In mid-1775 the burgeoning American Revolution was at a crossroads. The colonies decided to send a document known as the Olive Branch petition in July 1775, the significance of which as it was the last attempt at peace with Britain before full-fledged hostilities.
A popular misconception around the American Revolution is that the colonies and colonists were united in their quest for independence from Britain. In reality, there were deep divisions and colonists were anything but unified.
The colonists separated into Patriots (those who favored rebelling against the British), Loyalists (those who favored remaining British subjects), and those that remained neutral. Patriot and Loyalist support for the American Revolution was remarkably split.
While Patriots outnumbered the Loyalists, a sizable percentage remained neutral over the conflict. As fighting began in April 1775 not all believed a war with the best-trained military in the world was in their best interests.
These so-called “Moderates” still believed reconciliation with Britain could be possible and wished to give one last attempt at peace. The colonists last attempt in July 1775 is known as the Olive Branch petition.
In the Olive Branch petition, the colonies stated their desire to remain loyal British subjects, so long as the King of Britain would intervene on their behalf to force Parliament to give in to their demands.
While the 1775 Olive Branch petition ended in failure, it was extremely significant in that it gave further justification for the colonies to rebel. Combined with the convincing arguments laid out in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense pamphlets, the British rejection of the Olive Branch petition would directly lead to the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776.
What was the Olive Branch Petition?
The Olive Branch petition was a 1775 document sent by the colonists to King George III stating their desire to remain loyal British subjects. The petition was a last ditch effort by the American colonists to avoid war with the British Empire.
The olive branch dates back to Ancient Greece as a symbol of peace. The Second Continental Congress adopted this symbolism to show the colonists and world that they were attempting one last effort at maintaining cordial relations with Britain.
Written and delivered to the British King George III from July-August 1775, the Olive Branch petition used eloquent and flowery language to declare the colonists’ intent to remain loyal British subjects.
The colonists simply asked the king to intervene on their behalf. In the eyes of the colonists, Parliament had been infringing upon their rights as British citizens with their unjust taxes and lack of representation.
From the taxes levied on the colonies following the French and Indian War, to the unjust Intolerable Acts, Parliament seemed to no longer have the American colonists’ best interests at heart.
While the colonists’ pleading had fallen on deaf ears in Parliament, perhaps King George III would fight on their behalf to avoid war.
Interestingly, representatives from only twelve of the thirteen colonies signed the Olive Branch petition. Georgia did not send representatives to the Second Continental Congress until after the document was signed.
Who Wrote the Olive Branch Petition?
Several notable figures combined to write the Olive Branch petition. Thomas Jefferson primarily authored the first draft with influences from Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, among others.
However, the Second Continental Congress deemed this first draft as too harsh and inflammatory. Finalized and adopted on July 5, 1775, Pennsylvania representative John Dickinson eventually penned the final draft.
He also revised the final draft of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, adopted a day later. This document helped to explain to the king why the colonists had taken up arms against the British in defense of their freedoms. It was a companion document to the Olive Branch petition.
Dickinson was a driving force behind the Moderate faction that hoped to avoid war with Britain and opposed independence. Like many, he protested British policies in America such as the hated Tea Act that led to the Boston Tea Party, but did not want to permanently separate.1
Instead, his ideal version of British affairs in America would be a return to the period of Salutary Neglect, during which American colonists had greater freedoms. He still truly believed reconciliation between the two parties was attainable in mid-1775.
Dickinson was so adamant over the issue that he refused to vote on and sign the Declaration of Independence a year later. He did so even knowing that would drastically reduce his popularity.
Shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson voluntarily resigned his post as delegate to the Second Continental Congress.
Despite removing himself from the most significant political force in the Americas, Dickinson would still play a large role in the early days of the new American nation.
How Did the King Respond to the Olive Branch Petition?
After the signing of the Olive Branch petition, the Second Continental Congress dispatched two copies to Britain. One copy was given directly to the king, while the other went to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Dartmouth.
The documents arrived on August 21, 1775 whereupon the king refused to receive them. The 1775 Olive Branch petition was simply too late. King George III had already made up his mind over the colonies.
Reports of increasingly violent unrest in the Americas had been filtering in for months. The disorganized and scattered battles of Lexington and Concord as well as the more determined and organized resistance at the significant Battle of Bunker Hill showed him that the colonies were willing and able to mount a full-fledged rebellion.
In the king’s eyes the time for reconciliation was over. On August 23, 1775, just days after the Olive Branch petition arrived, he issued the Proclamation of Rebellion.
This document was significant in that it declared the colonies to be in open rebellion. The crown gave Parliament full support to use its substantial resources to quell the unrest.
Months earlier the British had ordered the surveillance of the colonial Post Office for intelligence-gathering purposes in order to gauge their support in the colonies. What they found was of utmost concern.2
Prior reports from the military and governors had downplayed the rebels and indicated strong loyalist support in the colonies. The intercepted mail told a different story, one of increasing patriot support, particularly after the battles of Lexington and Concord.
While the surveillance pointed towards stronger loyalist factions in the southern colonies, even this too proved too lofty to rely upon. British General Cornwallis found this out the hard way in his southern campaign that ultimately ended in defeat at the 1781 Battle of Yorktown.
The Significance of the 1775 Olive Branch Petition
The historical significance of the 1775 Olive Branch Petition lies in how it was the final attempt by the colonies to reconcile with Great Britain before the American Revolution. Britain’s rejection of the petition hardened the colonists resolve to fight.
In some respects, the Olive Branch petition was doomed to fail. The document was simply too late to avert the king’s inevitable Proclamation of Rebellion.
As part of the Post Office surveillance program, the British intercepted a letter from John Adams to General James Warren. Adams was a leader of the Patriot faction and argued that the Olive Branch petition was a farce and that the colonies should be preparing for war and stockpiling arms.
British newspapers widely-published the letter to help undermine the sincerity of the Olive Branch petition. How could the American colonists be loyal British subjects, as the petition claimed, while also preparing for war?
The outcome of the king’s refusal to hear the Olive Branch petition would prove significant in several other ways.
George III’s refusal to act on the colonists’ behalf further hardened the colonists’ resolve in regards to rebellion. His stance undermined the efforts of Moderates like John Dickinson who argued against independence on the basis that the king would hear their complaints and intervene.3
Additionally, the rejection of the Olive Branch petition now left American colonists with only two choices: rebel and form an independent nation, or submit to complete British authority and domination. It was clear that Britain was uninterested in hearing out the colonists’ complaints about unequal representation.
The refusal to respect colonists’ freedoms gave even more ammunition to Patriot supporters. The call for independence only grew louder.
In early 1776 Thomas Paine wrote convincing arguments for independence in his widely-circulated pamphlet, Common Sense. In the wake of the king’s rejection, these arguments proved convincing indeed.
The significance of the Olive Branch petition and its ultimate rejection by the king would be a major contributor to the inevitable Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Calvert, Jane E. “Liberty without Tumult: Understanding the Politics of John Dickinson.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 131, no. 3, 2007, pp. 233–62. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093948.
2) Flavell, Julie M. “Government Interception of Letters from America and the Quest for Colonial Opinion in 1775.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 2, 2001, pp. 403–30. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2674191.
3) Dickinson, H. T. “The Failure of Conciliation: Britain and the American Colonies 1763-1783.” The Kyoto Economic Review, vol. 79, no. 2 (167), 2010, pp. 2–20. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43213389.