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Inspired by History

Letter of the Twelve United Colonies to the Inhabitants of Great Britain

Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), and Richard Henry Lee (1732-1794) as Delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Manuscript Document unsigned, draft of Letter of the Twelve United Colonies to the Inhabitants of Great Britain. Philadelphia, PA July 1775. Opening words “FRIENDS, COUNTRYMEN & BRETHEREN.” Draft written by Livingston with edits by Lee of Virginia.

12 pages on 6 leaves folio (with writing on both sides of the paper), 24.5 x 31 cm, on laid paper, watermarks “Georgius Rex,” a crowned shield surrounded by foliage and enclosed with a circle and “W”, with countermark “Pro Patria.”

The discovery of a draft of a famous Continental Congress document is an increasingly rare occurrence. It becomes even more important when such a draft helps us answer a question about authorship that has puzzled historians for centuries. Until now, there was no extant draft of the Continental Congress’s Letter of the Twelve United Colonies to the Inhabitants of Great Britain. Historians could only speculate as to the author, with many supposing it to have been written by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. However, analysis of this newly-discovered document shows that the main author of the final document was Robert R. Livingston of New York. In addition, textual analysis strongly suggests that this is indeed his first draft of the Letter.

This document emerged from a crucial moment in the history of the American Revolution. It represents the last moments in which the Continental Congress actively sought reconciliation with Britain, and its discovery reminds us that independence was never an inevitable outcome of resistance to British imperial reforms in the 1760s and 1770s. The text of this manuscript was heavily edited by Livingston during his original drafting of it, edited next by Richard Henry Lee, and a third and as yet unidentified hand added a few edits. The edits made in the document (as well as those that do not appear here but do so in the final version approved by the Congress) textually tell a story of how the members of the Continental Congress were stuck in two mindsets in the spring and summer of 1775. They spent much of their time managing the war effort in New England and creating a Continental Army, while at the same time, they professed loyalty to the King and a desire for reconciliation.

In Livingston’s draft of the Letter in particular, we see that played out in strident—at times, vehement—language that often lies alongside protestations of affection for the King and the British Empire. In that sense, it is representative of the conflicted emotions being felt by many in the colonies in the summer of 1775 as they tried to reconcile their traditional cultural affinity for Britain and their political affinity for the British Constitution with the events of the previous decade. Most urgently, hostilities between the colonists and the King’s troops at Lexington and Concord broke out just six weeks before the committee was named to draft this Letter. For those reasons, this document is an important missing piece from the culminating moments in which colonists began to think of themselves not as British subjects but as American citizens.


“We little imagined that any thing could be added to this black Catalogue of unprovoked Injuries: but we have unhappily been deceived, and the late Measures of the Brash Ministry fully convince us, that their object is the reduction of these Colonies to Slavery and Ruin . . . Shall the Descendants of Britons tamely submit to this–No, Sirs! We never will, while we revere the Memory of our gallant and virtuous Ancestors, we never can surrender those glorious Privileges, for which they fought, bled, and conquered. . . .

On the Sword, therefore, we are compelled to rely for Protection. Should Victory declare in your Favour, yet Men trained to Arms from their Infancy, and animated by the Love of Liberty, will afford neither a cheap or easy Conquest. Of this at least we are assured, that our Struggle will be glorious, our Success certain; since even in Death we shall find that Freedom which in Life you forbid us to enjoy. . . .

Yet give us leave most solemnly to assure you, that we have not yet lost Sight of the Object we have ever had in View, a Reconciliation with you on constitutional Principles, and a Restoration of that friendly Intercourse, which, to the Advantage of both, we till lately maintained.”