On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, introduced a resolution before the Continental Congress declaring the colonies free and independent of Great Britain. Congress postponed debate on the resolution to allow delegates who were under instructions not to consent to independence to seek new instructions. Congress also appointed a committee to compose a declaration to explain the decision for independence. Its members were John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Jefferson composed the first draft of the declaration, to which Franklin and Adams made amendments before the committee reported the draft declaration on July 2, 1776 to Congress, which adopted it the same day.
The preamble and introduction to the Declaration of Independence announces its purpose, to explain to the world the Congress's rationale. It invokes natural law and the right of revolution, based in part on a widely accepted philosophy of government contained in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690) as well as the ideas of other Enlightenment writers. In the wording of the declaration, government existed to protect men's natural rights and liberties, including the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and if government failed or endangered those rights, the people have the right to abolish or change their government. Much of the text of the declaration is a detailed recital of acts of the government of Great Britain, or King George III, which jeopardized Americans' rights and therefore justified the move to break their political connection with the king and his nation. The declaration concludes with the words of the resolution adopted on July 2, and the delegates' pledge to one another and to the American people their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to secure and preserve independence.
Congress also appointed a committee to draft the Articles of Confederation, which specified what the relationship was to be between Congress and the thirteen states and what authority Congress should have to wage the war. The Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781 and formed the constitution of the new nation until 1789.
1. Why do we celebrate the fourth of July every year?
2. What are the three unalienable rights mentioned in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence?
3. Why did the American colonists denounce the British people?
1. When is the actual conflict between the Americans and the British first mentioned? Why might Thomas Jefferson have waited so far into the document to discuss the specifics of their altercation?
2. The longest section of the Declaration enumerates the abuses on the colonies by George III. How do these abuses later lead to specific rights in the U. S. Constitution?
The Library of Virginia acquired this document in 2004. It is one of the earliest-known reproductions of the Declaration of Independence and was engraved from a copper plate in 1818 by Benjamin Owen Tyler, a professor of penmanship in Washington, D. C. Tyler's reproduction was made less than 50 years after the original Declaration was written and his text is accompanied by near-perfect facsimiles of the signer's signatures. As few as a dozen of Tyler's copies were printed on parchment and the Library's is one of these.
Malone, Dumas. The Story of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954.
Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text as Shown in Facsimiles of Various Drafts by Its Author, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945.
Allen, Jayne. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.