The Olive Branch Petition was a final attempt by the colonists to avoid going to war with Britain during the American Revolution.
It was a document in which the colonists pledged their loyalty to the crown and asserted their rights as British citizens. The Olive Branch Petition was adopted by Congress on July 5, 1775
Who Wrote the Olive Branch Petition?:
Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of Olive Branch Petition but it was considered too inflammatory. John Dickinson, a delegate from Pennsylvania, wrote the final draft, which was much more toned down.
Dickinson is often referred to as the “penman of the Revolution” and had previously represented Pennsylvania in the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and drafted its declaration of rights and grievances. In 1767-68, he became famous after publishing his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, which appeared in many colonial newspapers.
What Was the Purpose of the Olive Branch Petition?:
The purpose of the Olive Branch Petition was to appease King George III and prevent the conflict between the colonies and the British government from escalating into a full blown war.
The book The Long Road to Change: America’s Revolution 1750-1820 refers to the Olive Branch Petition as “a fascinating bit of historical confusion” and further explains that the petition could be construed as insincere:
“In fact, the Olive Branch Petition has an odd irrelevance about it, and raises questions about its sincerity. For the Continental Congress to say that it would pledge allegiance to the King while rejecting Parliament’s authority to do anything in the colonies was a bit like asking the King to denounce Parliament. The weakness of the logic could not have escaped the notice of sharp minds at Philadelphia, and leaves the impression that there was a public relations purpose in its drafting because Congress then stated that it was not interested in independence but would nevertheless continue to resist the current British policy in America.”
The reason for the mixed messages was due to the fact that in the summer of 1775, the Continental Congress found themselves divided on the issue of going to war with Britain. One side wanted greater freedom under British rule, similar to what they experienced during the period of Salutary Neglect, while the other side wanted complete independence from Britain.
Why Did the Continental Congress Adopt the Olive Branch Petition?:
This petition was a last ditch effort by the reconciliation party to amend things with the king before war was officially declared, even though the Revolutionary War had already begun in Massachusetts when the Shot Heard Round the World was fired in April of that year.
In a letter to an unidentified friend, John Adams himself even wrote about the paradox of preparing for war while, at the same time, petitioning the king for peace but explained the petition was necessary to keep the colonists unified:
“These opinions of some colonies which are founded I think in their wishes and passions, their hopes and fears, rather than in reason and evidence will give a whimsical cast to the proceedings of this Congress. You will see a strange oscillation between love and hatred, between war and peace – Preparations for war and negotiations for peace. We must have a petition to the King and a delicate proposal of negotiations, etc. This negotiation I dread like death: But it must be proposed. We can’t avoid it. Discord and disunion would be the certain effect of a resolute refusal to petition and negotiate. My hopes are that Ministry will be afraid of negotiation as well as we and therefore refuse it. If they agree to it, we shall have occasion for all our wit vigilance and virtue to avoid being deceived, wheedled threatened or bribed out of freedom. If we strenuously insist upon our liberties, as I hope and am pretty sure we shall however, a negotiation, if agreed to, will terminate in nothing. It will effect nothing. We may possibly gain time and powder and arms…”
Furthermore, according to the book Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, the petition was the result of a compromise, first proposed by John Dickinson in May, between the “moderates” and the “hard liners” in the Continental Congress: if the moderates agreed to the military preparations sought by the hard liners than the hard liners would agree to the Olive Branch Petition.
What Were the Terms of the Olive Branch Petition?:
The Olive Branch Petition begins by explaining why the colonists had been recently rebelling against the British government, stating that after winning the French and Indian War the government didn’t thank the colonists for their support and participation in the war and instead enacted new laws and taxes that seemed more like a punishment:
“they [the colonists] were alarmed by a new system of Statutes and regulations adopted for the administration of the colonies, that filled their minds with the most painful fears and jealousies; and to their inexpressible astonishment perceived the dangers of a foreign quarrel quickly succeeded by domestic dangers, in their judgment of a more dreadful kind… Your Majestys ministers persevering in their measures and proceeding to open hostilities for enforcing them, have compelled us to arm in our own defence, and have engaged us in a controversy so peculiarly abhorrent to the affection of your still faithful colonists, that when we consider whom we must oppose in this contest, and if it continues, what may be the consequences, our own particular misfortunes are accounted by us, only as parts of our distress.”
The petition then declared that, despite their complaints, the colonists were still loyal to the British government:
“We solemnly assure your Majesty, that we not only most ardently desire the former harmony between her and these colonies may be restored but that a concord may be established between them upon so firm a basis, as to perpetuate its blessings uninterrupted by any future dissentions to succeeding generations in both countries…We beg leave further to assure your Majesty that notwithstanding the sufferings of your loyal colonists during the course of the present controversy, our breasts retain too tender a regard for the kingdom from which we derive our origin to request such a reconciliation as might in any manner be inconsistent with her dignity or her welfare….your Majesty will find your faithful subjects on this continent ready and willing at all times, as they ever have been with their lives and fortunes to assert and maintain the rights and interests of your Majesty and of our Mother Country…”
The petition then goes on to ask the king to give the colonists their rights by repealing the unjust laws and taxes waged on them:
“We therefore beseech your Majesty, that your royal authority and influence may be graciously interposed to procure us releif [sic] from our afflicting fears and jealousies occasioned by the system before mentioned, and to settle peace through every part of your dominions… and that in the meantime measures be taken for preventing the further destruction of the lives of your Majesty’s subjects; and that such statutes as more immediately distress any of your Majestys colonies be repealed…”
Two copies of the Olive Branch Petition were created and both were signed by 48 delegates which included John Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and Thomas Jefferson.
Was the Olive Branch Petition Successful?:
Richard Penn and Arthur Lee were sent to England to deliver the petition to the King and arrived in August of 1775. On August 21, 1775, the second copy of the petition was also sent to Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the colonies. When he later received the original petition from Penn and Lee on September 1, Dartmouth attempted to deliver the petition to King George III but the king refused to read it.
On September 2, 1775, Penn and Lee reported back to the Continental Congress:
“On the 21st of last month, we sent to the Secretary of State for America, a copy of the Petition from the general Congress; and yesterday, the first moment that was permitted us, we presented to him the original, which his lordship promised to deliver to his Majesty. We thought it our duty to press his Lordship to obtain an answer; but we were told that his Majesty did not receive it on the throne, no answer would be given.”
The king had already made his decision regarding the colonists about a week before, on August 23, when he issued the Proclamation of Rebellion, which stated that in light of “various disorderly acts committed in disturbance of the publick peace, to the obstruction of lawful commerce, and to the oppression of our loyal subjects,” the colonists were in an “open and avowed rebellion” and were “levying war against us.”
Considering this, it is no surprise the king rejected the Olive Branch Petition without even reading it. The king then cemented his stance on the rebellion on October 27 of that year when he gave a speech to Parliament during which he stated the two sides were at war and increased military efforts were now necessary to stifle the rebellion:
“The rebellious war now levied is become more general, and is manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire. I need not dwell upon the fatal effects of the success of such a plan… It is now become the part of wisdom, and (in its effects) of clemency, to put a speedy end to these disorders by the most decisive exertions. For this purpose, I have increased my naval establishment, and greatly augmented my land forces; but in such a manner as may be the least burthensome to my kingdoms.”
Many sources state that a confiscated letter, written by John Adams to James Warren on July 24, 1775, that revealed detailed plans for war while also mentioning the petition undermined the Olive Branch Petition’s success when it was sent to England, arriving on September 17, where it was immediately published in the local newspapers.
The letter not only demonstrates that the colonists already had plans to fight the British government despite its petition for peace, it also refers to John Dickinson, the author of the petition, as a “piddling genius” who has “given a silly cast to our whole doings.”
It is unlikely though that the letter had much of an impact on the king’s decision since he had already issued the Proclamation of Rebellion in August. Although it didn’t influence the king’s decision, its publication officially outed Adams as a leader in the resistance against the British government.
The Olive Branch Petition was a significant, yet doomed, attempt to preserve the relationship between the British government and the colonies before the conflict escalated into war. It appears, though, that since the petition arrived months after the Battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, it was too late to have any effect on the situation.
Library of Congress: King George III’s Speech to Parliament, October 27, 1775:
Britannia.com: Proclamation of Rebellion: http://www.britannia.com/history/docs/procreb.html
Massachusetts Historical Society Digital Editions: Adams Papers: https://www.masshist.org/publications/apde2/view?id=ADMS-06-03-02-0052
New York Public Library: The Olive Branch and the Declaration of Independence: http://www.nypl.org/blog/2015/06/30/olive-branch-petition
Historical Dictionary of the British Empire, Volume 2; edited by James Stuart Olson, Robert Shadle
The First American Declaration of Independence?: The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775; Scott Syfert
Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free; John Ferling
Warren-Adams Letters; Volume 72; Massachusetts Historical Society; John Adams, Samuel Adams, James Warren
The Long Road to Change: America’s Revolution, 1750-1820; Eric Guest Nellis