The Congress debates independence

The news of Lexington and Concord struck the other colonies like an electric shock. It was plain that war - real war - was at hand. The signal flew from one local committee to another in the thirteen colonies, which had needed only a glowing fact like Lexington to fuse them into one defensive whole. Within twenty days, the news, in many garbled forms, was evoking a common spirit of patriotism from Maine to Georgia.

While the alarms of Lexington and Concord were still resounding, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775. Its president was John Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant. Thomas Jefferson was there and the venerable Benjamin Franklin, who had returned from London where, as "agent" for several of the colonies, he had vainly sought conciliation. The Congress had barely organized before it was called upon to face the issue of open warfare. Although some opposition existed, the real temper of the Congress was revealed by a stirring declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, the joint product of John Dickinson and Jefferson:

"Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. ... The arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will ... employ for the preservation of our liberties, being with one mind resolved to die free men rather than live slaves."

Even as the Declaration was being debated, Congress took the militia into Continental service and appointed Colonel George Washington commander-in-chief of the American forces. His stalwartness and his composed and dignified manner marked him a masterful man. Passion and patience were balanced in him and he was an example of perfect moral and physical courage. His directive faculties were notable, and the soundness of his judgment and solidity of his information made him great. His common sense "lifted him to the level of genius." Believing in a course, his adherence to it was single-minded, just, firm. "Defeat is only a reason for exertion." he wrote. "We shall do better next time." This spirit and his gift for military administration were the winning traits in the years to come.

Yet, despite the military involvement and the appointment of a commander-in-chief, the idea of complete separation from England was still repugnant to many members of Congress and to a large part of the American people. Public opinion was not yet ready for such drastic action. It was obvious, however, that the colonies could not forever remain half in, half out of the empire. Moderates persuaded themselves they were not fighting the King but the ministry and, as late as January 1776, the King's health was toasted nightly in an officer's mess presided over by General Washington.