To crush the colonists' rebellion after the Boston Tea Party, the British government passed repressive laws that would become known as the Intolerable Acts. These laws closed the busy port of Boston, put Massachusetts under military rule, and banned public meetings.
In response, 12 of the 13 colonies sent representatives to a Continental Congress in Philadelphia to draft a united response. John Adams, a Massachusetts delegate, wrote a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" addressed to King George III. But the petition had no effect. In Massachusetts, fighting broke out between British forces and the rebels on April 19, 1775, at the battles of Lexington and Concord.
When a Second Continental Congress met in May 1775, the delegates' mood had shifted. The repressive laws and the military skirmishes made more people want to break free from Britain. Adams himself was disgusted by the British, their harsh rule, and the colonists who were still pro-British. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, he described loyalist Tories as "the most despicable Animal[s] in the Creation." But if he signed a formal declaration of independence, he would be calling for war, and committing an act of treason against Britain -- punishable by hanging.
Some delegates, like John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, still believed that all-out war could be avoided. When Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced the motion for independence on June 7, 1776, Adams had to choose. Would he:
vote for independence or seek a peaceful solution?