Continental Congress



The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms was a document issued by the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775, to explain why the Thirteen Colonies had taken up arms in what had become the American Revolutionary War. The final draft of the Declaration was written by John Dickinson, who incorporated language from an earlier draft by Thomas Jefferson.


The Declaration describes what colonists viewed as the unconstitutional effort of the British Parliament to extend its jurisdiction into the colonies following the Seven Years’ War. Objectionable policies listed in the Declaration include taxation without representation, extended use of vice admiralty courts, the several Coercive Acts, and the Declaratory Act. The Declaration describes how the colonists had, for ten years, repeatedly petitioned for the redress of their grievances, only to have their pleas ignored or rejected by the British government. Even though British troops have been sent to enforce these unconstitutional acts, the Declaration insists that the colonists do not yet seek independence from the mother country. They have taken up arms “in defence of the Freedom that is our Birthright and which we ever enjoyed until the late Violation of it”, and will “lay them down when Hostilities shall cease on the part of the Aggressors”.


In the 19th century, the authorship of the Declaration was disputed. In a collection of his works first published in 1801, John Dickinson took credit for writing the Declaration. This claim went unchallenged by Thomas Jefferson until many years later, when Jefferson was nearly 80 years old. In his autobiography, Jefferson claimed that he wrote the first draft, but Dickinson objected that it was too radical, and so Congress allowed Dickinson to write a more moderate version, keeping only the last four-and-a-half paragraphs of Jefferson’s draft. Jefferson’s version of events was accepted by historians for many years. In 1950, Julian P. Boyd, the editor of Jefferson’s papers, examined the extant drafts and determined that Jefferson’s memory was faulty and that Dickinson claimed too much credit for the final text.

According to Boyd, an initial draft was reportedly written by John Rutledge, a member of a committee of five appointed to create the Declaration. Rutledge’s draft was not accepted and does not survive. Jefferson and Dickinson were then added to the committee. Jefferson was appointed to write a draft; how much he drew upon the lost Rutledge draft, if at all, is unknown. Jefferson then apparently submitted his draft to Dickinson, who suggested some changes, which Jefferson, for the most part, decided not to use. The result was that Dickinson rewrote the Declaration, keeping some passages written by Jefferson. Contrary to Jefferson’s recollection in his old age, Dickinson’s version was not less radical; according to Boyd, in some respects Dickinson’s draft was more blunt. The bold statement near the end was written by Dickinson: “Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.” The disagreement in 1775 between Dickinson and Jefferson appears to have been primarily a matter of style, not content.