U.S. Declaration of Independence

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The Declaration of Independence, unanimously approved by the second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, created a new nation, the United States of America. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, it formally "dissolved the connection" between the thirteen states (which were now using the name the "United Colonies") and Britain. July 4 is still celebrated as the nation's birthday. The document enshrines the basic values of republicanism as the foundation of America; it inspired similar declarations in over a hundred countries.

Declaration of independence print02.jpg

Public opinion

Sentiment for independence was crystallized by Common Sense, the astonishingly successful pamphlet by Thomas Paine. It sold over 150,000 copies in spring 1776; copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud at taverns in every colony. General George Washington was especially impressed and he had it read aloud to his soldiers. Paine's forceful argument convinced the majority that the Empire was a dead weight on American aspirations, and the time was now to become independent. The Loyalists were left almost speechless. Support for the King, which had been fast dwindling away, evaporated after Americans digested Paine's philippic. Not only was liberty at risk under monarchy, Paine said, but so was peace, as monarchs had little else to do but lay "the world in blood and ashes." His key argument was an attack on the possibility of reconciliation. Paine convinced his readers that independence was more likely to bring peace and prosperity than continued subservience to the empire. But Paine drove ahead adding a millennial quality to the colonists' struggle. This was not a revolt over taxation. The survival of liberty and republicanism was at stake, he argued and if the American Revolution succeeded, generations yet unborn would owe a debt of gratitude to their forebearers who struggled to defend—-and expand-—freedom. Paine foresaw an America that would become "an asylum for mankind." Not only would America offer refuge to the world's oppressed, but like a shining beacon, revolutionary America would herald "the birth-day of a new world," the beginning of an epoch in which humankind across the earth could "begin the world over again."[1]

Writing the Declaration

The "Declaration Committee," which included Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and John Adams of Massachusetts, was appointed by Congress on June 11, 1776, to draft a declaration in anticipation of an expected vote in favor of American independence, which occurred on July 2. [2]

Jefferson's role

As a delegate to the Continental Congress Jefferson and John Adams took the lead in pushing for independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of the Virginia delegation proposed independence. Congress appointed a committee of five men to draw up a suitable public Declaration. Jefferson was selected to write it because he was a Virginian, a recognized writer, and a zealous committeeman. (Jefferson's authorship was largely unknown before 1800.) He incorporated ideas and phrases from many sources to arrive at a consensus statement that all patriots could agree upon.

Early drafts exist dating to June 1776.[3] His colleagues Benjamin Franklin and Adams made small changes in his draft text and Congress made more. The finished document, which both declared independence and proclaimed a philosophy of government, was singly and peculiarly Jefferson's.[4]


The opening philosophical section is closely based on George Mason's "Declaration of Rights," a notable summary of current revolutionary philosophy.[5] Mason wrote:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Jefferson rewrote it:

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.

Jefferson himself did not believe in absolute human equality, and, though he had no fears of revolution, he preferred that the "social compact" be renewed by periodical, peaceful revisions. That government should be based on popular consent and secure the "inalienable" rights of man, among which he included the pursuit of happiness rather than property, that it should be a means to human well-being and not an end in itself, he steadfastly believed. He gave here a matchless expression of his faith.

The charges against King George III, who is singled out because the patriots denied all claims of parliamentary authority, represent an improved version of charges that Jefferson wrote for the preamble of the Virginia constitution of 1776. Relentless in their reiteration, they constitute a statement of the specific grievances of the revolting party, powerfully and persuasively presented at the bar of public opinion.

The Declaration is notable for both its clarity and subtlety of expression, and it abounds in the felicities that are characteristic of Jefferson's best prose.[6] More impassioned than any other of his writings, it is eloquent in its sustained elevation of style and remains his noblest literary monument.

The concepts of natural law, of inviolable rights, and of government by consent were drawn from the republican tradition that stretched back to ancient Rome and was neither new nor distinctively American. However it was unprecedented for a nation to declare that it would be governed by these propositions. It was Jefferson's almost religious commitment to these republican propositions that is the key to his entire life. He was more than the author of this statement of the national purpose: he was a living example of its philosophy, accepting its ideals as the controlling principles of his own life. Congress adopted the Declaration on July 4, 1776, which became the birthday of the independent nation.[7]

Transcendental references

Jefferson's language does include reference to a Creator. a "firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence."and Nature's God, but these must be interpreted in the usage of these terms at the time. Nowhere, however, does it have any references to Jesus Christ, the God of Christianity or the Bible. Some advocates of Dominionism, a political philosophy associated with the Christian Right, have used the Declaration to justify that the United States is a Christian nation, and its language overrides that of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Alan Dershowitz, a critic of what he calls the "hijacking of the Declaration" by Dominionists, cites 20th century Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell's comment "I would see no constitutional problem if school children were taught the nature of the Founding Fathers' religious belief and how these beliefs affected the attitudes of the times and the structure of our government.[8]

Dershowitz, however, argues that these phrases meant different things to their 18th century author they do in 21st century legal English. He continues to quote Dominionist David Burton[8] as saying "Many people erroneously consider the Constitution to be a higher form of government than the Declaration. However, under our form of government, the Constitution is not superior to the Declaration of Independence; a violation of the Declaration is just as serious as a breach of the Constitution (emphasis in original). [t]he Constitution cannot be properly interpreted or applied apart from the natural law principles presented in the Declaration. The two documents must be used together to understand either one individually. Dershowitz, however, says "this view of the legal status of the Declaration has never been accepted by the courts, but it is accepted as gospel by many on the American Right.[9]

Historical context

When the Declaration was signed, all British forces had been driven out of the 13 colonies, which now became the 13 states. However King George III refused to give up and of "his" possessions, so the war dragged on until the final American victory at Yorktown in 1781 caused Parliament to change the government in London and sue for peace.

Americans celebrated the Fourth of July and often read the Declaration at that event, but paid little attention the other days of the year.[10] That changed when Abraham Lincoln emphasized the Declaration's importance to republicanism and stressed its priority over the Constitution. Since then the statement 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" has resounded strongly in the American psyche, though it is not echoed much in other countries.

Voting was by states and the Declaration was not unanimous on July 4 but became so a little later. On July 4, the New York delegation could not sign since its instructions to do so did not arrive until July 9. The original title referred to Twelve States, but all thirteen approved it. Several delegates were opposed at first but later signed.

Global impact

The Declaration was quickly translated into major languages and immediately sparked serious discussion in Europe and Latin America about the legitimacy of empires. By 1826, fifty years after the drafting, twenty nations already had declarations of independence modeled on it, starting with the Flemish 1790 Manifesto of the Province of Flanders and Haiti's 1804 declaration of independence. In the 20th century, the first wave of independence declarations came after World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. The second wave lasted from 1945 to 1993, with the closing down of the Japanese, British, French, Portuguese and other empires. The document from the period 1945-93 that owed the biggest debt to the American declaration was the 1945 declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, issued by Ho Chi Minh.

By the 21st century, over half of the 192 nations of the world have such declarations. Most, according to Armitage (2007), have copied the style and structure of the Declaration. Most important, the Declaration has marked and helped create the "contagion of sovereignty" that has transformed a world of empires into a world of states.[11]

The world was impressed with how colonies broke away from an empire, but it paid little attention to its more controversial metaphysical claims about all men being born equal with certain rights. Translators had great difficulty handling its key concepts. For example, the "unalienable rights" of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were extremely difficult concepts in China, Japan, and Spain (where Catholic teachings placed true happiness only in the other world). The translators' difficulties with the Declaration also indicate that the document's "truths" about human rights were not nearly so "self-evident" as Jefferson believed. In China and Russia, particularly, the political rights of the individual were clearly not self-evident. Although Americans often enthusiastically championed the benefits of democracy throughout the world, not all nations or peoples appreciated the libertarian and capitalist values enunciated in the declaration. They did, however, appreciate its Republicanism, and most new nations declared independence in order to become republics.[12]


There are 56 signatures on the declaration of independence [13]

Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
George Walton
North Carolina (U.S. state)
William Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
South Carolina
Edward Rutledge
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton
John Hancock
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
Robert Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benjamin Franklin
John Morton
George Clymer
James Smith
George Taylor
James Wilson
George Ross
Caesar Rodney
George Read
Thomas McKean
New York
William Floyd
Philip Livingston
Francis Lewis
Lewis Morris
New Jersey
Richard Stockton
John Witherspoon
Francis Hopkinson
John Hart
Abraham Clark
New Hampshire
Josiah Bartlett
Matthew Thornton
William Whipple
Samuel Adams
John Adams
Robert Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Rhode Island
Stephen Hopkins
William Ellery
Roger Sherman
Samuel Huntington
William Williams
Oliver Wolcott

The physical document

Gustafson (2002) traces the various locations where the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, (known collectively as the Charters of Freedom), were kept until transferred with great ceremony to the National Archives in 1952. The Declaration was moved from one city to another and was at the Patent Office in Washington from 1841 to 1876, among other locations. The Declaration and the Constitution were in the Library of Congress from 1921 to 1952, amid some rivalry with the National Archives as to their proper location. As part of a new conservation effort, the National Archives constructed new encasements to preserve the documents and return them to public display beginning 17 September 2003.[14]


  1. John Ferling, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution. (2002) p. 130
  2. Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents. Retrieved on 2007-08-04.
  3. Transcription of the Fragment of the Composition Draft of the Declaration of Independence. Retrieved on 2007-08-04.
  4. See "Declaration of Independence"
  5. see "The Virginia Declaration of Rights," Final Draft,12 June 1776
  6. See Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (1922) ch. 5, online edition; Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. (1978); Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. (1997)
  7. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (1975) ch. 2
  8. 8.0 8.1 David Barton, The Myth of the Separation: What is the Correct Relationship between Church and State? A Revealing Look at what the Founders and Early Courts Really Said, p. 218, quoted by Dershowitz, p. 1
  9. Alan Dershowitz (2007), Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence, Wiley, ISBN 9780470084557, p. 2
  10. Len Travers, Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic (1999)
  11. Historians discount the influence of previous declarations. David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007) excerpt and text search
  12. Eugene Eoyang, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Linguistic Parity: Multilingual Perspectives on the Declaration of Independence." Journal of American History 1999 85(4): 1449-1454.
  13. Signers of the Declaration. Retrieved on 2007-08-04.
  14. Milton Gustafson, "Travels of the Charters of Freedom." Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration 2002 34(4): 274-284. Issn: 0033-1031