United States Declaration of Independence
Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, relations between Great Britain and her American colonies had become increasingly strained. Fighting broke out in 1775 at Lexington and Concord marking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Although there was little initial sentiment for outright independence, the pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine was able to promote the belief that total independence was the only possible route for the colonies.
Independence was adopted on July 2, 1776 pursuant to the "Lee Resolution" presented to the Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, which read: "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."
A committee consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, was formed to draft a suitable declaration to frame this resolution. Jefferson did most of the writing, with input from the committee. The Declaration was then rewritten somewhat in general session prior to its adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Jefferson's draft was dominated by his denunciation of the slave trade and that was edited out.
Fragment of a draft of the Declaration
A final copy of the Declaration was produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress, on August 2, 1776, at which time most of the delegates signed it (several signed later). Word of the declaration reached London on August 10.
Several myths surround the document: because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people falsely believe it was signed on that date. John Hancock's name is larger than that of the other signatories, and an unfounded legend states that it is large so that King George III would be able to read it without his spectacles. A painting by John Trumbull, depicting the signing of the Declaration with all representatives present, hangs in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States: no such ceremony ever took place. There is no evidence that Benjamin Franklin ever made the statement often attributed to him: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately". The Liberty Bell was not rung to celebrate independence, and it certainly did not acquire its crack on so doing: that story comes from a children's book of fiction, Legends of the American Revolution, by George Lippard. The Liberty Bell was actually named in the early nineteenth century when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.
A fictionalized (but somewhat historically accurate) version of how the Declaration came about is the musical play (and 1972 movie) 1776, which is usually termed a "musical comedy" but deals frankly with the political issues, especially how disagreement over the institution of slavery almost defeated the Declaration's adoption.
The Declaration was also a propaganda tool, in which the Americans tried to establish clear reasons for their rebellion that might persuade reluctant colonists to join them and establish their just cause to foreign governments that might lend them aid. The Declaration also served to unite the members of the Continental Congress. Most were aware that they were signing what would be their death warrant in case the Revolution failed, and the Declaration served to make anything short of victory in the Revolution unthinkable.
The Declaration appeals strongly to the concept of natural law and self-determination. The Declaration is heavily influnced by the Act of Abjuration of the Dutch Republic, by the Discourses on Government of the Republican martyr Alegernon Sydney, to whose legacy Jefferson and Adams were equally devoted; ideas and even some of the phrasing was taken directly from the writings of John Locke, particularly his second treatise on government, titled "Essay Concerning the true original, extent, and end of Civil Government."
The Declaration of Independence contains many of the founding fathers' fundamental principles, some of which were later codified in the United States Constitution. It has also been used as the model of a number of later documents such as the declarations of independence of Vietnam and Rhodesia.
Public domain picture from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
The signers of the Declaration represented the new states as follows:Massachusetts: Rhode Island: Connecticut: New York: New Jersey: Pennsylvania:
- Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
- George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr, Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton