Not Just the Declaration of Independence,
but Also a Declaration
That We Depend on France (and Spain, Too)
On a warm summer’s day in Philadelphia in 1776, early in the throes of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson penned the opening sentences of a document addressed to King Louis XVI of France and King Carlos III of Spain, which the Second Continental Congress hoped would bring much-needed help to the embattled American colonies. Those colonies had been at war with Britain for over a year now, and the military situation was dire. The Continental Army had just suffered disastrous defeats in Canada and on Long Island, and had been driven out of New York City, which General William Howe now occupied. Without the direct intervention of Britain’s adversaries, France and Spain, on America’s side, the colonies could not hope to prevail against the superior British army and navy to win their independence outright.
The Revolution had been brewing for several years now. The overwhelming British victory over France and Spain in the Seven Years’ War in 1763 had been succeeded by increasingly onerous tax duties and export restrictions imposed by London on the American colonies, intended to pay for increased protection, but which the colonists argued were levied without their having any voice in the matter, as would befit British subjects. American protests of these actions grew ever more violent, until war broke out in 1775 with the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, and the subsequent siege of Boston. Even then, most Americans still hoped for some kind of reconciliation with the Crown. By the beginning of 1776, however, King George III had rejected the colonists’ peace overtures, declared them to be in a state of rebellion, and hired regiments from the German states of Hesse-Kassel, Hesse-Hanau, and Brunswick to put down the insurgency. The Continental Congress, particularly appalled by the threat of what they saw as Hessian mercenaries, started clamoring for a complete break from British rule and “to declare the colonies in a state of independent sovereignty.” Many of the individual colonial governments began sending their delegates to the Congress instructing them “immediately to cast off the British yoke” and to renounce allegiance to the Crown. The fight that had begun a year earlier to force the mother country to recognize their rights as British subjects had now turned into a war for independence.
The problem was that the new American nation had begun its war against British rule stunningly incapable of fending for itself, like a rebellious adolescent who takes leave of his family without a penny to his name. It had no navy, little in the way of artillery, and a ragtag army and militia that were bereft of even the most basic ingredient of modern warfare: gunpowder. Soon after the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Franklin noted that “the Army had not five rounds of powder a man. The world wondered that we so seldom fired a cannon; we could not afford it.” America, in short, desperately needed to bring France and Spain directly into the war, the only nations powerful enough to carry the fight straight to the British army as well as to bring the British navy into a wider conflict that would draw it away from American shores and sap its strength.
Both France and Spain had allowed clandestine aid to flow to the Americans since before the fighting started, but this was proving insufficient for the scale of the conflict. Neither Louis XVI nor Carlos III would openly take sides in a British civil war; America had to demonstrate that it was an independent nation fighting against a common British enemy. The document that emerged from under Jefferson’s hand, clearly stating that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States,” was in fact an engraved invitation to France and Spain asking them to go to war alongside the Americans. The document that was agreed to by the Second Continental Congress on July 4 became known, of course, as the Declaration of Independence, but it was also in a sense a “Declaration That We Depend on France (and Spain, Too).”COMMON SENSE
Americans today celebrate the July Fourth holiday under somewhat false pretenses. The standard account regarding the Declaration of Independence goes something like this: The colonists could no longer tolerate the British government passing unjust laws and levying taxes without allowing proper representation. The Second Continental Congress voted to write a document explaining to King George III why they needed to be independent, and to justify to the American colonists and the rest of the world the reasons for revolting against the Crown. The truth behind this document was very different. The Declaration was not meant for King George III. The British monarch had already gotten the message, as he told Parliament in October 1775, that the rebellion “is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” Nor was it primarily intended to rally the American colonies to the cause of independence, as they had already instructed their congressional delegates to vote for separation. Instead, the Declaration was written as a call for help from France and Spain.
The very idea of a formal document to declare national independence was almost unheard of. In the past, nations that broke from their rulers did not bother to state their intentions in writing, for their actions spoke far louder than any words. The most recent example had been the uprising of the Corsican Republic against the Republic of Genoa in 1755. Its leader, Pasquale Paoli, had simply announced that Corsica was a sovereign nation and established an independent government; no formal declaration was ever printed. The American colonists were well acquainted with these events, and even gave Paoli’s name to a town in Pennsylvania that would be the site of a bloody battle with the British. Prior to that, the epic eighty-year battle of the Dutch Republic for independence from Spain had been fought without any written declarations, apart from a single document known as the Act of Abjuration (1581), which was more a casting off of personal allegiances to the Spanish crown than a formal affirmation of a new, independent nation.
Although unprecedented as a formal proclamation of national sovereignty, the American Declaration of Independence was hardly the first declaration that Americans had written in the run-up to the war. Stemming from British legal practice, declarations had a long history of expressing intent or enacting new policy at the national and international levels. Declarations were not simply announcements to the world or documents for the record; each was carefully crafted to influence a particular audience in order to accomplish a specific purpose. In response to the Coercive Acts of 1774, which imposed severe economic and punitive measures on Massachusetts, the First Continental Congress adopted a series of declarations and resolves, as well as addresses to the people of Great Britain and their other colonies, and petitions to the king, which together were intended to change the hated laws either by encouraging the election of a new Parliament more amenable to the colonists’ demands or by bringing about a royal intervention to overturn those laws.
When attempts at changing either the laws or the Parliament failed and hostilities erupted in 1775, the Second Continental Congress laid the blame squarely on Parliament and the king’s ministers, and assigned a three-man committee, which included Thomas Jefferson, to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. This declaration was both an explanation of why the colonists felt it necessary to defend their freedoms through force of arms and a final appeal for reconciliation. Although the authors declared that they had written the document out of “respect to the rest of the world,” it was quite clearly aimed at George III in an attempt to reverse Britain’s course; only by his directing his ministers to negotiate with the colonists “on reasonable terms,” the declaration stated, could the “calamities of civil war” be averted. This appeal, and the accompanying Olive Branch Petition asking the king to find a way to “settle peace . . . in our dominions,” were roundly rejected by George III. By the end of 1775, the American colonies were in an armed political stalemate; reconciliation was no longer an option, but they could not see a path to winning a separation from Britain.
This impasse was broken at the beginning of 1776, not by the vast intellectual talent then holding forth in congressional debates at the Pennsylvania State House, but by an obscure newspaper editor who, nearly bankrupt, had emigrated from London to Philadelphia just a year earlier. In that brief time Thomas Paine had picked up enough coffeehouse chatter and tavern ramblings to arrive at a conclusion that some politicians were mooting privately: that the various declarations and petitions issued to date by the Congress got the situation backward. It was George III, not his ministers or Parliament, who was to blame for the colonies’ current misfortunes; therefore no amount of petitioning the king to change the laws would ever redress the situation; and therefore a complete break with Britain, not a reconciliation, was inevitable to secure a prosperous America. Paine’s clear, clean logic led him to a second, even more radical conclusion: Separation could only be achieved militarily, which would only be possible with the support of France and Spain, and their support would be entirely contingent upon the colonies formally and in writing declaring themselves a sovereign nation, independent from Great Britain.
With the assistance of Benjamin Rush, a physician then active in political circles, Paine published a forty-six-page pamphlet titled Common Sense that expounded on these views and laid out a course of action for the American colonies to achieve independence. Philadelphia bookstalls began selling it on January 10, 1776, the very same day that news of George III’s speech denouncing America’s rebellion as an attempt to “[establish] an independent empire” arrived in Philadelphia. Paine’s timing was impeccable: His call for independence, which might have been unthinkable just weeks earlier, was unintentionally bolstered by the king’s own accusation of the same thing. The pamphlet was widely read, and within months the notion of independence was being openly discussed across the colonies.Common Sense
began by laying out the ideal form of a republic in which citizens have a share in their own governance, and explaining that the British systems of monarchy and aristocracy were the very antithesis of that form of government. By remaining tied to Great Britain three thousand miles away, which evinced little interest or understanding of its problems, America would only suffer further “injuries and disadvantages.” Paine then made the plea that would echo in the halls of the Congress and in the local chambers and colonial assemblies from New Hampshire to Georgia: “Every thing that is right or natural pleads for separation. . . . ’TIS TIME TO PART.”
The final pages of Common Sense
made clear the direct link between a declaration of independence and the securing of aid from France and Spain:
Nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and
determined declaration for independence. First
.—It is the custom of nations, when any two are at war,
for some other powers, not engaged in the quarrel, to step in as
mediators, and bring about the preliminaries of a peace: but while
America calls herself the Subject of Great-Britain, no power,
however well disposed she may be, can offer her mediation.
Wherefore, in our present state we may quarrel on for ever. Secondly
—It is unreasonable to suppose, that France or Spain
will give us any kind of assistance, if we mean only, to make use
of that assistance for the purpose of repairing the breach, and
strengthening the connection between Britain and America. . . . Thirdly
—While we profess ourselves the subjects of Britain,
we must, in the eye of foreign nations, be considered as rebels. . . . Fourthly
—Were a manifesto to be published, and despatched
to foreign courts . . . [it] would produce more good effects to this
Continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.
Under our present denomination of British subjects, we can
neither be received nor heard abroad: The custom of all courts is
against us, and will be so, until, by an independence, we take rank
with other nations.
Paine’s scheme to appeal directly to France and Spain for assistance needed no explanation to his American audience, for like him they knew that the two nations had long been spoiling for a rematch with Great Britain. They had come out badly in the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict that began in the American colonies in 1754 as a frontier battle between France and Britain, but that quickly engulfed all the major European powers. The war ended in 1763 with France losing Canada to the British Empire, while Spain ceded its dominance over the Gulf of Mexico by giving Florida to Britain. The Americans knew that both nations were now seeking retribution for the territories and prestige they had lost, and that the nascent American conflict could provide them the opportunity for revenge they had long sought.DECLARING INDEPENDENCE AND JOININGTHE WORLD STAGE AS A SOVEREIGN NATION
The effect of Common Sense
on the American mood was electric, that term already being in popular use due to the widespread accounts of the scientific experiments of Benjamin Franklin, just recently returned to Philadelphia after a decade defending the American cause in London. Where before January 1776 all the talk was of reconciliation, it was now about separation. Calls for independence filled newspapers up and down the continent, and the colonial governments were not deaf to these entreaties. In February and March, South Carolina rewrote its constitution, making it “independent of royal authority.” In April, the Virginia county of Charlotte adopted a resolution rejecting any attempts at reconciliation. In May, the Continental Congress sent instructions to all the colonies that effectively urged them to replace any pro-reconciliation governments with new ones more amenable to independence. By the end of the month, John Adams reported that “every post and every day rolls in upon us ‘independence’ like a torrent.”
These same letters to the colonial representatives made it clear that their authors fully embraced Paine’s link between a declaration of independence and aid from France and Spain. One of the first to subscribe to that connection was Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia delegate to the Congress and a member of one of the most influential families in colonial America. Long before Common Sense
was published, he had undoubtedly been inspired in this thinking by his brother Arthur Lee, who while a colonial representative in London along with Benjamin Franklin back in 1774, had told him that in a war with Britain, “America may yet owe her salvation [to European powers] should the contest be serious and lasting.” That idea was certainly reinforced by a letter to him in April 1776 from John Washington, one of George Washington’s nephews: “I am clearly of opinion that unless we declare openly for Independency there is no chance for foreign aid.” That same month Richard Henry Lee explained to his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry back in Williamsburg that the Congress must soon consider independence since the current “danger . . . may be prevented by a timely alliance with proper and willing powers in Europe” and that “no state in Europe will either treat or trade with us so long as we consider ourselves subjects of Great Britain.”
In April, colonial delegations began receiving instructions to vote for independence. The Virginia county of Cumberland directed its congressional representatives to “declare for independency [and] procure foreign assistance,” while North Carolina instructed its delegates “to concur with the delegates of the other Colonies in declaring independency, and forming foreign alliances.” In May, the entire Virginia Convention adopted a resolution that instructed its delegates to “declare the united colonies free and independent states . . . and give assent to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary for forming foreign alliances.” These directions from the colonial governments to their congressional delegates made it clear that, echoing Paine, they saw a declaration of independence as the unique means of obtaining help from France and Spain.
As the movement toward independence gathered momentum, even the Massachusetts delegate John Adams, normally wary of any foreign entanglements, reluctantly admitted:
We should be driven to the Necessity of Declaring ourselves
independent States, and that We ought now to be employed
in preparing . . . Treaties to be proposed to foreign Powers,
particularly to France and Spain. . . . That foreign Powers could
not be expected to acknowledge Us, till We had acknowledged
ourselves, and taken our Station among them as a sovereign
Power, and Independent Nation; That now we were distressed
for Want of Artillery, Arms, Ammunition, Clothing, and even
By early June, Richard Henry Lee was ready to follow the Virginia Convention’s instructions and call openly for the Congress to declare for independence. Echoing John Adams, he explained to a Virginia landowner, “It is not choice then, but necessity that calls for independence, as the only means by which foreign alliance can be obtained.” He wrote those words on Sunday, June 2, then must have spent that week mulling over the wording of a group of resolutions that would set the Congress into motion. On that Friday, June 7, the Congress convened as usual at 10 a.m., addressing pressing concerns from war reports and the more mundane matter of compensating a merchant for goods seized by the Continental Navy. At around 11 a.m., Richard Henry Lee asked for the floor, then introduced the following three interconnected resolutions for consideration:
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 connection between
them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally
That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual
measures for forming foreign Alliances.
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to
the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
The resolutions were seconded by John Adams, but the Congress put off consideration until the following day. On Saturday and again on Monday, the Congress debated the three resolutions. While members from southern and New England colonies were for the resolutions, many of the middle Atlantic colonies preferred to postpone the decision. Opponents of independence questioned whether France or Spain would even provide any help to the Americans, given their own colonial interests in the Americas, and argued that France was more likely to form an alliance with Britain and divide up North America between them. Proponents of the resolutions, as Thomas Jefferson’s own notes showed, argued that “a declaration of independence alone could render it consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us,” and that no time should be wasted in applying for such aid as France and Spain could offer. The arguments went back and forth with no clear consensus.
Instead of taking a vote on the resolution for independence, the Congress postponed further debate until July 1, and instructed a committee to draft a declaration should the Congress decide for it. They addressed the second and third resolutions also by appointing committees, one to draft a model treaty with France, and another to draft a plan of confederation for the thirteen states that would be created from the former colonies once independence was declared. The committee for the plan of confederation was the largest of the three, having a representative from each colony. With such an unwieldy group it was the last to report out, only producing the Articles of Confederation eighteen months later in November 1777 (and those articles would not be ratified by all thirteen states until 1781). The second committee to produce a model treaty for France had just five members, led by John Adams. Adams insisted that the model treaty be commercial in nature only, and not include any political or military alliances that might “entangle us in future wars in Europe.” The final Plan of Treaties, which strictly adhered to Adams’s principles, was produced on July 18, and adopted by the Congress on September 17. One month later, Benjamin Franklin would embark for France with Adams’s model treaty in hand, on his mission to secure the assistance that his nation so desperately needed.
The five-man committee to draft the Declaration of Independence also was headed by John Adams, but the task of drafting it was given to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an accomplished writer and was already working with his fellow Virginia statesmen James Madison and George Mason on a Constitution and Declaration of Rights for their soon-tobe-formed state. Jefferson wrote quickly, borrowing liberally from these and other documents, and produced the first draft in just a few days. He showed it first to Franklin and Adams, who made just a few revisions, then to the whole committee, who wrangled with it for two weeks. By then, the Congress had already settled on the name for the new nation; on June 24, 1776, its president, John Hancock, officially used the term “The United States” for the very first time while commissioning a new French volunteer, Antoine Félix Wuibert, as an officer in the Continental Army.
The revised draft of the Declaration was brought before the Congress on June 28, by which time the mid-Atlantic colonies had authorized their delegates to vote for independence, also with the stipulation that it was the path to obtaining foreign assistance. The motion to adopt Richard Henry Lee’s resolution was taken on July 2, after which the Congress debated and revised the draft for two days before approving the final version on July 4, a Thursday. That evening, a broadside sheet was typeset, and about two hundred copies were run off and distributed to the colonies and to the Continental Army headquarters. That the Congress intended the declaration to be read by Louis XVI and Carlos III was underscored by the fact that, on Monday, July 8, the first working day after the weekend, they placed a copy of the Declaration aboard a ship bound for France, with instructions for Silas Deane, a Connecticut merchant and delegate then in Paris negotiating arms deals, to “immediately communicate the piece to the Court of France, and send copies of it to the other Courts of Europe.”
Although Richard Henry Lee’s resolutions and all of the subsequent congressional debates—as Jefferson himself so clearly noted—tied the Declaration of Independence to the request for foreign aid, nowhere in the text do the words “France” or “Spain” appear. Even in the opening paragraph, Jefferson gave as the sole rationale for the document that “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” required an explanation for their actions. This statement, like the similar rationale given in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, obfuscated the real reason and intended audience for the Declaration of Independence. Even if the Congress had in mind a call for help to Louis XVI and Carlos III, in all likelihood those monarchs were far from Jefferson’s thoughts during the Declaration’s actual composition. He was reaching instead for the highest sentiments of Enlightenment thinkers—Locke on natural rights, Voltaire on oppression, Montesquieu on liberty and freedom—to justify the case for independence. Any overt supplication to a foreign power would have debased and demeaned the Declaration that he so carefully crafted. Instead, the very existence of the document would serve as a clarion call for help.
The Declaration became a document for the ages. After the opening apologia that obscured its true purpose, Jefferson launched into his loftiest prose: “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.” He followed this with a litany of charges as to why the British monarch had not lived up to these ideals, from general offenses against the colonies to specific accusations ranging from interference with judicial processes to kidnapping, pillage, and plunder. Jefferson did not hold the British public blameless, calling them “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” By declaring itself a member of the world’s sovereign nations, Jefferson reminded its hoped-for allies that the United States now had “full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
It was only at the very end of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson included a passage that the kings of France and Spain might have taken particular notice of: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” In other words: To become an independent, self-governing nation, we have staked everything on winning this war with Britain. Without a military alliance, there is no hope that we can continue. Now please come to our aid.
Across the Atlantic, France and Spain weighed their options. Just thirteen years had passed since they had fought a disastrous war with Britain, losing trade, colonies, and influence. A new war, on the side of the rebellious Americans, could redress their old humiliations—or plunge them into ruination.
Copyright © 2016 by Larrie D. Ferreiro. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.