A Brief History
On July 8, 1775, the Continental Congress, forerunner of what would become the government of the United States, signed the so called “Olive Branch Petition,” a last ditch effort to prevent a war of independence against Britain by the American Colonies. Adopted by the Continental Congress on July 5th, the signing made this last effort at peace official. The acceptance of this American overture to the British government had little chance of success, especially since the Continental Congress had already authorized the invasion of Canada and on July 6, 1775, had issued a “Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms,” a justification for the American Colonies to take up arms against their British overlords.
The British response to the actions and words of American patriots was to issue “A Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition,” a notice by King George III of Britain that the Americans were considered in rebellion and that such rebellion would be put down by military and law enforcement action, the rebels being treated as traitors to the crown. The Battle of Bunker Hill had already taken place on June 17, 1775, enraging the King George III, and with the state of communications in those days being limited by how quickly ships could transit the Atlantic Ocean, events could easily outstrip the ability of leaders to consider actions and send replies to communications and events. Thus, the Olive Branch Petition was basically doomed to failure to prevent the American Revolutionary War (of Independence) from the start.
A year later, on July 8, 1776, the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence was made by John Nixon of Philadelphia, a speech accompanied by the ringing of many church bells, and probably the famous “Liberty Bell” as well. The Declaration of Independence was basically a declaration of war for all intents and purposes, a measure adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, declaring the American Colonies to be free from the yoke of British authority as independent states. (John Nixon, a financier, was a patriot that served in the Revolutionary military with George Washington, including at Valley Forge, attaining the rank of Colonel. After Independence was won, Nixon was instrumental in the founding of the Bank of North America.)
The Olive Branch Petition, although important historically as the last and final chance at peace instead of revolution, became a footnote of relative insignificance in most historical accounts of the American Revolutionary period, while more momentous documents such as the Declaration of Independence have become some of the most important political treatises of all time. While you often hear the Declaration of Independence quoted in all sorts of cultural references, from television shows to movies to books, have you ever heard the Olive Branch Petition quoted? We think not! Have you ever even heard of the Olive Branch Petition? Despite its relative anonymity, the document served a vital role as a gesture of reconciliation offered by Americans to the British Crown.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other important diplomatic document do you think has been ignored by history? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Atkinson, Rick. The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777. Henry Holt and Co., 2019.
Seeleye, James, and Shawn Selby (editors). Shaping North America [3 volumes]: From Exploration to the American Revolution. ABC-CLIO, 2018.
Wood, Gordon. The American Revolution: A History. Modern Library, 2003.
The featured image in this article, a scan of the Olive Branch Petition (8 July 1775), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.