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July – Olive Branch Petition

In the early years during the conception of American independence, when the flames of revolution were ablaze and the fate of the new nation hung in the balance, a group of patriots sought to pursue reconciliation with their British counterparts. One of the key figures behind this bold endeavor was John Jay. The years leading up to the American Revolution were filled with tension as colonists grew increasingly discontent with the British and their policies regarding the colonies. This finally led to blows on March 5, 1770, when at the Boston Massacre first blood was drawn between the civilian colonists and British troops. Those killed during the event are widely considered the first deaths of the American Revolution. The rallying cries of colonists were becoming deafening as more and more came to view the British policies as infringements on their rights as British citizens.

The rage and debate among the colonies would only grow as acts of rebellion continued. John Jay, a member of the Second Continental Congress during this time, sought proper justice and representation for the European colonists. However, this did not mean he wanted to go to war. The violence and bloodshed of a war was to be a last resort in the eyes of Jay and many others, not to be pursued until every other option for a peaceful resolution was exhausted.

In 1774 Great Britain followed the previous year’s Boston Tea Party with a series of laws imposed on the colonies, known as The Coercive Acts, originally, later known as The Intolerable Acts by future Americans.

The four major laws imposed by this legislation included the Boston Port Act, which closed Boston Harbor until the damage caused by the Boston Tea Party had been repaid and the King had felt ‘order has been restored’ in the rebellious colony. This was viewed by the colonists as a broadly sweeping punishment that hurt not only the rebels responsible but everyone as Boston Harbor was a major trade port. The next, the Massachusetts Government Act, removed the Massachusetts’ colony charter from power and required all positions within the local government to be assigned directly by the loyalist governor, Parliament, or the King himself. This act also limited all of Massachusetts to only a single town hall meeting per year to curb the organization of those who might wish to continue acts of rebellion.

The final two laws of these acts were easily the most impactful and outrageous in the minds of the colonists. The first of these final two was The Administration of Justice Act. Though this act the governor of Massachusetts was granted the ability to call for the trial of British officials to take place not in the colonies, but in Great Britain to assure that they were granted a fair trial. If a trial was relocated in this way, not only did the British official have to travel to England, but all the witnesses who wished to testify, and the opposition if they wished to argue their case. Though the trip across the ocean itself was reimbursed, those who traveled received no reimbursement for any wages lost during their months away. This made it nearly impossible for most Americans to make the trip as the price of going to argue their case against the officials was much too high. Due to the nature in which this act allowed many British officers to escape justice after harassing colonists it became referred to as the ‘Murder Act,’ a nickname given it by George Washington. The last, and arguably most well-known of these acts was The Quartering Act of 1774. Unlike the previous Quartering Act of 1765, this law allowed the royal governors of the colonies to identify buildings, such as unoccupied homes and barns, to house British soldiers. Unlike the other laws, however, the Quartering Act was put into place for all 13 colonies rather than Massachusetts alone. This blanket act further fanned the flames of anger and rebellion among colonists as they continued to feel powerless to the whims of British rule.

Still, Jay felt there were peaceful options left. With the American victory in Lexington and Concord (April 19, 1775) that drove back British troops to Boston, there was hope that a negotiation would be considered by the Crown and Parliament. The victory showcased that the colonists were able to challenge the forces of the Empire and thus there was hope that Britain would want to avoid a costly and bloody conflict.

Debate raged on within the Second Continental Congress on how to proceed. Many argued for violent retaliation and officially kicking off war with the British. However, the American people were still divided in their loyalties. Many were not ready to raise arms against the crown and their country of citizenship. With this division in mind, the threat of defeat was certain in a prolonged engagement with the Empire. The possibility of making one final appeal to Britain was discussed and ultimately passed. Support for this effort wasn’t unanimous, but it was treated as a way of allowing all the members of Congress to know that the colonies had done all they could to avoid war despite England’s lack of reception to these efforts.

A drafting committee responsible for writing the treaty was created on June 3rd, 1775. This committee consisted of John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Dickenson of Pennsylvania, Thomas Johnson of Maryland, and John Rutledge of South Carolina. In its final form, the Olive Branch Petition, as it came to be titled, is largely credited to John Dickenson as he penned the official document. However, an early draft extremely similar to the final piece has been discovered in among the Dickenson Papers written in Jay’s handwriting. Though some key changes had been made to the text from this draft to its finality, this lends to belief that Jay may have been more instrumental in the creation of the treaty than originally assumed.

In its final form, The Olive Branch Petition included terms of peace for Britain and the colonies that allowed British rule to be maintained if the citizens settled on American soil were given the same rights as those living within the borders of Great Britain itself. It contained more equitable trade arrangements for both sides, and fair tax regulations for Americans. It also called for the repeal of The Intolerable Acts.

It was the hope of those on the committee of the Olive Branch Petition that the King and British Parliament would see reason in avoiding war and wish to nurture a productive relationship in trade between the two lands as they were all British citizens. Not all the members of the Second Continental Congress supported this effort, believing war to be the only solution at this point. The colony of Georgia was the only one out of 13 that did not sign off on the petition. John Adams was vocal about his feeling that the petition was a waste of time in a letter to a friend, seeing war as unavoidable. This letter, with his doubts of the efforts being put forth, was intercepted by British forces and reports of its contents reached England around the same time as the Petition itself. His doubts became the doubts of the British as they began to question the sincerity of the petition itself considering the Adam’s feelings. This squashed what little hope there had been for a peaceful resolution. King George III refused to receive the petition formally. Richard Penn and Arthur Lee, the colonists charged with delivering the petition to England reported back to Congress on Sept. 2nd “We were told his Majesty did not receive it on the throne, no answer would be given.” This prevented the ambassadors from having a proper audience with the crown to argue their case. These efforts were further damaged as it was discovered that the King had previously issued a Proclamation of Rebellion regarding the colonies just a week prior, on August 23rd, in response to the Battle of Bunker Hill which took place on June 17, 1775.

The King’s refusal to discuss the ‘humble petition’ of the colonies enraged most Americans. This led many to feel they had only two options left: fight for their freedom from the British Empire or fully submit to British rule along with the consequences that would be in store for the acts of rebellion that had already taken place. This lack of options ultimately assisted in uniting the colonists in their drive for revolution, strengthening the colonies for the oncoming war. John Jay’s involvement in the making of this final petition serves as a testament to his commitment to exhausting all possibilities for peaceful resolution before fully embracing the fight for complete independence. Although the petition ultimately failed it still served as a crucial turning point in Jay’s career and the colonies’ march towards independence and their future as America. He later played a pivotal role in negotiation the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the American Revolution. Jay’s continued contributions as a diplomat and stateman further cemented his place among the Founding Fathers and his commitment to shaping the new nation.