Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19th 1775 the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10th to make a decision on how best to proceed with regard to the growing revolution in America.
During the congress, the Battle of Bunker Hill took place on June 17th.
At the beginning of July, representatives from twelve of the thirteen states of the colonies agreed to petition King George III directly in the hope that he might intercede on their behalf with Parliament, in an effort to address the impositions they felt Parliament were levying on the States without the full knowledge of the Sovereign. Georgia had not sent representation to the Congress at this point, and so was not listed on the Petition, although a self-appointed delegate from one Parish of Georgia did make it to the meeting, and agreed to allow the wording to state ‘Thirteen Colonies’. Official representation arrived from Georgia shortly thereafter, although too late to sign the petition, which had departed 6 days before their arrival.
Randolph was initially reappointed as President of the Congress, from the First Congress which took place in 1774 but subsequently recalled to preside over the House of Burgesses, and compelled to step down. A vote was cast which elected Henry Middleton as new President, but he declined to accept the position, and so John Hancock, a newcomer from Massachusetts was given the job. Benjamin Franklin was also in attendance for the first time as a representative from Pennsylvania.
A letter of petition was drawn up, which was agreed and signed on July 5th. Thomas Jefferson who has arrived several weeks into the congress as a replacement for Peyton Randolph as Virginia representative was tasked with drafting the petition although credit for this was given to Benjamin Franklin in the first instance, whose initial work was subsequently altered by Jefferson. That copy was given to John Dickinson on June 24th after being turned down by Congress.
Dickinson re-wrote much of it due to what he felt was offensive language. His re-wording of the document gave it the conciliatory edge that we know of today. The Petition appealed to the King to negotiate a fairer deal with regard to trade restrictions and taxes, and reaffirmed the wish of the colonies to remain loyal to the King and united with Britain.
48 members of the Congress signed the Petition, many of whom would the following year sign the Declaration of Independence. On July 8th the copy was handed to Richard Penn, whose Grandfather William Penn was founder of Pennsylvania, and gave his name to the colony. He set sail for London on July 14th and was met by Arthur Lee on August 14th. Arthur Lee, a lawyer who was employed as Colonial representative for Massachusetts in London. Lee would later work between America and Britain, acting as a supporter for one, and an informant for the other.
Together they took the Petition to Lord Dartmouth on August 21st, his role was to present the Petition to the King, which he attempted to do however the King refused to take the document or read it, and upon hearing of the Battle of Bunker Hill, on August 23rd, issued the Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, in effect naming the Colonies as rebels and ordering his loyal subjects to suppress and withstand the rebellion. As he had written and issued this speech before accepting or reading the Petition, it seems the King had already made up his mind. When pressed the following week, Lord Dartmouth revealed the King had not accepted the Petition.
It also cleared up the matter of loyalty for the Americans. They realised at this point that the King, far from being kept in the dark regarding his Parliaments unjust levies and treatment to the colonies, was actually the Perpetrator of the Acts and injustices. The result being that the congressional delegates who had so far desired reconciling and remaining united with their mother nation, now felt overwhelmingly that independence was the logical solution.
The ‘Olive Branch’ Petition was eventually received and read by Parliament in November of 1775. It was promptly dismissed as insincere. Matters had not been helped when letters sent by John Adams to both his wife Abigail, and his friend General James Warren, were intercepted and sent to England, to arrive at the same time as Penn with his copy of the Petition.
The letters, slating Dickinson et al for their continued belief that reconciliation was the way forward, and stating that preparations for Independence, which must be inevitable, should be made, gave the impression that the Colonies very much planned to take up arms and war with England. In truth, they showed the divide between the two trains of thought and the frustration felt by Adams at the continuing fruitless efforts of the delegates who desired to remain loyal.
The day following the signing of the Petition, a further declaration had been issued in the form of the ‘Declaration of Taking Up Arms: Resolutions of the Second Continental Congress’, which outlined the plan for raising and arming the colonists should War become a reality.
Following the subsequent publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which was widely read by the colonists themselves, and distributed further afield, Jefferson and his supporters of Independence increased in number rapidly. War was the next step.