Agreement of Secrecy

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Page one of the "Agreement of Secrecy," signed by members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, November 9, 1775. National Archives.

On Tuesday morning, September 6, 1774, the First Continental Congress, convened in Philadelphia's Carpenter's Hall, passed a resolution to keep their proceedings secret:

Resolved, That the door be kept shut during the time of business, and that the members consider themselves under the strongest obligations of honour, to keep the proceedings secret, until the majority shall direct them to be made public.

This resolve was reiterated on May 11, 1775 by the Second Continental Congress, by that time reconvened at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia.[1] John Adams mentions he is under an "engagement of secrecy" in a letter to Elbridge Gerry, dated November 5, 1775:

Dear Sir:
I am under such restrictions, injunctions, and engagements of secrecy respecting every thing which passes in Congress, that I cannot communicate my own thoughts freely to my friends, so far as is necessary to ask their advice and opinions concerning questions, which many of them understand much better than I do. This, however, is an inconvenience which must be submitted to for the sake of superior advantages.[2]

Congress adopted an official "Engagement of the Members to Secresy" on November 9, 1775. The manuscript, now in the United States National Archives, is in the handwriting of secretary Charles Thomson, and was signed by the members then present. Other delegates signed the agreement as they arrived, with the last signatures appended on June 5, 1777. George Wythe and the other members of the Virginia Delegation—Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison V, Thomas Nelson, Jr. and Francis Lightfoot Lee—probably signed on or about the 13th of September, when their credentials were presented to and approved by Congress.[3]

The increasing pressure for secrecy during 1774-1775 was in response not only to information leaked in communications from delegates,[4] but to King George III's royal "Proclamation of Rebellion" on August 23, 1775, declaring Congress's activities traitorous, and commanding British "Officers Civil and Military" to suppress rebellion in the Colonies, and "bring the Traitors to Justice."

Manuscript text, 9 November 1775

Page 1

Page one of the "Agreement of Secrecy," signed by members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, November 9, 1775. Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, Record Group 360, National Archives. Image from fold3.

In Congress Nov.r 9.th 17 [75]

Resolved   That every member of this Congress considers himself under the ties of virtue, honor and love of his Country not to divulge directly or indirectly any matter or thing agitated or debated in Congress before the same shall have been determined, without leave of the Congress; nor any matter or thing determined in Congress which a majority of the Congress shall order to be kept secret, and that if any member shall violate this agreement he shall be expelled this Congress and deemed an enemy to the liberties of America and liable to be treated as such, and that every member signify his consent to this agreement by signing the same.

B Franklin

John Dickinson

E Biddle

Jas Duane

Lewis Morris

Frans Lewis

Wm. Floyd

Robt R Livingston junr

Henry Wisner

Step.n Crane

Wil: Livingston

Tho.s Willing

And.w Allen

C: Humphreys

James Wilson

Robt Morris

John Hancock

Josiah Bartlett

John Langdon

Thomas Cushing

Saml Adams

John Adams

Robt Treat Paine

Step. Hopkins

Sam. Ward

Elipht Dyer

Roger Sherman

Silas Deane

Page 2

Page two of the "Agreement of Secrecy," November 9, 1775, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, Record Group 360, National Archives. Image from fold3.
Page two of the "Agreement of Secrecy," signed by members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, November 9, 1775, National Archives.

Th Johnson Junr

Wm Paca

Samuel Chase


Richard Henry Lee

Th: Jefferson

Benja Harrison

Thos Nelson jr

G Wythe

Francis Lightfoot Lee

John Penn

Will Hooper

Joseph Hewes Nov. 10.th


Tho Lynch

Christ Gadsden

Edward Rutledge

Arch:d Bulloch

John Houstoun

Thomas Lynch Junr

Arthur Middleton

Fras. Hopkinson 28 June

Thos M:Kean

Geo: Read

Cæsar Rodney

John Jay

Rich:d Smith (Jersey)
Philad.a 18 Jany. 1776.


Saml Huntington

Rob.t Alexander

Oliver Wolcott

J Rogers

Elbridge Gerry


T: Stone

Jona D Sergeant

Geo: Clinton

W:m Whipple

Mat. Tilghman

Carter Braxton

Thos Heyward Jun:r

{ May 20th Lyman Hall

{ 20th Button Gwinnett

William Ellery

Jno Witherspoon

Page 3

Page three of the "Agreement of Secrecy," November 9, 1775, Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, Record Group 360, National Archives. Image from fold3.
Page four of the "Agreement of Secrecy," November 9, 1775, endorsed by Charles Thomson as "Engagement of the Members to Secresy." Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, Record Group 360, National Archives. Image from fold3.

Abra: Clark

Geo Walton

John Hart

B Rush. 22 July 1776

Wm. Williams, 30 July 1776

Geo. Clymer

Chas. Carroll

Jonath.n Elmer

Mann Page Junr

Nathan Brownson Feb 3d 1777

Matthew Thornton

James Lovell

Tho. Burke

W: Smith

W:m Duer June 5:th 1777

Nich.s VanDyke

Hy Marchant

Geo: Frost

References

  1. Journals of the American Congress: from 1774 to 1788, vol. 1, From September 5, 1774, to December 31, 1776, Inclusive (Washington, D.C.: Way and Gideon, 1823), 7, 55.
  2. Edmund Cody Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, vol. 1 August 29, 1774, to July 4, 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1921), 249. See also 255n2, for Adams' mentions of secrecy.
  3. Journals, 137.
  4. John Adams, writing to James Warren on October 2, 1775, said: "Our Obligations of Secrecy are so braced up, that I must deny myself the Pleasure of Writing Particulars. Not because some Letters have been intercepted, for notwithstanding the Versification of them, they have done good, tho they have made some People grin." Burnett, Letters, 213-214.

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