What was the Olive Branch Petition?

King George III portrait, studio of Allan Ramsay

King George III portrait, studio of Allan Ramsay

There was strong support in the Second Continental Congress to reconcile with King George III. Though a few delegates, like John Adams of Massachusetts, did not believe reconciliation with Great Britain was possible, moderates in Congress were able to convince their fellow delegates to attempt one last reconciliation. There was still a widespread belief that the problem was Parliament and an appeal to King George III would resolve those problems. In July 1775, Congress sent a petition to the King seeking a way to end the crisis between the British government and her American colonies. This petition, commonly known as the “Olive Branch Petition”, asked the King to find a way to resolve the crisis and offered the King some possible settlement options for his consideration. Though Thomas Jefferson had drafted the first copy of the Olive Branch Petition, his work was redrafted by the moderate John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, as Dickinson found much of Jefferson’s draft too inflammatory. The Olive Branch petition noted the union between Great Britain and her colonies excited the envy of other nations. The petition did not suggest a solution to the problem but asked the King’s aid to “procure us relief from our afflicting fears and jealousies…..”.

The Olive Branch petition was signed on July 8, 1775, and dispatched to Great Britain on two ships. King George III refused to even accept or consider the Olive Branch petition sent by the Continental Congress. Open fighting at Lexington and Concord had empowered the faction within the British government that wanted to deal with any military action by harsh means. The British losses at Bunker Hill in June 1775 were especially stunning; an incredibly high percentage of British soldiers who participated in the battle were either wounded or killed. The death rate among the British officers was especially high. General Howe, the British commander at Bunker Hill, realized how difficult it would be to suppress the Americans after his shocking losses at Bunker Hill and wrote King George III asking for a substantial number of reinforcements and suggesting the possibility of hiring foreign troops.

View of the attack on Bunker Hill and Charles Town burning, 1783 engraving, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

View of the attack on Bunker Hill and Charles Town burning, 1783 engraving, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

While George III did not respond to the Olive Branch Petition, he did react to the petition by declaring his own Proclamation of Rebellion. This document, issued August 23, 1775, declared certain elements of the American colonies in a state of “open and avowed rebellion”. The Proclamation indicated persons now in open arms and rebellion should be turned over to the government for punishment.

In December 1775, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act, prohibiting all British trade with the American colonies. In addition, all American ships and cargoes were to be treated as if they belonged to an enemy power and were subject to seizure. This act was designed to cripple the colonies economically. The Proclamation of Rebellion in August, followed by the American Prohibitory Act in December, was considered by many Americans to be a declaration of war by Parliament against her American colonies.

There were also recent appointments within the British government which reflected the new bellicose position of the government. Lord George Germaine, a strong hardliner opposed to any political compromise of the dispute with the colonies, was appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies in November 1775. His appointment marked an increasingly hostile view toward any reconciliation with the colonies until there was a complete submission.