Declaration of Independence – Chapter 2

Nations come into being in many ways. Military rebellion, civil strife, acts of heroism, acts of treachery, a thousand greater and lesser clashes between defenders of the old order and supporters of the new–all these occurrences and more have marked the emergences of new nations, large and small. The birth of the United States of America included them all. That birth was unique, not only in the immensity of its later impact on the course of world history and the growth of democracy, but also because so many of the threads in our national history run back through time to come together in one place, in one time, and in one document: the Declaration of Independence. 

The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all too few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.

The people at the time the Declaration was signed were full aware that the Declaration itself was nothing but that, a declaration, without military success against what was the most formidable foe at that time. John Dickinson was one member of Congress who opposed the Declaration, referring to it as a “skiff made of paper.” Reverend Ezra Stiles wrote in his diary:

“Thus the congress has tied a Gordian knot, which the Parliament will find they can neither cut, nor untie. The thirteen united colonies now rise into an Independent Republic among the kingdoms, states, and empires on earth….And have I lived to see such an important and astonishing revolution?”

Everyone around the “new” United States, saw Washington and his army as the one means of deliverance of American Independence and all that was promised in the Declaration of Independence. The Congress of 1776 was operating based on conditions that had been deteriorating for over a decade prior but the Congress did not take their Declaration of Independence lightly, they fully recognized what they were doing. By the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain had been at war for more than a year.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” so that they and their posterity (us!) could enjoy both spiritual and civil liberties to a degree unknown in the world at that time. That pledge literally cost many of them their lives and fortunes.


How Did America Get To This Point?

Relations had been deteriorating between the colonies and the mother country since 1763 at the end of the French and Indian War. The Bank of England had been depleted largely in part because of the French and Indian War and they needed to replenish the “royal coffers”. The answer to the dilemma by the English Parliament was to enact a series of measures to increase revenue from the colonies, such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767. Parliament believed that these acts were a legitimate means of having the colonies pay their fair share of the costs to keep them in the British Empire.

Many colonists, however, had developed a different conception of the empire. The colonies were not directly represented in Parliament, and colonists argued that Parliament had no right to levy taxes upon them. This tax dispute was part of a larger divergence between British and American interpretations of the British Constitution and the extent of Parliament’s authority in the colonies. The orthodox British view, dating from the “Glorious Revolution of 1688“, was that Parliament was the supreme authority throughout the empire, and so, by definition, anything that Parliament did was constitutional. The Glorious Revolution led to the English Declaration of Rights that would later be used by the Continental Congress to write their own Declaration of Independence. The colonies held to the idea that the British Constitution recognized certain fundamental rights that no government could violate, not even Parliament. After the Townshend Acts, some essayists even began to question whether Parliament had any legitimate jurisdiction in the colonies at all. Anticipating the arrangement of the British Commonwealth, by 1774 American writers such as Samuel Adams, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson were arguing that Parliament was the legislature of Great Britain only, and that the colonies, which had their own legislatures, were connected to the rest of the empire only through their allegiance to the Crown.

By the early 1770s, more and more colonists were becoming convinced that Parliament intended to take away their freedom. In fact, the Americans saw a pattern of increasing oppression and corruption happening all around the world. Parliament was determined to bring its unruly American subjects to heel so by early 1775, Britain began preparing for war. The first fighting broke out in April in Massachusetts and in August, the King had declared the colonists “in a state of open and avowed rebellion.” For the first time, many colonists began to seriously consider cutting ties with Britain. Thomas Paine published a pamphlet titled “Common Sense” in early 1776 which became a literary explosion across America at that time and lit a fire under this previously unthinkable idea. The movement for independence was now in full swing.

In answer to actions that Britain took in 1775, the colonists decided to elect delegates to attend a Continental Congress that eventually became the governing body of the union during the Revolution. In fear for their lives and to protect the cause of American liberty, the delegates to Congress adopted strict rules of secrecy. Less than a year after their formation, the delegates abandoned hope of reconciliation with Britain.  On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states.” They appointed a Committee of Five to write an announcement explaining the reasons for independence. Thomas Jefferson, who chaired the committee, wrote the first draft.


The Committee of Five

The committee consisted of two New England men, John Adams of Massachusetts and Roger Sherman of Connecticut; two men from the Middle Colonies, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York; and one southerner, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. In 1823 Jefferson wrote that the other members of the committee “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught [sic]. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections. . . I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress.

Jefferson’s account reflects three stages in the life of the Declaration: the document originally written by Jefferson; the changes to that document made by Franklin and Adams, resulting in the version that was submitted by the Committee of Five to the Congress; and the version that was eventually adopted.

By Jefferson’s own admission, the Declaration contained no original ideas, but was instead a statement of sentiments widely shared by supporters of the American Revolution. As he explained in 1825: “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.” Jefferson’s most immediate sources were two documents written in June 1776: his own draft of the preamble of the Constitution of Virginia, and George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. They were, in turn, directly influenced by the 1689 English Declaration of Rights, which formally ended the reign of King James II (recall the Glorious Revolution of 1688). During the American Revolution, Jefferson and other Americans looked to the English Declaration of Rights as a model of how to end the reign of an unjust king.


The Path of the Declaration of Independence

On July 1, 1776, Congress reconvened. The following day, the Lee Resolution for independence was adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies, New York not voting. Immediately afterward, the Congress began to consider the Declaration. Adams and Franklin had made only a few changes before the Committee of Five submitted the document. The discussion in Congress resulted in some alterations and deletions, but the basic document remained Jefferson’s.  On July 1, the Declaration had been officially adopted.

On July 2, 1776, Congress voted to declare independence. On July 2, Congress declared Independence.

The process of revision continued through all of July 3 and into the late morning of July 4.  On July 4, Congress ratified the text of the Declaration.

John Dunlap, official printer to Congress, worked through the night to set the Declaration in type and printed approximately 200 copies. These copies, known as the Dunlap Broadsides, were sent to various committees, assemblies, and commanders of the Continental troops. The Dunlap Broadsides weren’t signed, but John Hancock’s name appears in large type at the bottom. One copy crossed the Atlantic, reaching King George III months later. The official British response scolded the “misguided Americans” and “their extravagant and inadmissible Claim of Independency”.

On July 19, once all 13 colonies had signified their approval of the Declaration of Independence, Congress ordered that it be “fairly engrossed on parchment.” (To “engross” is to write in a large, clear hand.) Timothy Matlack, an assistant to the Secretary of the Congress, was most likely the penman.  On July 19, all 13 colonies approved the Declaration of Independence.

On August 2, the journal of the Continental Congress records that “The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed.” John Hancock, President of the Congress, signed first. The delegates then signed by state from north to south. Some signed after August 2. A few refused. George Washington was away with his troops. Ultimately, 56 delegates signed the Declaration.

The Declaration was written for the King of England, the colonists, and the world. It was intended to rally the troops, win foreign allies, and to announce the creation of a new country. The opening statement in the Declaration declared the main purpose which was to explain the right for a Revolution and “to declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” As the members of Congress in 1776 had been elected to their positions, they needed to prove their legitimacy as they defied what was the most powerful nation on earth at that time. As they were also seeking allies in support of the Revolution, the Declaration was also used to motivate allies to the cause, to join the fight.

The Declaration is a beautifully written document that officially announced that the United States were no longer part of Great Britain. That these United States were establishing a new idea of government; one whose leadership did not govern by divine right, but was chosen by the people for the people themselves. This new government’s job was to protect the “Rights” of its citizens.



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