On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, stood in front of the Second Continental Congress and committed treason by proposing a resolution to declare that “these United States 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 connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
John Adams, the most vocal proponent of independence, seconded the motion. In doing so, these men willingly put their own lives at stake to assert that the allegiance King George III claimed of the colonists was illegitimate, and in opposition to the laws of nature.
“Lee’s Resolution,” as it came to be known, is familiar to many as the first official call for independence. Less well-known are the equally bold words of Lee’s speech which he made to persuade the delegates, but they capture the urgency, courageousness, and determination with an eloquence that deserves attention:
“Why then, sir, why do we longer delay? Why still deliberate? Let this happy day give birth to an American republic. Let her arise, not to devastate and to conquer, but to reestablish the reign of peace and of law. The eyes of Europe are fixed upon us: she demands of us a living example of freedom, that may exhibit a contrast in the felicity of the citizen to the ever increasing tyranny which desolates her polluted shores. She invites us to prepare an asylum, where the unhappy may find solace, and the persecuted repose. She entreats us to cultivate a propitious soil […] sheltering under its salubrious and interminable shade, all the unfortunate of the human race. If we are not this day wanting in our duty, the names of the American legislators of 1776 will be placed by posterity at the side […] of all those whose memory has been, and ever will be, dear to virtuous men and good citizens.”
Congress extensively debated and eventually passed Lee’s Resolution in favor of independence on July 2 and then took two more days to debate and amend a committee’s draft declaration, approving it on July 4. The words and deeds of the Founders during this time period are remembered less frequently now, but Lee would be gratified to know that “virtuous men and good citizens” still hold them dear.