Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. This document, which the Second Continental Congress adopted on 4 July 1776, proclaimed the original thirteen American colonies independent of Great Britain and provided an explanation and justification of that step. Although it was first drafted as a revolutionary manifesto, Americans of later generations came to honor the Declaration less for its association with independence than for its assertion that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," individual rights that went unmentioned in the federal Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Development of Independence
The original thirteen British colonies of mainland North America moved toward independence slowly and reluctantly. The colonists were proud of being British and had no desire to be separated from a mother country with which they were united, as John Dickinson put it in his popular newspaper "letters" from "a Farmer in Pennsylvania" (1767–1768), "by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relation, language and commerce." Not even the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts on 19 April 1775 produced calls for independence. In July of that year, the Second Continental Congress sent the King a petition for redress and reconciliation, which Dickinson drafted in conspicuously respectful language.
The king did not formally answer to the petition. Instead, in a proclamation of August 23, 1775, he asserted that the colonists were engaged in an "open and avowed rebellion." Then, on October 26, he told Parliament that the American rebellion was "manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent Empire," and that the colonists' professions of loyalty to him and the "parent State" were "meant only to amuse." News of the speech arrived at Philadelphia in January 1776, just when Thomas Paine's Common Sense appeared. American freedom would never be secure under British rule, Paine argued, because the British government included two grave "constitutional errors," monarchy and hereditary rule. Americans could secure their future and that of their children only by declaring their independence and founding a new government whose authority rested on the people alone, with no king or other hereditary rulers. The pamphlet opened a widespread public debate on the previously taboo subject of independence. News of Parliament's Prohibitory Act (December 1775), which declared colonial ships and cargoes forfeit to the Crown as if they were the possessions of "open enemies," added force to Paine's argument, as did news that the Crown had hired German mercenary soldiers to help subdue the Americans.
Finally, on 10 and 15 May 1776, Congress passed a resolution written by John Adams with a radical preface that called for the total suppression of "every kind of authority under the … crown" and the establishment of new state governments "under the authority of the people." Simultaneously, on 15 May, Virginia instructed its Congressional delegation to move that Congress declare independence, negotiate foreign alliances, and design an American confederation. As a result, on 7 June 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced the following resolution: "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." Lee also moved that Congress "take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances" and prepare "a plan of confederation" for the colonies' consideration.
Congress debated Lee's resolution on Saturday, 8 May, and again the following Monday. According to notes kept by Thomas Jefferson, most delegates conceded that independence was justified and inevitable, but some argued for delay. The colonies should negotiate agreements with potential European allies before declaring independence, they said. Moreover, the delegates of several colonies, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, were bound by instructions that precluded their voting for independence. Since opinion in those colonies was said to be "fast advancing," even a short delay might avoid a seriously divided vote. The delegates therefore put off the decision until July, but on 11 June appointed a committee to draft a declaration on independence. It had five members: Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin.
Drafting the Declaration
The drafting committee left no formal records of its proceedings, and the private notes that Jefferson kept devote only a few sentences to the subject. The story of the Declaration's creation must be pieced together from a handful of documents of the time and from accounts by Jefferson and Adams, most of which were written long after the event and sometimes contradict each other. Before appointing a draftsman, it seems likely that the committee met, discussed how the document should be organized, and perhaps wrote "minutes" or instructions, as Adams said. Probably, as Jefferson claimed, he alone was asked to write the document.
In the previous few weeks, Jefferson had drafted a preamble for Virginia's new constitution. He clearly modeled its opening paragraph on the British Declaration of Rights (February 1689), which charged King James II with attempting to "subvert and extirpate" both the Protestant religion and the "Laws and Liberties of this Kingdom." Jefferson similarly accused George III of attempting to establish "a detestable & insupportable tyranny" in Virginia, and then listed a series of transgressions that, like those in the British Declaration, began with the word "by." Now he returned to a draft of his Virginia preamble that remained among his papers, rearranging and expanding the list of grievances for use in the Declaration of Independence. However, rather than start with a "Whereas" clause, as had both his Virginia preamble and its British predecessor, Jefferson proposed a magnificent opening paragraph beginning "When in the course of human events." It identified what followed as having significance far beyond America and Britain alone.
Jefferson's famous second paragraph, which began "We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable," expressed ideas widely shared among the colonists. Its language, however, owed much to an early version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George chMason. Jefferson took phrases from the Mason draft, compressed them, then added language of his own to construct a single long sentence, based on a standard eighteenth-century rhetorical device that prescribed a series of phrases whose meaning became clear only at the end. The Mason draft said, for example, "all men are born equally free and independent." Jefferson wrote instead "that all men are created equal & independent," then crossed out "& independent." The Mason draft asserted that men had "certain inherent natural rights" that they could not "by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety." Jefferson wrote instead that men had "inherent & inalienable rights" including "life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness." To secure those rights, he added, "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." He concluded his series of phrases with a powerful assertion of the people's right to abolish and replace a government that became destructive of their rights—in short, of the right of revolution, which the Americans were exercising in 1776. That right should not, he went on to say, be invoked for "light & transient causes," but it became not only the people's right but also their "duty to throw off" a government guilty of "a long train of abuses & usurpations" moving toward the establishment of "arbitrary power." And the reign of George III, Jefferson asserted, was "a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations," directed toward "the establishment of an absolute tyranny over the American states.
A long list of examples, or charges against the king, followed. They began not with "by" but with the more emphatic words "he has." The first set of charges recalled somewhat obscure grievances suffered by a specific colony or group of colonies; then, under a charge that "he had combined with others" to perform certain acts, the list recalled more familiar acts of Parliament that had received the royal assent. A final section cited recent events, such as the king's "declaring us out of his allegiance & protection" by approving the Prohibitory Act and employing "large armies of foreign mercenaries" against his American subjects. The Jefferson draft also charged the king with responsibility for the slave trade. A king "whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant," the draft said, "is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free." A rambling, angry penultimate section castigated the British people for supporting King and Parliament. Then, in its final paragraph, the draft declared "these colonies to be free and independent states" with all the rights of such states. "And for the support of this declaration," it ended, "we"—the delegates who would in time sign the document—"mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honor."
Jefferson sketched out parts of the draft on scraps of paper, some of which survive, then copied the whole to show to other members of the committee. He also used that copy—the "original Rough draught," as he called it, which is now at the Library of Congress—to record all subsequent editorial changes. Jefferson submitted the draft to John Adams, who made a complete copy of the document as it stood when he saw it, and also to Benjamin Franklin, who was recovering from a severe attack of gout. They suggested some changes, and Jefferson initiated others. Then, he told James Madison in 1823, he submitted the revised document to the committee, which sent it "unaltered" to Congress. However, a note he sent to Franklin with an already revised draft in June 1776 tells a different tale. "The inclosed paper has been read and with some small alterations approved by the committee," it said. Would Franklin please "peruse it and suggest such alterations as his more enlarged view of the subject will dictate? The paper having been returned to me to change a particular sentiment or two, I propose laying it again before the committee tomorrow morning." Clearly the draft was a collaborative effort, and some of the changes that appear on the "rough draft" in Jefferson's handwriting were mandated by the committee.
On 28 June 1776, the committee submitted its draft to Congress, which promptly tabled it for later consideration. Meanwhile, towns, counties, grand juries, and some private groups publicly declared and explained their support for independence. Gradually one state after another fell into line, revising their Congressional instructions and sometimes also issuing state declarations of independence either as separate documents (Maryland, 6 July 1776) or as opening sections of their new constitutions (Virginia, 29 June, and New Jersey, 2 July). Those documents vary in form and style, but most of them recall the colonists' past affection for the king and cite a familiar set of fairly recent events to explain their change in sentiment—the king's neglect of the colonists' dutiful petitions; his endorsement of the Prohibitory Act and hiring of German mercenaries; his use of slaves and Indians against white colonists; the devastation caused by his armies. They also explain independence as a step the Americans accepted only to save themselves from destruction. Americans needed to bid Britain "the last adieu," as Buckingham County, Virginia, put it, before any foreign nations would, "for their own interest, lend an assisting hand … and enable us to discharge the great burdens of the war."
On 1 July, when Congress again debated independence, sentiment remained divided, with nine states in favor, two (Pennsylvania and South Carolina) opposed, and one (Delaware) split. New York's delegates abstained because their year-old instructions, which precluded doing anything that would impede reconciliation with Britain, had not been replaced. However, a delegate from South Carolina asked that the final vote be delayed until the next day. Then, with the timely absence of a few Pennsylvania delegates, the arrival of another Delaware delegate, Caesar Rodney, and a shift in the South Carolina vote, Congress approved the Lee resolution with twelve in favor, none opposed, and the New Yorkers still watching from the sidelines.
The delegates then took up the Declaration of Independence, and—even as a major British force debarked in New York to put down the Americans' "rebellion" once and for all—spent most of the next two days editing the document. They made only a handful of changes to its lyrical opening paragraphs, which Jefferson had already worked over carefully; but they eliminated entirely the long paragraph that placed blame for the slave trade entirely on the king and, curiously, called him a tyrant for offering freedom to slaves who abandoned their masters and joined his army. Several other changes similarly cut back or eliminated overstatements or inaccuracies in the draft. For example, where Jefferson charged the King with "unremitting" injuries, as if he never slept, Congress substituted the word "repeated." The delegates also made some minor adjustments to language ("neglected utterly" became "utterly neglected"); compressed Jefferson's rambling, overlong attack on the British people; and rewrote the all-important final paragraph, adding references to God and substituting the words of the Lee resolution for those proposed by the drafting committee, but retaining Jefferson's mellifluous closing reference to "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Jefferson watched this triumph of group editing with pain, and later made several copies of the committee draft to show correspondents how Congress had "mutilated" his work.
Finally, on 4 July, Congress approved the revised text, then ordered that it be printed and authenticated under the supervision of the drafting committee and distributed to the states and continental army commanders so it could be "proclaimed in each of the United States, and at the head of the army." Congress's printer, John Dunlap, quickly produced a broadside copy, which John Hancock, Congress's president, sent out with appropriate cover letters. On 9 July, New York added its consent to that of the other thirteen states. And on 19 July, after hearing that news, Congress resolved "that the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America, '" and that the parchment copy should be signed "by every member of Congress." The main signing occurred on 2 August. However, it was not until January 1777—after Americans victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, had ended the long disastrous military campaign of 1776—that Congress sent authenticated copies of the signed Declaration to the states.
From Announcement to Icon
The letters from Hancock that accompanied the Dunlap broadside called on the states to proclaim the Declaration "in such a Manner, that the People may be universally informed of it." Massachusetts directed that the Declaration be read aloud after Sunday services in churches; in Virginia and Maryland, it was read to the gatherings of people at county court days. In New York, General Washington had the Declaration read "with an audible voice" before several brigades of the Continental Army, "formed in hollow squares" often with the British in view on nearby Staten Island.
In the decade and a half after 1776, Americans sometimes referred to the Declaration as the "instrument of our Independence," as if it, and not Congress's less familiar resolutions of 2 July, had ended America's subservience to Britain. Otherwise, the document was all but forgotten until the 1790s, when it emerged from obscurity not as a revolutionary manifesto—by then Independence was old news—but a statement affirming human equality and the existence of "unalienable rights."
The document's celebrants were at first members of the Jeffersonian Republican Party. But as its fiftieth anniversary approached after the War of 1812, the Declaration became a national icon, though one soon embroiled in controversy. As antislavery advocates enlisted the Declaration in their cause, Southern defenders of slavery and their northern allies vociferously denied that "all men" are "created equal" and have "unalienable rights." The Declaration's assertions, they said, applied at best to white men only, and should have been omitted from a document that was meant only to separate America from Britain.
On the opposite side stood a set of men, shaped in the patriotic culture of the 1820s, who later found a home in the Republican Party and whose most eloquent spokesman was Abraham Lincoln. The equality in the Declaration, they said, never implied that men were equal in intellect or strength or appearance. It consisted, they said, in men's equal possession of rights. Had the Declaration's purpose been confined to independence, it would be only "an interesting memorial of the dead past" with no practical use in later times. As a testament to personal rights, however, the Declaration was, and was always meant to be, a document of continuing significance. It set up, Lincoln said, "a standard maxim for free society" that was to be enforced "as fast as circumstances should permit," gradually extending its influence and "augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere" (Springfield, 26 June 1857). Members of the Republican Party finally added the principles of the Declaration of Independence, as they understood them, to the Constitution by enacting the Thirteenth Amendment, which ended slavery, and, following Lincoln's death, the Fourteenth Amendment, which precluded the states from depriving "any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."
Today Americans revere the Declaration of Independence less as "the instrument of our Independence" than a statement of rights. They remember only those opening phrases of its second paragraph that speak of equality and of unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Even the engraving on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., cuts off Jefferson's carefully constructed long sentence in the middle, ending with the assertion "that to these rights governments are instituted among men." The right of revolution, the original point of the sentence, was edited out, transforming a revolutionary manifesto into an assertion of the rights that established governments must protect, much like a bill of rights. Not only the members of the drafting committee and other delegates to the Second Continental Congress edited the Declaration of Independence, but also generations of later Americans. They gave it a function with which Jefferson would not perhaps have disagreed, but that remains nonetheless different from that of the document as he understood it.
Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. Reprint, Charlottesville, N.C.: International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello, 1999.
———, ed. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. vol. 1. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950.
Hazelton, John H. The Declaration of Independence: Its History. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Larson, Carlton F. W. "The Declaration of Independence: A 225th Anniversary Re-Interpretation," Washington Law Re-view, LXXVI (2001): 701–787.
Lucas, Stephen E. "The Rhetorical Ancestry of the Declaration of Independence," Rhetoric and Public Affairs, I (1998): 143–184.
Maier, Pauline, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
Richard Henry Lee’s Resolution. On Friday, 7 June 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented Congress with a resolution from Virginia’s Convention “that these United colonies are & of right ought to be free & independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is & ought to be totally dissolved....” Lee’s resolution called on Congress to begin taking measures to secure foreign assistance and to form a confederation to bind the colonies more closely together. The Congress, busy with other matters, put off discussion until the following day, which it spent debating independence. On the one side, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, John Dickinson of Delaware, Robert Livingston of New York, and the Rutledges of South Carolina, argued that the time was not right for independence. While New England and Virginia were united in support, the Middle colonies, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware “were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection.” The delegates from these areas thought it better to wait until all the colonies were ready, and then act with unanimity, rather than force the issue. On the other side, Lee was joined by John Adams, Virginian George Wythe, and others in arguing that a declaration of independence would not “make ourselves what we are not,” but would only “declare a fact which already exists.” The contending sides could not agree. Congress decided to postpone action on Lee’s resolution until 1 July, but also decided to appoint committees to consider the Virginia proposals on declaring independence, on foreign alliances, and on confederation.
Committee on Independence. Congress named five men to the committee on independence. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was chosen for two reasons: Virginia had sponsored the resolution, so a Virginian had to be on the committee. Richard Henry Lee should have been the representative, but he wanted to return to his state to create its new government. Jefferson was relatively new to Congress, having served in 1775, and though he never uttered a word in debate, he was known for his insightful contributions on committees and for his writing. In July 1774 he had written “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” a set of instructions to Virginia’s delegates to Congress, and in 1775 he had drafted Congress’s response to Lord Frederick North’s offer of conciliation, and Congress’s Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking up Arms.
Jefferson is Chosen. Despite Jefferson’s reputation as a writer, he expected John Adams to draw up the declaration. Adams was the foremost public leader for independence. But Adams, who was busy on the committees for foreign treaties and the Board of War, refused Jefferson’s request to draft a declaration. “Why, will you not?,” Jefferson said with surprise, “You ought to do it.” “I will not,” Adams said. “Why?” Jefferson asked. “Reasons enough,” said Adams. “What can be your reasons[?]” “Reason first,” Adams said, “Your are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second—I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third—You can write ten times better than I can.” “Well, if you are decided,” Jefferson said, “I will do as well as I can.”
Congress Debates. In drafting his work, Jefferson kept in mind all of the arguments made in support of independence over the previous years. At the end of June he presented his draft to Franklin and Adams, who made minor suggestions, and on Friday, 28 June, the committee reported its declaration to Congress. On Monday, 1 July, the delegates took up Lee’s resolution, voting nine states to two in favor of independence. South Carolina and Pennsylvania both opposed the move, Delaware was divided, and New York’s delegates could not vote for independence, though they supported it, because their instructions from the assembly required that they work toward reconciliation. John Rutledge of South Carolina moved that the Congress put off a final vote until the next day, as he believed by then his colleagues would support independence in the interest of unanimity. Overnight, a new delegate arrived from Delaware, and the reluctant members of the Pennsylvania delegation stayed away, making the vote twelve in favor, New York abstaining. On 2 July 1776, Congress declared independence.
The Second of July. On 3 July, as Congress debated the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail. He reflected on the train of events since 1761, when he heard James Otis make his argument against writs of assistance, and marvelled at the suddenness and “Greatness of this Revolution.” He worried about the future, about the war England would fight against the colonies, but he was certain that right would prevail. “The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America,” he wrote. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”
The Fourth of July. Adams had the right celebration, but the wrong date, according to popular American thought. Declaring independence was a revolutionary event but the reasons for the Declaration made it even more so. On 4 July Congress concluded its debate over the Declaration of Independence, and unanimously adopted it, with New York’s delegates abstaining until after 9 July, when their state’s provincial convention rescinded their instructions to work only for reconciliation. The Declaration of Independence, adopted on 4 July as “The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America,” begins with a preamble declaring its purpose to the world why Americans took such revolutionary measures. The Declaration also states a set of self-evident truths: all men are created equal; all men are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To help secure these rights, men establish governments, but when a government begins destroying, rather than protecting rights, the people have a right to alter or abolish the government, and to create a new one which will better protect their “safety and happiness.” These were the basic premises of the declaration. Next, to prove that the British government had trampled on the rights of Americans, the Declaration listed the wrongs done them by the British government. But unlike previous colonial declarations, this one aimed directly at the King. Americans had been arguing for years that Parliament could not govern their political societies, and in 1775 Congress had insisted that Americans owed no allegiance to Parliament. Now, Congress had to shift its focus from Parliament to the King, as some Americans still might believe that they could create a system, such as the one proposed by Franklin in 1754 and Joseph Galloway in 1774, with colonies tied together by a common allegiance to the British Crown. So the list of grievances in the Declaration place the blame directly on the King, charging him with tyranny and cruelty “scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages” and declaring that “A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” The Declaration closes with a statement of disappointment in the British people, whom the Americans implored to disavow the King’s tyrannic conduct, but as they had proved deaf to every entreaty, the Americans now would “hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.” Concluding, the Declaration declared “that these United colonies are & of right ought to be free & independent states,” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honour.” Congress made some notable alterations in Jefferson’s draft, omitting about one-fourth of the text, simplifying some clauses and removing others. One of the most notable omissions was Jefferson’s charge that George III had encouraged the slave trade, that he had “waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him,” in carrying them across the Atlantic into slavery in America. Jefferson concluded this charge with another, that the King had also encouraged the slaves to rebel against their masters, “thus prying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.” Congress dropped this whole section, according to Jefferson, because South Carolina and Georgia wanted to continue importing slaves, and because “our Northern brethren” had few slaves themselves, but were “pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
Signing the Declaration. Jefferson remembered that all of the delegates who were present, except John Dickinson, signed the Declaration on 4 July, but he may have been mistaken. No such copy exists. On 5 July, a broadside copy of the Declaration of Independence was published in Philadelphia, signed by John Hancock, the president of Congress, and Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress. The next day it was printed for the first time in a newspaper, and on 8 July was publicly read to a large gathering in Philadelphia. The crowd responded by tearing down the royal arms and with bonfires and ringing bells. The same enthusiasm met the event in other colonies as copies of the Declaration were read publicly, announcing the fact of independence. On 19 July Congress voted to have the delegates sign an engrossed copy, possible now that New York had allowed its delegates to vote for independence. By 2 August, the parchment Declaration of Independence was formally signed by fifty-six delegates to Congress.
Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, volume 2, 1771–1781 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961);
Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence (New York: Random House, 1978).
Declaration of Independence
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
The Declaration of Independence of 1776 was both the culmination of a decade of protests against what the colonists saw as arbitrary British policies and a statement of political principles that shaped public life in the United States long after its adoption. In order to understand the Declaration, then, one must understand both the historical circumstances that created it as well as the influence it has had in the years since independence.
When the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in May 1775, the dispute between Great Britain and its American colonies had the preceding month erupted into open warfare at Lexington and Concord. What had begun as a dispute over parliamentary taxation escalated into a conflict that would soon tear the British Empire apart.
Despite the seriousness of the crisis they faced, many of the delegates to the Congress were still wary of outright independence. Instead, they wanted to maintain an allegiance to King George III while disavowing any connection to the British Parliament. As a result, even as they were preparing a military campaign against Quebec in the summer of 1775, many delegates sought reconciliation with the crown.
The king played a crucial role in the escalating crisis. Instead of using his prerogative to disallow parliamentary legislation, he chose to act as a constitutional monarch and concur with Parliament in its attempts to control the empire. As such, the king refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition sent by Congress in July 1775. Rather, the following month he declared all of the colonies in open rebellion. In December 1775 the king gave royal approval to the Prohibitory Act, which built on earlier restrictions on colonial commerce by declaring all trade with the colonies illegal and putting colonial shipping out of his protection.
As a result of these actions by crown and Parliament, the delegates from the two most populous colonies,
Massachusetts and Virginia, both recommended that the Congress formally declare independence. In May 1776 the Congress recommended that the various colonies disavow the governing authority of the crown and "adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents." On 7 June, responding to instructions from the Virginia House of Burgesses, its senior delegate, Richard Henry Lee, moved "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." At the same time as the Congress was deliberating, a host of other declarations were issued by local and state authorities, each making the case for independence from the crown in similar terms.
drafting the declaration
Due to the hesitancy of delegates from Pennsylvania and New York, Congress decided to put off the vote on Lee's resolution until early July. However, on 11 June 1776 Congress appointed a small committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to create a draft declaration which, if approved, would implement Lee's call for independence. This committee then appointed Jefferson as the chief author, most likely because, as Adams argued many years later, he was a Virginian and thus untainted by the rebellious reputation of Massachusetts. As Adams also noted, Jefferson had acquired a reputation within the Congress as an uncommonly gifted writer.
Jefferson wrote quickly, submitting a draft to the committee on 28 June. The committee then made a few changes, mostly stylistic, and submitted it to Congress sitting as a committee of the whole. After delegates from all of the states but New York voted to approve Lee's resolution for independence, Congress turned its attention to Jefferson's Declaration, which they approved with changes on the evening of 4 July.
The committee of the whole left Jefferson's now-famous introductory paragraphs relatively untouched. However, it made several changes to the body of Jefferson's draft. In the process, it eliminated about a quarter of the text and, most scholars agree, significantly improved it in the process. In its final form, then, the Declaration of Independence was a collective effort, as much the work of the Congress as it was of Jefferson.
The most striking change that the Congress made to Jefferson's draft was its decision to eliminate an entire passage in which Jefferson had made a forceful critique of the king's role in the Atlantic slave trade. According to Jefferson, the king had "waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's [sic] most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people … captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere." Jefferson further accused the king of using "his negative" to prevent "every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce." Having accused the king of being responsible for the slave trade, Jefferson, referring to the Virginia governor Lord Dunmore's offer of freedom to slaves if they supported the crown, also accused him of "exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them."
The passage exemplified Jefferson's ambivalence about slavery. Although it contained a strong moral condemnation of human bondage based on an argument from natural equality, it was a critique primarily of the slave trade and not of the institution of slavery itself. In addition, it undermined even this qualified antislavery message by then condemning the king for inciting the slaves to seek their liberty.
Jefferson, who was generally unhappy with the revisions made by the Congress, blamed the elimination of this passage on the proslavery sentiments of the delegates from South Carolina and Georgia. Although this was certainly a factor, it is also likely that the Congress did not want to draw attention to the widespread colonial practice of chattel slavery in a document that was premised on the theory that "all men are created equal."
the declaration's argument
In order to make the case for independence, the Declaration had two main parts. One was a theoretical preface that stated the intellectual argument upon which the colonists were declaring their independence. It was followed by a lengthy list of colonial grievances against the crown.
Intellectual foundation. The theoretical part of the Declaration drew heavily on John Locke's political philosophy, of which Jefferson gave an uncommonly eloquent and succinct rendering. Beginning with the claim that "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God" justified the colonies assuming a "separate and equal Station" among the nations of the world, Jefferson then offered his reasons for this claim: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
Having offered this powerful claim for equal rights, Jefferson—following Locke—offered a theory of the origins of government: "to secure these rights," he argued, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." Drawing again on Locke, Jefferson argued "that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
Although Jefferson, like Locke, held that "Prudence" dictates "that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes," he argued that "when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations … evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security." In this one sweeping paragraph, Jefferson outlined a comprehensive theory of the origins and purpose of government, along with a justification of the colonists' right to dissolve their allegiance to the crown and to create new governments in the several states in such a form as would best secure their natural rights.
Grievances. The remainder of the Declaration is devoted to a lengthy list of indictments of royal policy toward the colonies. Although often overlooked today, they were crucial to the Declaration's argument, as they constituted the proof that, as Jefferson put it, "The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States." They were, as Jefferson insisted, the crucial "Facts" that needed to be "submitted to a candid World." A careful attention to these grievances also provides valuable insight into the mind-set of the Revolutionaries on the eve of independence.
These grievances can be grouped into several broad categories. The first set accused the king of violating the rights of the colonial legislatures by, among other things, using his prerogative powers to suspend colonial laws from taking effect until he had approved them. It also denounced him for dissolving colonial legislatures because of their opposition to "his Invasions on the Rights of the People" and for then failing to call new ones in their place.
The Declaration also accused the king of undermining the independence of the colonial judiciary by continuing to insist that colonial judges sit at his pleasure instead of during good behavior, as had been the practice in England for most of the eighteenth century. In a series of further charges, many of which referred to the Coercive Acts directed against Massachusetts in 1774, the king was held responsible for abolishing trial by jury, taxing the colonies without their consent, violating colonial charters, forcibly quartering troops in colonial homes, and maintaining standing armies in the colonies during peacetime.
The juxtaposition of the Declaration's theoretical introductory paragraphs with this lengthy list of specific legal grievances demonstrates the extent to which the American Revolutionaries were able to combine an intense concern for English constitutional rights—many of which would appear in state and federal bills of rights in the decades following independence—with a philosophical argument for resisting constituted authority when these rights were violated.
Although it had eliminated Jefferson's lengthy denunciation of the slave trade, the Congress retained his charge about royal involvement in slave revolts with a reference to the king having "excited domestic Insurrections." In the same passage, the Congress also accused George III of inciting the American Indians to make war on the colonies. Both of these actions had served to alienate the colonists from the king in the years leading up to independence.
The Congress concluded its brief against the king by noting that the colonists had repeatedly made their "British Brethren" aware of these injustices to no avail. Having received no redress, the Declaration stated that "the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA … do, in the Name and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States." The Declaration then contended that these new states were fully sovereign under the law of nations, with "full Power to levy War, conclude Peace … and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."
Unlike earlier English and colonial petitions to the king, the Declaration was a truly revolutionary, indeed treasonous, document, proclaiming as it did a sundering of all allegiance to the crown. It thus required some courage for the members of Congress to sign their names to it, and as the final sentence reads, "pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
After agreeing upon the final version of the Declaration on 4 July, the Congress distributed copies to the Continental Army, where Washington insisted that it be read to the troops. Beginning in Philadelphia on 8 July, this process was repeated with civilian audiences throughout the colonies. News of the Declaration was also spread by broadsides. By the end of July, it had also been printed in thirty colonial newspapers.
The reception that the Declaration met in Britain was not rapturous. Much ink was devoted to a detailed refutation of the Declaration's specific charges against British authority. In addition, some commentators—influenced by a nascent skepticism about political arguments based on natural law—criticized what they saw as the philosophical incoherence of Jefferson's claims about rights and equality in the Declaration's opening paragraphs. However, the foreign reception of the Declaration outside of Britain was more positive. The Declaration was translated into many foreign languages, and starting in the late 1770s, it began to influence revolutionary movements in Europe and around the world.
Within the new United States, the formal work of the Declaration was done once independence had been proclaimed. However, the fact that the Declaration derived its right to revolution from a political philosophy of equal natural rights and government by consent meant that its ideals could be employed by a multitude of groups within American society seeking justice. In 1848 advocates of women's rights issued a declaration at Seneca Falls, New York. Explicitly based on the Declaration of Independence, it proclaimed that "all men and women are created equal." Also in the nineteenth century, abolitionists invoked the Declaration's ideals in their crusade against human bondage. In turn, antebellum defenders of slavery began to attack the Declaration and the very idea of equal natural rights. In response to these proslavery arguments, Abraham Lincoln, with great eloquence, made the Declaration into a moral standard for judging existing society, calling it "the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism." In this guise, the Declaration has continued to shape the nature of political debate in the United States into the twenty-first century.
Armitage, David. "The Declaration of Independence and International Law." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 59 (2002): 39–64.
Becker, Carl. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1922. Reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1970.
Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. Rev. ed. Edited by Gerard W. Gawalt. Charlottesville: Library of Congress, 1999.
Dumbauld, Edward. The Declaration of Independence and What It Means Today. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 2nd ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.
Gerber, Scott Douglas. To Secure These Rights: The Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Interpretation. New York: New York University Press, 1995.
Jayne, Allen. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Onuf, Peter S. Jeffersonian Legacies. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.
Wills, Gary. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage, 1979.
Craig Bryan Yirush
Declaration of Independence (1776)
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (1776)
Originally designed to influence the sometimes reluctant and uncertain public opinion, both in the colonies and abroad (particularly in France, a potential military ally), the Declaration of Independence was written by Thomas Jefferson and ratified shortly after by the Second Continental Congress on 4 July 1776, two days after that body had officially severed its ties to Great Britain.
In composing this greatest, most famous of legal documents, Jefferson, already well regarded as an essayist, drew heavily not only on the ideas of his fellow patriots, but also on the natural-rights theories of John Locke and the Swiss legal philosophy of Emerich de Vattel. Although Jefferson's bitter attack on the institution of slavery was rejected by the convention in deference to South Carolina and Georgia, the principles set forth in the Declaration, among them the revolutionary notion that human beings had rights which even governments and kings could not take from them, would nevertheless become a rallying cry not only for Jefferson and his New World contemporaries, but also for many people at all times in the United States and around the world.
WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.
HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.
HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.
HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.
HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.
HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative F, incapable of the Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and the Convulsions within.
HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.
HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance.
HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures.
HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power. HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us;
FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:
FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:
FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:
FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rules into these Colonies:
FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.
HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.
HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.
HE has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
HE has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.
IN every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.
NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.
WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
GEORGIA, Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, Geo. Walton.
NORTH-CAROLINA, Wm. Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn.
SOUTH-CAROLINA, Edward Rutledge, Thos Heyward, junr., Thomas Lynch, junr., Arthur Middleton.
MARYLAND, Samuel Chase, Wm. Paca, Thos. Stone, Charles Carroll, of Carrollton.
DELAWARE, Caesar Rodney, Geo. Read.
NEW-YORK, Wm. Floyd, Phil. Livingston, Frank Lewis, Lewis Morris.
NEW-JERSEY, Richd. Stockton, Jno. Witherspoon, Fras. Hopkinson, John Hart, Abra. Clark.
NEW-HAMPSHIRE, Josiah Bartlett, Wm. Whipple, Matthew Thornton.
RHODE-ISLAND AND PROVIDENCE, C. Step. Hopkins, William Ellery.
IN CONGRESS, JANUARY 18, 1777.
SOURCE: Journals of the American Congress from 1774 to 1788. Washington: 1823.
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
In Congress, July 4, 1776 The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
The declaration of independence, perhaps the most famous document in U.S. history, was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The preparation of the declaration began on June 11, when Congress appointed a committee composed of thomas jefferson, john adams, benjamin franklin, robert r. livingston, and roger sherman. Jefferson actually wrote the declaration, appropriating some of the language in the virginia declaration of rights. Jefferson's famous phrase concerning "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is a slight reworking of the wording of the Virginia declaration.
After debate on Jefferson's draft, the Congress made several changes, yet the document remained an expression of the liberal political ideas articulated by john locke and others. The second section, with its reference to "He," is an indictment of the actions of King George III. Like Common Sense, this section destroyed the aura surrounding the monarchy and helped move the colonists toward psychological as well as political independence from Great Britain.
For the members of the continental congress, the declaration served as a vehicle for publicizing their grievances and winning support for the revolutionary cause. It affirmed the natural rights of all people and the right of the colonists to "dissolve the political bands" with the British government. Later generations have laid more stress on the political ideals expressed in the declaration and, in particular, have found inspiration in the phrase "all men are created equal."
Source: The United States Government Manual.
Declaration of Independence
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.—We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.—Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.—He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.—He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.—He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.—He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository or their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.—He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.—He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.—He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.—He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.—He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.—He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.—He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies, without the Consent of our legislatures.—He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.—He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:—For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:—For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:—For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:—For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:—For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:—For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:—For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:—For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:—For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.—He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.—He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.—He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.—He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.—He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. In every state of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.—
WE, THEREFORE, the REPRESENTATIVES of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally disolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.—And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Thos. Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Richard Henry Lee
Thos. Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Tho. M. Kean
Robt. Treat Paine
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. 4 July 1776. Momentum in favor of the idea of independence was building during the winter and spring of 1776. Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, published on 10 January 1776 and widely read, increased popular acceptance of severing political ties to Britain. Several states had already expressed sentiments that amounted to independence, but Congress was more cautious. The Virginia convention forced the issue on 15 May 1776 by instructing its delegates to offer in Congress a resolution declaring the colonies to be independent. The Virginia delegates laid the resolution before Congress on 27 May, at the same time that the North Carolina delegates indicated that they had instructions to vote for independence. The next eleven days were spent in building a consensus in Congress. Then, on 7 June, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, offered the following resolution: "Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
Following two days of debate, on 11 June 1776 Congress postponed consideration of the resolution for three weeks (to allow wavering delegates to get instructions from home) and simultaneously appointed a "Committee of Five" to draft a statement that would present to the world the case for independence. Four committee members—Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston of New York—delegated the fifth, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, to prepare a draft declaration. Although only thirty-three years old, Jefferson had a reputation for political writing that made him a logical candidate to be the drafter. Perhaps more to the point, of the five delegates he was the one least busy with other congressional business. The document about which so much historical fuss has been made was regarded as nothing more than routine work at the time.
Congress reconvened on 1 July to consider Lee's resolution. Voting by colonies, the resolution received nine affirmative votes. Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted in the negative, New York abstained, and Delaware's two delegates deadlocked. Taking advantage of Edward Rutledge's intimation that South Carolina might change sides, the advocates of independence, who dearly desired unanimity on such an important measure, agreed to retake the vote the next day.
The events of 2 July demonstrated the lengths to which advocates of independence would go to achieve unanimity. John Adams worked tirelessly to sway his colleagues, leading the difficult battle for greater consensus. Under the influence of Rutledge, South Carolina now joined the majority. Two conservative Pennsylvania delegates—Robert Morris and John Dickinson—deliberately absented themselves, allowing the remaining delegates to vote three-two in favor. And, most dramatically, Caesar Rodney, alerted by Thomas McKean that his vote would be needed to break Delaware's deadlock, rode eighty miles through the night in a thunderstorm from Dover, Delaware, to cast his tie-breaking vote for independence. The final tally was twelve votes for independence, with the New York delegates still awaiting instructions from their newly elected assembly back home.
With Lee's resolution approved, Congress now turned to Jefferson's draft Declaration, which Franklin and Adams had changed slightly. Jefferson drew on many sources in constructing his draft; as James Madison later commented, "The object was to assert, not to discover truths." In general, his words reflected the influence of political philosophers beginning with the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, including most notably ideas found in John Locke's writings from the late seventeenth century. That cache of notions about the proper role of government, and especially what to do when an established government became abusive or tyrannical, had become a common element in American political discourse since the start of the imperial crisis, and would have made ready sense to politically aware people who were active in government at the local and colony level. Jefferson's phraseology suggests that he had before him on his drafting table a copy of the preamble he had written for the recently adopted Virginia state constitution of 1776 and copies of the first three sections of George Mason's Declaration of Rights. The introductory sections of his draft of the Declaration asserted that independence was now an unavoidable step, an action based on principles that his readers would readily understand as "self-evident." When the established government had engaged in "a long train of abuses and usurpations," it was the right of a people "to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security." The bulk of the Declaration provided the particulars needed to indict and convict George III of tyranny, and asserted that all means of redress short of independence had been denied. In words that echoed Lee's resolution of 7 June, the Declaration concluded that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states." Modern scholarship has demonstrated that, although the Declaration retained much of Jefferson's literary style, linguistic cadence, and political thinking, because the draft was edited by Congress as a committee of the whole the Declaration deserves to be regarded as the product of the collective wisdom of delegates from all the colonies, who labored into the late afternoon of 4 July to produce and approve the final document.
The committee had the Declaration printed at the shop of John Dunlap, Congress's official printer, on the night of 4-5 July, for distribution to the army, state assemblies, conventions, and committees of safety. The printed document was headed, "In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled," and entered into the journal of Congress under the date 4 July, a circumstance that gave rise to the legend that the Declaration was signed on 4 July. (John Trumbull's painting in the Capitol rotunda, The Signing of the Declaration of Independence, also propagates this error.) Its first public reading occurred on 8 July, when Colonel John Nixon was appointed by the sheriff of Philadelphia to read the Declaration on the steps of the Statehouse. Congress received news on 11 July that the New York convention had voted for independence two days earlier. On 19 July it ordered the Declaration to be engrossed (written out on parchment in a large, clear hand, by Timothy Matlock, an assistant to Charles Thomson, the secretary of Congress) as "The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America." The engrossed copy was ready on 2 August, when it was signed by all fifty delegates present (six delegates signed later). After John Hancock had signed as president of Congress, the New Hampshire delegates began the list of signatures below and to the right of the text. The other delegates followed in geographical order from north to south, in six columns that went from right to left across the parchment. The Georgia delegates signed last.
The significance of the Declaration, which merely gave official notice of the course on which the states and Congress had already embarked, was to destroy any lingering possibility of conciliation and to make it possible for foreign powers to ally themselves with the new nation.
Becker, Carl L. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. Rev. ed. New York: Knopf, 1942.
Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text as Shown in Facsimiles of Various Drafts by Its Author, Thomas Jefferson. Rev. ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1945.
Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Knoph, 1997.
Ferris, Robert G., ed. Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1973.
Goff, Frederick R. The John Dunlap Broadside: The First Printing of the Declaration of Independence. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976.
Hutson, James H., ed. A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind: Congressional State Papers, 1774–1776. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1975.
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Malone, Dumas. The Story of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.
Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretative History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979.
revised by Harold E. Selesky
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence, full and formal declaration adopted July 4, 1776, by representatives of the Thirteen Colonies in North America announcing the separation of those colonies from Great Britain and making them into the United States.
The Road to Its Adoption
Official acts that colonists considered infringements upon their rights had previously led to the Stamp Act Congress (1765) and to the First Continental Congress (1774), but these were predominantly conservative assemblies that sought redress from the crown and reconciliation, not independence. The overtures of the First Continental Congress in 1774 came to nothing, discontent grew, and as the armed skirmishes at Lexington and Concord (Apr. 19, 1775) developed into the American Revolution, many members of the Second Continental Congress of Philadelphia followed the leadership of John Hancock, John Adams, and Samuel Adams in demanding independence.
The delegates from Virginia and North Carolina were in fact specifically instructed on independence and on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee called for a resolution of independence. On June 11, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston (see under Livingston), and Roger Sherman were instructed to draft such a declaration; the actual writing was entrusted to Jefferson. The first draft was revised by Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson before it was sent to Congress, where it was again changed. That final draft was adopted July 4, 1776, and Independence Day has been the chief American patriotic holiday ever since. It is interesting to note, however, that the July 4 document is merely a fuller statement justifying the resolution of independence adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776.
The Declaration and Its Importance
The Declaration of Independence is the most important of all American historical documents. It is essentially a partisan document, a justification of the American Revolution presented to the world; but its unique combination of general principles and an abstract theory of government with a detailed enumeration of specific grievances and injustices has given it enduring power as one of the great political documents of the West. After stating its purpose, the opening paragraphs (given here in the form used in the engrossed copy) assert the fundamental American ideal of government, based on the theory of natural rights, which had been held by, among others, John Locke, Emerich de Vattel, and Jean Jacques Rousseau.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."
Then follows an indictment of George III for willfully infringing those rights in order to establish an "absolute Tyranny" over the colonies. The document states that colonial patience had achieved nothing and therefore the colonists found themselves forced to declare their independence. The stirring closing paragraph is the formal pronouncement of independence and is borrowed from the resolution of July 2.
"We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.—And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our fortunes and our sacred Honor."
Signers of the Declaration
Not all the men who helped draw up or voted for the Declaration signed it (Robert R. Livingston, for example, did not) nor were all the signers present at its adoption. All the signatures except six (Wythe, R. H. Lee, Wolcott, Gerry, McKean, and Thornton) were affixed on Aug. 2, 1776. The first is that of John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The remaining 55 (see individual articles on each) are those of Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott, William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross, Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean, Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton, William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, and George Walton.
See studies by J. H. Hazelton (1906, repr. 1970), C. L. Becker (1922, repr. 1962), and F. R. Donovan (1968); D. Malone, The Story of the Declaration of Independence (1954); D. F. Hawke, A Transaction of Free Men (1964, repr. 1989); R. Ginsberg, ed., A Casebook on the Declaration of Independence (1967); G. Wills, Inventing America (1979); J. Fliegelman, Declaring Independence (1993); P. Maier American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997); J. N. Rakove, ed., The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence (2009); J. J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer (2013).
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence is the formal statement of independence from Britain made by the Continental Congress through which the thirteen American colonies became the United States of America. It was passed and signed well over a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. The patriot leadership had initially insisted that they were fighting for the redress of grievances and that they sought reconciliation with Britain. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington claimed that they did not consider independence until well into 1775. In addition, several colonies specifically instructed their delegates not to consent to independence in the closing months of 1775 and the beginning of 1776. However, independence soon became a practical necessity, both in order to give the state governments official sanction to exercise authority and in order to permit the negotiation of treaties with foreign countries. The movement gained added momentum from popular outrage at British military tactics, including their use of slaves and mercenaries, and from the realization that there was no chance of mediation by King George III. Thomas Paine articulated the most compelling case for independence in his widely read pamphlet, Common Sense, published in January 1776.
Richard Henry Lee proposed a series of resolutions for independence in the Continental Congress on June 7, 1776, stating that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved." After four days of debate, Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration consisting of members from the northern, middle, and southern colonies. The committee included John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut. They delegated the task of making the first draft to Jefferson and submitted to Congress on June 28: "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled." The motion for independence passed on July 2, with the single abstention of New York. There followed a debate and amendments to Jefferson's draft, and the final draft, titled "The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America," was approved on July 4.
According to a later account by John Adams, the committee chose Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration because he had a reputation for his literary skills and because he was from Virginia, which was the largest state in the union, with about a quarter of the total population. Jefferson's primary concern was to justify the reasons for declaring independence from Britain. The great body of the text is therefore a long litany of grievances, for which Jefferson personally blamed George III. This was because he wanted to establish that a state of tyranny existed to legitimate the rebellion: "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of injuries & usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world."
The opening paragraphs of the Declaration are its most well-known section. It asserts the broader principles that Jefferson, as he asserted in a letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, "intended to be an expression of the American mind and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit" (Ford, vol. 10, p. 343). The second paragraph most famously includes the assertion "that all men are created equal," it proclaims the doctrine of natural and inalienable rights that governments must protect, including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," and it states that government is based on the "consent of the governed." Although debate continues among historians about the source of the ideas contained in the Declaration, it is widely held that Jefferson was particularly indebted to the writings of John Locke. Indeed, there is such strong similarity with passages in Locke's Second Treatise on Government that Richard Henry Lee charged that Jefferson plagiarized from Locke. The Scottish Enlightenment thinkers Frances Hutcheson and Lord Kames also influenced Jefferson, together with the thought of English republicans and "Country" Whigs, the seventeenth and eighteenth century opposition writers and politicians like Lord Bolingbroke. Jefferson later recalled that he turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing the Declaration, since he did not consider it his role to invent new ideas altogether or to offer sentiments that had never been expressed before.
In the minds of modern readers, the lofty ideals of the document might seem at odds with the reality of social conditions at the time they were written. The claim "that all men are created equal" particularly seems at variance with the presence of slaves, who accounted for a fifth of the total population in 1776. Indeed, such sentiments appear hypocritical from the pen of one who was himself a tobacco planter and slave owner. While Jefferson denounced slavery throughout his life, historians disagree about his sincerity. He had included in the original draft of the Declaration a passage condemning George III for the slave trade, but this section was deleted at the behest of southern representatives in the Continental Congress. And he did exclude slavery in his draft of an ordinance for the Northwest Territories. As president of the United States, Jefferson played a major role in the abolition of the slave trade in 1808. Towards the end of his life, he wrote nothing was more certainly written in the book of fate than that slaves would eventually be free. However, he did not emancipate his own slaves, unlike George Washington. Furthermore, he was unable to conceive of a biracial society, believing that blacks and whites could not live under the same government. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), in which he condemned the slave trade, he wrote of his "suspicion" and "opinion" that blacks were mentally and physically inferior to whites. He proposed a gradual plan of emancipation but advocated that free blacks be resettled elsewhere.
Whatever Jefferson's intentions, his use of abstract universal principles in the Declaration of Independence has facilitated the demands of those seeking equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it as a promissory note to black people in his "I Have a Dream" speech. Nevertheless, the laudable ideals that it expresses did not prevent manifest inequalities, especially between the races. Slavery was abolished throughout much of the Caribbean and South America before it was officially outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution in the United States.
Becker, Carl L. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1922. Reprint, New York: Knopf, 1942.
Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892–99.
Jayne, Allen. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Onuf, Peter S. Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.
Wills, Gary. Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978.
andrew jackson o'shaughnessy (2005)
Declaration of Independence
DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Since its creation in 1776, the Declaration of Independence has been considered the single most important expression of the ideals of U.S. democracy. As a statement of the fundamental principles of the United States, the Declaration is an enduring reminder of the country's commitment to popular government and equal rights for all.
The Declaration of Independence is a product of the early days of the Revolutionary War. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress—the legislature of the American colonies—voted for independence from Great Britain. It then appointed a committee of five—
john adams, benjamin franklin, thomas jefferson, roger sherman, and Robert R. Livingston—to draft a formal statement of independence designed to influence public opinion at home and abroad. Because of his reputation as an eloquent and forceful writer, Jefferson was assigned the task of creating the document, and the final product is almost entirely his own work. The Congress did not approve all of Jefferson's original draft, however, rejecting most notably his denunciation of the slave trade. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia were not yet ready to extend the notion of inalienable rights to African Americans.
On July 4, 1776, the day of birth for the new country, the continental congress approved the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the people living in the American colonies. The Declaration served a number of purposes for the newly formed United States. With regard to the power politics of the day, it functioned as a propaganda statement intended to build support for American independence abroad, particularly in France, from which the Americans hoped to have support in their struggle for independence. Similarly, it served as a clear message of intention to the British. Even more important for the later Republic of the United States, it functioned as a statement of governmental ideals.
In keeping with its immediate diplomatic purposes, most of the Declaration consists of a list of 30 grievances against acts of the British monarch George III. Many of these were traditional and legitimate grievances under British constitutional law. The Declaration firmly announces that British actions had established "an absolute Tyranny over these States." Britain's acts of despotism, according to the Declaration's list, included taxation of Americans without representation in Parliament; imposition of standing armies on American communities; establishment of the military above the civil power; obstruction of the right to trial by jury; interference with the operation of colonial legislatures; and cutting off of trade with the rest of the world. The Declaration ends with the decisive resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."
The first sentences of the document and their statement of political ideals have remained the Declaration's most memorable and influential section. Among these sentences are the following:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That
to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
Ever since their creation, these ideas have guided the development of U.S. government, including the creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The concepts of equal and inalienable rights for all, limited government, popular consent, and freedom to rebel have had a lasting effect on U.S. law and politics.
Scholars have long debated the relative importance of the different sources Jefferson used for his ideas in the Declaration. Most agree that the natural rights philosophy of English philosopher john locke greatly influenced Jefferson's composition of the Declaration. In particular, Locke advanced the ideas that a just government derives its legitimacy and power from the consent of the governed, that people possess inalienable rights that no legitimate government may take away, and that the people have the right and duty to overthrow a government that violates their rights. Jefferson also paralleled Locke in his identification of three major rights—the rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"—though the last of his three is a change from Locke's right to "property."
Jefferson himself minimized the Declaration's contribution to political philosophy. In a letter that he wrote in 1825, 50 years after the Declaration was signed, he described the document as "an appeal to the tribunal of the world." Its object, he wrote, was
[n]ot to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
Although the Declaration of Independence stands with the Constitution as a founding document of the United States of America, its position in U.S. law is much less certain than that of the Constitution. The Declaration has been recognized as the founding act of law establishing the United States as a sovereign and independent nation, and Congress has placed it at the beginning of the U.S. Code, under the heading "The Organic Laws of the United States of America." The Supreme Court, however, has generally not considered it a part of the organic law of the country. For example, although the Declaration mentions a right to rebellion, this right, particularly with regard to violent rebellion, has not been recognized by the Supreme Court and other branches of the federal government. The most notable failure to uphold this right occurred when the Union put down the rebellion by the Southern Confederacy in the Civil War.
Despite its secondary authority, many later reform movements have quoted the Declaration in support of their cause, including movements for universal suffrage, abolition of slavery, women's rights, and civil rights for African Americans. Many have argued that this document influenced the passage and wording of such important developments in U.S. law and government as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which banned slavery and sought to make African Americans equal citizens. In this way, the Declaration of Independence remains the most outstanding example of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of U.S. law.
Gerber, Scott Douglas, ed. 2002. The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.
Levy, Michael B. 1982. Political Thought in America. Home-wood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.
Machan, Tibor R., ed. 2001. Individual Rights Reconsidered: Are the Truths of the U.S. Declaration of Independence Lasting? Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution.
Murray, Charles. 1988. In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Declaration of Independence
Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence is the document with which the original American thirteen colonies announced their separation from Great Britain in July 1776. Written primarily by American statesman and future president Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9), it is one of the most famous documents in American history.
Debating the split
By 1775, American colonists were growing discontent with English rule. Spurred by high taxes and restrictions on trade, talk of independence spread through the colonies. One by one, colonial assemblies authorized their delegates to attend a meeting planned in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , called the Continental Congress .
On June 7, 1776, American statesman Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794) of Virginia introduced a resolution for declaring the independence of the colonies. It called for Congress to take measures to build foreign support for independence and to form a unifying confederation of states.
Debate on declaring independence began in Congress the next day. Those who supported the resolution argued that independence was necessary and would produce many benefits for the colonists. Independence would improve the chance for making treaties of commerce with other nations and for receiving foreign loans. It would rally the colonists together for the military campaign against Great Britain.
Those who opposed independence were in the minority, but they were vocal in their opposition. They warned against declaring independence before the colonies could act with unanimity. Some wished to fix relations with Great Britain.
The delegates were not ready to agree on a course of action, so voting on the resolution was postponed until early July. Congress, however, formed several committees for beginning work immediately on the Virginia proposals of declaring independence, making foreign alliances, and establishing a confederation of states to act as a common government.
Writing the Declaration of Independence
Congress appointed Continental Congress members John Adams (1735–1826), Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), Roger Sherman (1721–1793), Robert Livingston (1746–1813), and Thomas Jefferson to the committee on independence. Their task was to write a document to explain the action of declaring independence in terms meaningful to Americans and Europeans alike. Jefferson, who was just thirty-three years old at the time, received the assignment of writing the first draft of the document.
Jefferson had two main goals as he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He first had to dispel the notion that in claiming their independence, the colonies would be rebelling against a lawful authority. This was an important point to make in order to gain foreign support for the American cause.
Jefferson accomplished this task by using the doctrine of natural rights. Natural rights are rights that people have organically instead of receiving them from a government. Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal” and have rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People establish governments to protect these rights. When a government stops protecting rights and instead acts to destroy them, people have a right to end its rule. They have the right to create a new government to protect their safety and happiness. According to Jefferson, because the British government was not protecting the American colonists’ natural rights, the colonists were justified in their desire to leave Great Britain to form their own government.
Jefferson's second goal was to convince Americans who were loyal to the English king that independence was necessary. Americans had been arguing for years that the English Parliament, not the king, was the source of their political problems. Parliament was the one taxing the colonies and regulating their commerce. Congress had to shift America's focus to the king as the source of its troubles, as some Americans still hoped to create a system that could remain under the British crown.
Jefferson accomplished this by including a list of charges against the king in the second half of the Declaration of Independence. The charges touched every part of the American colonies. Few free citizens could read the list without feeling that somewhere along the line they had been injured by the king.
Having proved his case against the king, at the end of the Declaration Jefferson briefly criticized the English people who had not supported the American colonies. Then in conclusion, Jefferson crafted a formal announcement that the colonies had decided to sever their ties with Great Britain. Jefferson presented his draft to the committee on independence, which made a few changes before submitting it to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776.
Congress assembled again on July 1, prepared now to vote on the resolution for independence. An unofficial vote showed that nine colonies would definitely support independence. The other four were opposed, split, or forced to abstain for lack of instructions from their home government. In hopes that a unanimous vote could be earned overnight, Congress delayed the formal vote to July 2. The delay worked, and by a vote of 12-0 (with New York abstaining until later), Congress resolved on July 2 to declare independence.
Congress then turned to editing Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. In spite of some forty additions and extensive cuts that greatly reduced the paper, Jefferson's draft remained mostly intact. On the evening of July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was approved and sent to the printer. When New York finally voted for independence, Congress gathered again to sign the official document at a ceremony on August 2.
The Declaration of Independence has been a significant source of political inspiration, both in the United States and around the world. Americans celebrate Independence Day each year on July 4, the day the document was sent to the printer. Americans of all political beliefs find power in the symbolic and literal meanings of the words Jefferson wrote about the rights of citizens and the role of government in society.