Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms
The Olive Branch Petition
Adopted by the Second Continental Congress July 1775; excerpted from Documents of American History
"We are reduced to the alternative of chusing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force.—The latter is our choice."
From the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms
In London, when King George III (1738–1820) heard of the goings-on in the colonies, he wrote to Lord Frederick North (1732–1792), his prime minister: "The New England governments are in a state of rebellion, blows [war] must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent."
George's declaration that "blows must decide" the issue of the colonies' relationship with England ensured that a Second Continental Congress would meet. Since the king would not listen to the colonists' grievances, members of Congress assembled for the second time on May 10, 1775. Massachusetts politician John Hancock (1737–1793) was elected president of the Congress.
The first shots of the American Revolution had been fired at the Battle of Lexington and Concord less than a month earlier, and the Battle of Bunker Hill (in Boston) took place in June 1775, while Congress was meeting. As far as many people were concerned, the war had started. But matters were moving too fast for some members of Congress, who were still deeply divided over the question of separation from England. Two early documents adopted by the Second Continental Congress
were the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and the Olive Branch Petition. The first document justified actions Congress had already taken to get ready for a possible war. The second document offered a way out short of war; it asked King George to put an end to hostile actions until a reconciliation could be worked out. Both documents were written by Continental congressman John Dickinson (1732–1808; see sidebar on p. 131), although fellow congressman Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) assisted him with the first document.
Things to remember while reading excerpts from the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and the Olive Branch Petition:
- George Washington (1732–1799) was one of the Virginia delegates to the Continental Congress. He attended sessions wearing his old Virginia militia uniform from the French and Indian War (1754–63) to show that he was ready to take military action against the British. A militia is a citizen army; its members are not professional soldiers.
- On June 15, 1775, about three weeks before it adopted the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, Congress named George Washington the comman der in chief of a yet-to-be formed Continental Army (its first members were colonial militia men, then fighting at Bunker Hill). Washington made his way to Bunker Hill to assume command of his army. The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms was adopted on July 6 as an address for Washington to deliver to his men.
Excerpt from the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms
We are reduced to the alternative of chusing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force.—The latter is our choice.—We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery…. Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable…. With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ them for the preserva tion of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves. (Commager, p. 95)
Excerpt from the Olive Branch Petition
Attached to your Majesty's person, family, and government, with all devotion that principle and affection can inspire; connected with Great Britain by the strongest ties that can unite societies, and deploring every event that tends in any degree to weaken them, we solemnly assure your Majesty, that we not only most ardently desire the former harmony between her and these Colonies may be restored, but that a concord may be established between them upon so firm a basis as to perpetuate its blessings, uninterrupted by any future dissensions to succeeding generations in both countries, and to transmit your Majesty's name to posterity, adorned with that signal and lasting glory that has attended the memory of those illustrious personages, whose virtues and abilities have extricated states from dangerous convulsions, and by securing happiness to others have erected the most noble and durable monuments to their own fame.
We therefore beseech your Majesty, that … measures may be taken for preventing the further destruction of the lives of your Majesty's subjects; and that such statutes as more immediately distress any of your Majesty's Colonies may be repealed…. (Commagerand Morris, pp. 279–80)
What happened next …
The Olive Branch Petition was adopted and carried to England by Richard Penn, reaching London on August 14,1775. Penn was a descendant of famous Quaker William Penn (1644–1718), who had founded Pennsylvania, and he was known to be loyal to King George. The king stubbornly refused to look at the document Penn brought. King George considered Congress an illegal body, and any documents Congress produced were illegal documents. On November 9, Congress learned of King George's refusal to look at the Olive Branch Petition (the text of his refusal, called the Proclamation of Rebellion, appears on p. 58). Many Americans who had been uncertain about the wisdom of declaring independence now saw that separation from England was a certainty. King George had left them no choice. Congress met again, as members had agreed, in the spring of 1776. This meeting soon led to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.
Did you know …
- John Dickinson, author of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms and the Olive Branch Petition, strongly opposed all the taxes placed by the British on Americans, and was famous and popular for his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies in 1767 (see p. 63). However, as a Quaker, he objected to using force against the mother country, and he lost popularity because of this position.
- Massachusetts politician John Adams (1735–1826) made fun of Dickinson and his Olive Branch Petition in his Autobiography. He accused Dickinson and others like him in Congress of trying "to oppose … the Independence of the Country." Adams wrote that other Quakers had gone to Dickinson's wife and mother and urged them to influence Dickinson to oppose war with England. According to Adams, Dickinson's mother warned her son that if he offended England, "Johnny you will be hanged, your Estate will be forfeited and [taken away], you will leave your Excellent Wife a Widow and your charming Children Orphans, Beggars and infamous." Adams wrote his Autobiography long after these events took place. It was intended for the enjoyment of his family, not for publication, so he had no qualms about making comments like this. Adams's grandson, Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886), published his grandfather's writings in the 1850s, nearly forty years after his grandfather died.
- The olive branch appears in the biblical story of Noah and his ark. The olive branch was brought by a dove to Noah to let him know that the forty-day flood he had endured was about to end. The olive branch—and the dove—later came to be regarded as symbols of peace.
Where to Learn More
Burnett, Edmund Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Norton, 1964.
Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of 'Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Dictionary of American Biography. 21 volumes. New York: Scribner's, 1957.
Draper, Theodore. A Struggle for Power: the American Revolution. New York: Times Books, 1996.
"Journals of the Continental Congress—In Thirty-Four Volumes." [Online] http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwjclink.html (accessed on March 19, 2000).
Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.
Meltzer, Milton, ed. The American Revolutionaries: A History in Their Own Words, 1750–1800. New York: HarperTrophy, reprint edition, October 1993.
Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.
John Dickinson, Man of Contradictions
John Dickinson (1732–1808) was the son of a small-town Maryland judge, and he too studied law, first in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and later in London, England. While in England, he grew disenchanted with Parliament, believing its members were corrupt and without talent, and he returned to practice law in Philadelphia. By 1760, he was well known as a talented lawyer, one who could see both sides of controversial issues. In 1760, he was elected to the Delaware legislature, but in 1762 he began to serve in the Pennsylvania legislature.
Dickinson was one of the first people to see the hidden dangers in the Stamp Act of 1765, a prime example of taxation without representation. He wrote several pamphlets suggesting that Britain was trying to "bleed" the colonies into obedience. In 1767, he argued in his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer that British taxes on the colonies were contrary to natural law and unconstitutional. Yet he continued to work for a reconciliation with England and was seen as a man who, in John Adams's words, held "the Sword in one Hand [and] the Olive Branch [a symbol of peace] in the other."
Continuing to oppose taking up arms against the mother country, Dickinson voted against the Declaration of Independence, yet when war finally came, he was one of only two congressmen who
immediately enlisted to fight (Thomas McKean was the other one). He never had to fight, but he was ready to give up his life if necessary.
During and after the war he served in various elective positions, and in 1787, in ill health, he became Delaware's delegate to the convention that drew up the Federal Constitution. He wrote several letters urging the states to adopt the Constitution; these and his many other political writings earned him the title "Penman of the Revolution." After 1787, he took a less active role in politics. He died in Wilmington, Delaware, on Valentine's Day, 1808.