The Americans were purportedly fighting for their rights as subjects of the British monarch when armed confrontation between bands of American colonists and British soldiers began in April 1775. The drive for independence from Britain had increased by the next summer, with the Revolutionary War in full swing, and delegates to the Continental Congress were forced to vote on the matter. A five-man committee, consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, was tasked with producing a formal statement of the colonies’ intentions in mid-June 1776. On July 4, 1776, the United States Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, which was substantially drafted by Jefferson. This date is now commemorated as the birth of American independence.
Before the Declaration of Independence
Even after the Revolutionary War’s initial conflicts, few colonies desired complete independence from Britain, and those who did–such as John Adams–were regarded as radicals. Over the next year, however, things altered as Britain attempted to destroy the rebels with the full weight of its vast army. In his October 1775 letter to Parliament, King George III railed against the insurgent colonies and commanded the expansion of the royal army and fleet. In January 1776, word of his statements reached America, bolstering the radical cause and prompting many conservatives to give up hope of reconciliation. In the same month, Thomas Paine, a recent British immigrant, released “Common Sense,” arguing that independence was a “natural right” and the only route for the colonies; the booklet sold over 150,000 copies in its first few weeks.
It is pertinent to mention that Until the 1790s, most Americans were unaware that Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence; prior to then, the declaration was seen as a collaborative effort by the whole Continental Congress.
North Carolina’s revolutionary convention was the first to vote for independence in March 1776, and by mid-May, seven other colonies had followed suit. When the Continental Congress assembled at the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in Philadelphia on June 7, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies’ independence. Congress postponed a vote on Lee’s proposal and called a recess for several weeks in the midst of intense discussion. However, before leaving, the delegates formed a five-man committee, which included Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson, Massachusetts’ John Adams, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, and New York’s Robert R. Livingston, to draught a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain. That document would become known as the Declaration of Independence.
Jefferson Drafts the Declaration of the Independence
After publishing “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” in 1774, Jefferson gained a reputation as an articulate spokesman for the patriotic cause, and he was tasked with writing a draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence. The other members of the committee “unanimously pressed on me alone to undertake the draft,” he wrote in 1823. I agreed; I drew it; but before reporting it to the committee, I sent it to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams individually, requesting their modifications…. I then wrote a fair copy, presented it to the committee, and received an unchanged copy from them to present to Congress.”
The Declaration of Independence was divided into five sections when it was written by Jefferson: an introduction, a preamble, a body (divided into two portions), and a conclusion. In general, the introduction effectively claimed that the colonies’ desire for independence from Britain had become “necessary.” The preamble contains the document’s most famous passage: “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 governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The Vote for Independence
On July 1, the Continental Congress reconvened, and 12 of the 13 colonies ratified Lee’s declaration of independence the next day. On July 3 and into the late morning of July 4, Congress continued to study and amend Jefferson’s declaration (including Adams’ and Franklin’s corrections), deleting and revising around one-fifth of its language. However, the delegates made no revisions to that crucial preamble, and the underlying document was still written in Jefferson’s terms. On the Fourth of July, Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence (though most historians now accept that the document was not signed until August 2).
The Declaration of Independence constituted a crucial milestone in the history of democracy as the first formal statement by a nation’s people expressing their right to choose their own government. Aside from its significance in the history of the budding American nation, it also had a huge influence outside of the US, most notably in France during the French Revolution. The Declaration of Independence, together with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is one of the three founding documents of the United States government.
Text Of The Declaration Of Independence
July 4, 1776
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 has 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 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 powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime 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 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 harass 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 offenses;
For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring 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 complete 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 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 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.