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As the curtain rises on 1776, we find members of the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia in the midst of heated debate: the colonies are one year into bloody warfare with British forces, but they have not yet declared independence nor determined how they might govern themselves. The creators of 1776 strove for a high level of historical accuracy (while allowing some changes for dramatic effect) and drew largely from historical records to write the musical. What follows is the historical context around how the Continental Congress functioned and what we see in the show.

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Why Did the Colonies Form a Congress?

Prior to 1774, representatives from the different colonies came together in congresses on a few occasions with specific objectives. In 1754, on the eve of the French and Indian War, the Albany Congress met to discuss issues of security and defense. Next, in 1765, the Stamp Act Congress convened to protest “taxation without representation.” The Congress had a lasting impact in uniting representatives from different colonies to debate ideas and identify common interests, as well as in establishing governing procedures that delegates would use to operate in future congresses.

Escalating conflict with Britain raised the need for such cooperation. The First Continental Congress gathered from September to October 1774 in response to the British Parliament’s punishing “Intolerable Acts.” Delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia (Georgia was the only colony that didn’t send a representative). John Adams, one of four Massachusetts delegates, made a vehement case for independence, but there was not yet consensus for such a bold move. Nevertheless, the First Continental Congress issued several declarations and resolves which all sought greater autonomy for the colonies. The colonies at this point formed a united front, swearing that if one was attacked, the others would defend it.

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How did the Congress Work?

The delegates at the early congresses were all familiar with the British Parliament and drew on their knowledge of how parliament operated as a legislative model. Ten of the colonies’ charters called for local governance by representative assembly, and most of the delegates to the Continental Congress were appointed by their state legislatures. The Congress appointed a president, John Hancock of Massachusetts, to run the proceedings; however, the delegates intentionally did not give the president much authority, in order to ensure a more democratic and decentralized form of governance. 

Each colony chose its own number of delegates to send, without any correlation to actual population. Within the Congress each state was given one vote. First, every delegate from the colony voiced his own vote, then the delegates’ votes were tallied to determine that colony’s vote. If the delegates were evenly split, that colony was considered “divided” and the vote did not count. During the First and Second Continental Congress, turnover rates among delegates were high and attendance was inconsistent, since most delegates had work, responsibilities, and families at home. Throughout the show, the home lives of delegates are frequently raised as obstacles to their participation in Congress.

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What was at stake in 1776?

By the time the Second Continental Congress met in May 1775, the first shots of the Revolution had been fired, and the 13 colonies sent a total of 56 delegates. Congress now acted as a makeshift central government: it established the Continental Army (with George Washington in command), called on each colony to provide soldiers and money for the army, and issued a declaration permitting colonists to use their weapons against the enemy. It also issued paper currency and reopened American ports in defiance of British law. While the delegates all acknowledged they were at war with Britain, not everyone shared the objective of independence.

By the summer of 1776, however, pro-independence sentiment was spreading. The delegates from North Carolina and Virginia were charged by their states to vote for independence, and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia put forth a resolution that proclaimed the colonies "free and independent states ... absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.” Given the stakes of revolution, the delegates felt the need to hold a united front and therefore required unanimity on all key decisions. Since not all the delegates supported independence, Congress formed a committee to write a persuasive document articulating why America must break free. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson (then one of the youngest delegates) were appointed to draft what would become the Declaration of Independence.

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Why (and How) did Jefferson Write the Declaration of Independence?

Jefferson was elected chair of the committee, but Adams acknowledged that he persuaded Jefferson to write the draft because he had the fewest enemies within Congress and was one of the best writers. He was given 17 days but reportedly wrote a draft in two days. For the famous preamble, Jefferson drew on the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, written by George Mason, which stated: “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights… namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Whereas all the previous petitions to Britain had been issued on behalf of representatives of its colonies, the Declaration was issued on behalf of the United States of America, revealing a new sense of American identity. Jefferson sent his draft to his fellow committee members, for edits ahead of its presentation to Congress. On July 1, the delegates debated and made changes to the document.

While Congress adopted the final text of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, it was actually signed over a period of months after. There was no legal necessity for all the delegates to sign, but the founders wanted all signatures as a mutual pledge to each other and their patriotic cause. In 1777, the Continental Congress passed the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution that tried to determine a loose (and weak) form of central government. It continued to function until 1781, managing all of America’s political, military, and diplomatic activities.

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Why Doesn’t the Declaration Address Slavery?

The most significant and impactful change to Jefferson’s draft was the excision of an anti-slavery clause, which blamed King George for the institution. The clause stated:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.

Jefferson also criticized the king for offering freedom to any enslaved person in America who volunteered to serve in the British Army. But this section would be removed before the delegates would approve the Declaration. Instead, a clause blaming the King for stirring insurrections by the Indigenous Americans against the colonists was inserted. While there is no historical record of the debate, Jefferson later blamed delegates from two Southern states, and also acknowledged the North’s tacit participation in the slave trade:

The clause...reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under these censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” (Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson, 1821)

Jefferson wrote against slavery despite the fact that he personally enslaved over 600 people, including Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered six children, whom he also kept enslaved. In A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn reminds us that despite the founders’ idealism, the Declaration as well as the Constitution were designed entirely by and for white men of property. The full rights of women, Indigenous people, Black people, other ethnic or religious minorities, and the poor would not be addressed until many years after the founders. Even today, without passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, women and other marginalized genders are still not directly granted full protection by the Constitution.

Further Reading: Learn more about the choices Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone made regarding historical accuracy and dramatic license HERE.

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Edwards, Sherman and Peter Stone. “A Historical Note By the Authors.Experience the A.R.T. Harvard University. 15 May 2022.

ERA Explainer.Equality Now, 2021.

How did the publication of “Common Sense” affect public opinion?Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, N.D.

Jillson, Calvin and Rick K. Wilson. Congressional Dynamics: Structure, Coordination, and Choice in the First American Congress, 1774-1789. Stanford University Press, 1994.

John and Abigail Adams: The Continental Congress.”  American Experience. PBS, N.D.

Milestone Documents: The Articles of Confederation (1777).National Archives. 31 Jan 2022.

Rosen, Jeffrey and David Rubenstein. “The Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.Interactive Constitution. National Constitution Center, 2022.

The Declaration of Independence, 1776.Office of the Historian. United States Department of State, N.D.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account.The Jefferson Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, N.D.

Williams, Yohuru. “Why Thomas Jefferson's Anti-Slavery Passage Was Removed from the Declaration of Independence.History. A&E Television Networks, LLC. 29 June 2020.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. HarperCollins, 1999.