] the former Harmony between [the mother country] and these Colonies.” Many understood that the opportunities for reconciliation were running out. After Congress had approved the document, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend saying, “The Congress will send one more Petition to the King which I suppose will be treated as the former was, and therefore will probably be the last.”[1] Congress was in the strange position of attempting reconciliation while publicly raising an army.

The petition arrived in England on August 13, 1775, but before it was delivered, the king issued his own “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition.” He believed his subjects in North America were being “misled by dangerous and ill-designing men,” who were “traitorously preparing, ordering, and levying war against us.” In an October speech to Parliament, he dismissed the colonists’ petition. The king had no doubt that the resistance was “manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.”[2] By the start of 1776, talk of independence was growing while the prospect of reconciliation dimmed.

Talk of Independence

In the opening months of 1776, independence, for the first time, became part of the popular debate. Town meetings throughout the colonies approved resolutions in support of independence. Yet, with moderates still hanging on, it would take another seven months before the Continental Congress officially passed the independence resolution. A small forty-six-page pamphlet published in Philadelphia and written by a recent immigrant from England captured the American conversation. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense argued for independence by denouncing monarchy and challenging the logic behind the British Empire, saying, “There is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.”[3] His combination of easy language, biblical references, and fiery rhetoric proved potent, and the pamphlet was quickly published throughout the colonies. Arguments over political philosophy and rumors of battlefield developments filled taverns throughout the colonies.

Common Sense

With the events of 1775 fresh in their minds, many colonists reached the conclusion in 1776 that the time had come to leave from the Empire and declare independence. Over the previous ten years, these colonists had argued that they deserved the same rights as subjects of the British crown enjoyed in Great Britain, only to find themselves relegated to an intolerable subservient status in the Empire. The groundswell of support for their cause of independence in 1776 also owed much to the appearance of an anonymous pamphlet, first published in January 1776, entitled Common Sense. Thomas Paine, who had emigrated from England to Philadelphia in 1774, was the author. Arguably the most radical pamphlet of the revolutionary era, Common Sense made a powerful argument for independence.

Image (a) shows the first page of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. A portrait of Thomas Paine is shown in image (b); he is seated at a writing desk and holding a piece of paper.

Figure 1. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (a) helped convince many colonists of the need for independence from Great Britain. Paine, shown here in a portrait by Laurent Dabos (b), was a political activist and revolutionary best known for his writings on both the American and French Revolutions.

Paine’s pamphlet rejected the monarchy, calling King George III a “royal brute” and questioning the right of an island (Britain) to rule over America. In this way, Paine helped to channel colonial discontent toward the king himself and not, as had been the case, toward the British Parliament—a bold move that signaled the desire to create a new political order disavowing monarchy entirely. He argued for the creation of an American republic, a state without a king, and extolled the blessings of republicanism, a political philosophy that held that elected representatives, not a hereditary monarch, should govern states. The vision of an American republic put forward by Paine included the idea of popular sovereignty: citizens in the republic would determine who would represent them, and decide other issues, on the basis of majority rule. Republicanism also served as a social philosophy guiding the conduct of the Patriots in their struggle against the British Empire. It demanded adherence to a code of virtue, placing the public good and community above narrow self-interest.

Paine wrote Common Sense in simple, direct language aimed at ordinary people, not just the learned elite. The pamphlet proved immensely popular and was soon available in all thirteen colonies, where it helped convince many to reject monarchy and the British Empire in favor of independence and a republican form of government.

Dunmore’s Proclamation

George Washington had taken control of the army and after laying siege to Boston forced the British to retreat to Halifax. In Virginia, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation declaring martial law and offering freedom to “all indentured servants, Negros, and others” if they would leave their enslavers and join the British. Though only about five hundred to a thousand enslaved people joined Lord Dunmore’s “Ethiopian regiment,” thousands more flocked to the British later in the war, risking capture and punishment for a chance at freedom. Formerly enslaved people occasionally fought, but primarily served in companies called Black Pioneers as laborers, skilled workers, and spies. British motives for offering freedom were practical rather than humanitarian, but the proclamation was the first mass emancipation of enslaved people in American history. Enslaved people could now choose to run and risk their lives for possible freedom with the British army or hope that the United States would live up to its ideals of liberty.

Dunmore’s Proclamation unnerved White southerners already suspicious of rising antislavery sentiments in the mother country. Four years earlier, English courts dealt a serious blow to slavery in the empire. In Somerset v. Stewart, James Somerset sued for his freedom, and the court not only granted it but also undercut the very legality of slavery on the British mainland. Somerset and now Dunmore began to convince some enslavers that a new independent nation might offer a surer protection for slavery. Indeed, the proclamation laid the groundwork for the very unrest that loyal southerners had hoped to avoid. Consequently, enslavers often used violence to prevent their enslaved laborers from joining the British or rising against them. Virginia enacted regulations to prevent freedom-seeking, threatening to ship rebellious enslaved people to the West Indies or execute them. Many enslavers transported their enslaved people inland, away from the coastal temptation to join the British armies, sometimes separating families in the process.

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The Declaration of Independence

On May 10, 1776, nearly two months before the issuance of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted on a resolution calling on all colonies that had not already established revolutionary governments to do so and to wrest control from royal officials. The Congress also recommended that the colonies should begin preparing new written constitutions. In many ways, this was the Congress’s first declaration of independence. A few weeks later, on June 7, Richard Henry Lee offered the following resolution:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connexion between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.[4]

Delegates went scurrying back to their assemblies for new instructions, and nearly a month later, on July 2, the resolution finally came to a vote. It passed 12–0 with New York, under imminent threat of British invasion, abstaining.

The passage of Lee’s resolution was the official legal declaration of independence, but, between the proposal and vote, a committee had been named to draft a public declaration in case the resolution passed. Virginian Thomas Jefferson drafted the document, with edits being made by his fellow committee members John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and then again by the Congress as a whole. The famous preamble went beyond the arguments about the rights of British subjects under the British Constitution, instead referring to “natural law”:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.[5]

In addition to this statement of principles, the document served another purpose: Patriot leaders sent copies to France and Spain in hopes of winning their support and aid in the contest against Great Britain. They understood how important foreign recognition and aid would be to the creation of a new and independent nation. The majority of the document outlined a list of specific grievances that the colonists had with British attempts to reform imperial administration during the 1760s and 1770s.

One of the Dunlap Broadsides is shown. It is headed, “In Congress, July 4, 1776, A Declaration By the Representatives of the United States of America, In General Congress Assembled.”

Figure 2. The Dunlap Broadsides, one of which is shown here, are considered the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence. This one was printed on July 4, 1776.

Neither the grievances nor the rhetoric of the preamble were new. Instead, they were the culmination of both a decade of popular resistance to imperial reform and decades more of long-term developments that saw both sides develop incompatible understandings of the British Empire and the colonies’ place within it. The Congress approved the document on July 4, 1776. However, it was one thing to declare independence; it was quite another to win it on the battlefield.

The Declaration also reveals a fundamental contradiction of the American Revolution: the conflict between the existence of slavery and the idea that “all men are created equal.” An early draft blamed the British for the transatlantic slave trade and even for discouraging attempts by the colonists to promote abolition. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia as well as those from northern states who profited from the trade all opposed this language, and it was removed. In 1776, one-fifth of the colonial population was enslaved, and at the time he drafted the Declaration, Jefferson himself owned more than one hundred enslaved persons. Further, the Declaration framed equality as existing only among White men; women and nonwhites were entirely left out of a document that referred to Native peoples as “merciless Indian savages” who indiscriminately killed men, women, and children. Nonetheless, the promise of equality for all planted the seeds for future struggles waged by enslaved laborers, women, and many others to bring about its full realization. Much of American history is the story of the slow realization of the promise of equality expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence has since had a global impact, serving as the basis for many subsequent movements to gain independence from other colonial powers. It is part of America’s civil religion, and thousands of people each year make pilgrimages to see the original document in Washington, DC.

Hotspot Interactive: The Declaration of Independence

This 1819 painting, Declaration of Independence, is a well-known representation of the events that took place as the five-man drafting committee (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston) pitched the draft of the declaration to the Second Continental Congress on June 28, 1776, a few days before its signing.

The painting shows 42 of the 56 signers of the Declaration; Trumbull originally intended to include all 56 signers but was unable to obtain likenesses for all of them. He also depicted several participants in the debate who did not sign the document. As the Declaration was debated and signed over a period of time when membership in Congress changed, the men featured in the painting never were in the same room at the same time.

Though Turnball took some artistic liberty in portraying the scene differently than it actually took place, he does convey and represent many important aspects of the event. Click on the hotspot images below to learn more about the image and the context behind the portrayals in the painting.

Watch It

Watch this video for an overview of how the Declaration of Independence came to be.

You can view the transcript for “What you might not know about the Declaration of Independance – Kenneth C. Davis” here (opens in new window).

Link to Learning

Visit Digital History to view “The Female Combatants.” In this 1776 engraving by an anonymous artist, Great Britain is depicted on the left as a staid, stern matron, while America, on the right, is shown as a half-dressed American Indian. Why do you think the artist depicted the two opposing sides this way?

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Review Question

What are the main arguments that Thomas Paine makes in his pamphlet Common Sense? Why was this pamphlet so popular?


Dunmore’s Proclamation: the decree signed by Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, which proclaimed that any enslaved persons or indentured servants who fought on the side of the British would be rewarded with their freedom

  1. “From Benjamin Franklin to Jonathan Shipley, 7 July 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017.
  2. Gt. Brit. Soveriengs, Etc., “His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of Parliament, on Friday, October 27, 1775 . . . New York? 1775]," accessed April 24, 2018.
  3. Thomas Paine, Common Sense (Philadelphia: W. T. and Bradford, 1776), accessed April 24, 2018.
  4. “Report & the Resolution for Independancy Agreed to July 2d. 1776,” Papers of the Continental Congress, No. 23, folio 17, National Archives, Washington, DC.
  5. Journals of the Continental Congress 5: 510–516