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Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson is considered the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, although Jefferson's draft went through a process of revision by his fellow committee members and the Second Continental Congress.

How the Declaration Came About

America's declaration of independence from the British Empire was the nation's founding moment.  But it was not inevitable.  Until the spring of 1776, most colonists believed that the British Empire offered its citizens freedom and provided them protection and opportunity.  The mother country purchased colonists' goods, defended them from Native American Indian and European aggressors, and extended British rights and liberty to colonists.North America, and the West Indies...in 1763.... Map by Bowles Carrington, ca. 1774. Courtesy Library of Congress.  In return, colonists traded primarily with Britain, obeyed British laws and customs, and pledged their loyalty to the British crown.  For most of the eighteenth century, the relationship between Britain and her American colonies was mutually beneficial.  Even as late as June 1775, Thomas Jefferson said that he would "rather be in dependence on Great Britain, properly limited, than on any nation upon earth, or than on no nation." 1

But this favorable relationship began to face serious challenges in the wake of the Seven Years' War.  In that conflict with France, Britain incurred an enormous debt and looked to its American colonies to help pay for the war.  Between 1756 and 1776, Parliament issued a series of taxes on the colonies, including the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Duties of 1766, and the Tea Act of 1773.  Even when the taxes were relatively light, they met with stiff colonial resistance on principle, with colonists concerned that “taxation without representation” was tyranny and political control of the colonies was increasingly being exercised from London.  Colonists felt that they were being treated as second-class citizens.  But after initially compromising on the Stamp Act, Parliament supported increasingly oppressive measures to force colonists to obey the new laws.  Eventually, tensions culminated in the shots fired between British troops and colonial militia at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.

Despite the outbreak of violence, the majority of colonists wanted to remain British.  Only when King George III failed to address colonists' complaints against Parliament or entertain their appeals for compromise did colonists begin to consider independence as a last resort.  Encouraged by Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” more and more colonists began to consider independence in the spring of 1776.  At the same time, the continuing war and rumors of a large-scale invasion of British troops and German mercenaries diminished hopes for reconciliation.

While the issue had been discussed quietly in the corridors of the Continental Congress for some time, the first formal proposal for independence was not made in the Continental Congress until June 7, 1776.  It came from the Virginian Richard Henry Lee, who offered a resolution insisting that "all political connection is, and ought to be, dissolved" between Great Britain and the American colonies.2  But this was not a unanimous sentiment.  Many delegates wanted to defer a decision on independence or avoid it outright.  Despite this disagreement, Congress did nominate a drafting committee—the Committee of Five (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman)—to compose a declaration of independence.  Thomas Jefferson, known for his eloquent writing style and reserved manner, became the principal author.First page of Jefferson's Rough Draught of the Declaration. Courtesy Library of Congress

As he sat at his desk in a Philadelphia boarding house, Jefferson drafted a "common sense" treatise in “terms so plain and firm, as to command [the] assent” of mankind.3  Some of his language and many of his ideas drew from well-known political works, such as George Mason's Declaration of Rights.  But his ultimate goal was to express the unity of Americans—what he called an "expression of the american mind"—against the tyranny of Britain.4

Jefferson submitted his "rough draught" of the Declaration on June 28.  Congress eventually accepted the document, but not without debating the draft for two days and making extensive changes.  (See edited draft below.)  Jefferson was unhappy with many of the revisions—particularly the removal of the passage on the slave trade and the insertion of language less offensive to Britons—and in later years would often provide his original draft to correspondents.  Benjamin Franklin tried to reassure Jefferson by telling him the now-famous tale of a merchant whose storefront sign bore the words: "John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money;" after a circle of critical friends offered their critiques, the sign merely read, "John Thompson" above a picture of a hat.5 Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull. Courtesy Architect of the Capitol.

Pressured by the news that a fleet of British troops lay off the coast of New York, Congress adopted the Lee resolution of independence on July 2nd, the day which John Adams always believed should be celebrated as American independence day, and adopted the Declaration of Independence explaining its action on July 4. 

The Declaration was promptly published, and throughout July and August, it was spread by word of mouth, delivered on horseback and by ship, read aloud before troops in the Continental Army, published in newspapers from Vermont to Georgia, and dispatched to Europe.  The Declaration roused support for the American Revolution and mobilized resistance against Britain at a time when the war effort was going poorly.

The Declaration provides clear and emphatic statements supporting self-government and individual rights, and it has become a model of such statements for several hundred years and around the world.

Below appears a copy of Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration showing the edits made by the Committee of Five and the Continental Congress in the final adopted version.

Printing and Signing the Declaration

Contrary to popular belief, the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4th, the day it was officially adopted by the Continental Congress.

On the evening of July 4, 1776, a manuscript copy of the Declaration of Independence was taken to Philadelphia printer, John Dunlap.  By the next morning, finished copies had been printed and delivered to Congress for distribution.  The number printed is not known, though it must have been substantial; the broadsides were distributed by members of Congress throughout the Colonies.  Post riders were sent out with copies of the Declaration, and General Washington, then in New York, had several brigades of the army drawn up at 6 p.m. on July 9 to hear it read.  The Declaration was read from the balcony of the State House in Boston on July 18 but did not reach Georgia until mid-August.  Twenty-five original copies of what is referred to as the "Dunlap Broadside" are still in existence.

By July 9 all thirteen colonies had signified their approval of the Declaration, and so on July 19 Congress was able to order that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment. . .and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."  Timothy Matlack is believed to be the person who printed this version of the Declaration.  On August 2nd the document was ready, and the journal of the Continental Congress records that "The Engraving of the Declaration by John Binns, 1819. Thomas Jefferson Foundation.declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed."  In time, 56 delegates would sign the “original” engrossed version (including several who had not been present on July 4th).

Following the signing, it is believed that the document accompanied the Continental Congress during the Revolution and remained with government records following the war.  During the War of 1812, it was kept at a private residence in Leesburg, Virginia, and during World War II it was housed at Fort Knox.  Today, the original document is kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The Legacy of the Declaration

Before Americans were American, they were British.  Before Americans governed themselves, they were governed by a distant British king and a British Parliament in which they had no vote.  Before America was an independent state, it was a dependent colony.  Before Americans expressed support for equality, their government and society were aristocratic and highly hierarchical.  These transformations were complex, but the changes owe a great deal to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, what has been properly termed “America’s mission statement.”

AN AMERICAN PEOPLE

In its opening lines, the Declaration made a radical statement: America was “one People."  On the eve of independence, however, the thirteen colonies had been separate provinces, and colonists' loyalties were to their individual colonies and the British Empire rather than to each other.  In fact, only commercial and cultural ties with Britain served to unify the colonies.  Yet the Declaration helped to transform South Carolinians, Virginians, New Yorkers and other colonists into Americans.

A NEW SYSTEM OF GOVERNANCE

The Declaration announced America's separation from one of the world's most powerful empires: Britain.  Parliament's taxes imposed without American representation, along with King George III's failure to address or ease his subjects' grievances, made dissolving the "bands which have connected them" not just a choice, but an urgent necessity.  As the Declaration made clear, the "long train of abuses and usurpations" and the tyranny exhibited "over these States" forced the colonists to "alter their former system of Government."  In such circumstances, Jefferson explained that it was the people’s “right, it was their duty,” to throw off the repressive government.  Under the new "system," Americans would govern themselves.

CLOSER TO EUROPE

America did not secede from the British Empire to be alone in the world.  Instead, the Declaration proclaimed that an independent America had assumed a "separate and equal station" with the other "powers of the earth."  With this statement, America sought to occupy an equal place with other modern European nations, including France, the Dutch Republic, Spain, and even Britain.  America's independence signaled a fundamental change: once-dependent British colonies became independent states that could make war, create alliances with foreign nations, and engage freely in commerce.

EQUAL RIGHTS

The Declaration proclaimed a landmark principle—that "all men are created equal."  Colonists had always seen themselves as equal to their British cousins and entitled to the same liberties.  But when Parliament passed laws that violated colonists' "inalienable rights" and ruled the American colonies without the "consent of the governed," colonists concluded that as a colonial master Britain was the land of tyranny, not freedom.  The Declaration sought to restore equal rights by rejecting Britain's oppression.

THE "SPIRIT OF ‘76"

The principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence promised to lead America—and other nations on the globe—into a new era of freedom.  The revolution begun by Americans on July 4, 1776 would never end.  It would inspire all peoples living under the burden of oppression and ignorance to open their eyes to the rights of mankind, to overturn the power of tyrants, and to declare the triumph of equality over inequality.
Thomas Jefferson recognized as much, preparing a letter for the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration less than two weeks before his death, he expressed his belief that the Declaration

be to the world what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which Monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self government. the form which we have substituted restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. all eyes are opened, or opening to the rights of man. the general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth that the mass of mankind has not been born, with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god. these are grounds of hope for others. for ourselves let the annual return of this day, for ever refresh our recollections of these rights and an undiminished devotion to them.6

Further Sources

  • 1. Jefferson to John Randolph, August 25, 1775. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 2. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 5:425.
  • 3. Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Enclosure with Jefferson to Robert Walsh, December 4, 1818, in Ford 10:120n.
  • 6. Jefferson to Roger Chew Weightman, June 24, 1826. Transcription available at Founders Online.
Filed In: 
Politics, Writings

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