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The Writing of the Declaration of Independence

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Thomas Jefferson with the Declaration of Independence in the background.

Thomas Jefferson with the Declaration of Independence in the background.

The American Colonies Under British Rule

The Jamestown Colony in Virginia brought the first permanent English settlement to the continent of North America. Though this first settlement struggled mightily to survive, others from England and Europe followed. By the middle of the eighteenth-century there were well over a million persons of European origin living in the 13 colonies from Georgia in the south to New Hampshire in the north. Most of the colonists were loyal British subjects; however, problems started to develop between the British Crown and the American colonists after the close of the French and Indian War in 1763. The war had put Great Britain deeply in debt, and to remedy their financial hardship, they sought relief from the American colonies through a variety of taxes. The new and sometimes arbitrary taxes enraged the colonials as they had no representation in Parliament to negotiate on their behalf. The relationship between the colonies and the British government continued to deteriorate, reaching a climax when five Bostonians were gunned down by British troops during a protest that went terribly wrong in 1770. As a result of a tax on tea imposed by the British, members of the Sons of Liberty, a covert rebel organization within the colonies, dumped over three hundred chests of British tea into Boston harbor in protest over the tax. Parliament responded with a heavy hand in 1774 by introducing the Coercive Acts, or Intolerable Acts as they were called in America, which, among other provisions, ended local self-government in Massachusetts and closed Boston's commerce. Men like Samuel Adams of Boston, founder of the Sons of Liberty, fanned the flames of rebellion against their oppressive British overlords.

Even with the harsh treatment by the king, most of the English living in the American colonies were loyal to the British Crown and had no desire to separate from their mother country. As John Dickinson put it in his popular set of essays, Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania, most English in America were bound to the Crown “by religion, liberty, laws, affections, relations, language, and commerce.” Soon this would all change.

Title page from John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.

Title page from John Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.

The First Continental Congress

The Coercive Acts, called the Intolerable Acts in America, among other things shut down the harbor in Boston and led the British troops to occupy Boston. The caustic British response forced the colonies to rally to support the Massachusetts colonists. Delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774 to seek legal redress with the British. The meeting of the First Continental Congress brought together 55 delegates from all the colonies except Georgia. The delegates were divided on how to respond to the British government’s coercive actions. The men elected Peyton Randolph of Virginia to preside over the congress. Out of this first meeting the delegates denounced the harsh Coercive Acts; debated Joseph Galloway’s “Plan of Union,” which would have kept the colonies in the empire; formulated an address to King George III; and organized a boycott of British goods. The congress adjourned in late October but agreed to meet again the following year if the problems had not been resolved.

Illustration of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Source: W.D. Cooper. Boston Tea Party in The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789.

Illustration of the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Source: W.D. Cooper. Boston Tea Party in The History of North America. London: E. Newberry, 1789.

The Second Continental Congress

The mood at the second meeting of the Continental Congress in May 1775 in Philadelphia was charged with a mixture of fear and grave resolve, for just the month before the colonial minutemen had been involved in a series of battles with the British troops, or redcoats as they were called, at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The group of delegates, this time from all 13 colonies, were broken into two camps. The conservatives, who favored negotiating a peaceful solution, were headed by John Jay of New York and Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson. The radical group, which favored independence, was led by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Richard Henry Lee.

In an effort to bring peace to the colonies, Dickinson drafted, in respectful language, the “Olive Branch” petition, which sought peace with the mother country. The king did not directly answer the colonists’ petition; rather, he issued a proclamation asserting that the colonists were engaged in an “open and avowed rebellion.” In late October he told Parliament that the American rebellion was “manifestly carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent empire.” In December 1775, news reached America of the Parliament’s Prohibitory Act, which made colonial ships and their cargo subject to seizure by the Crown if they were in the possession of “open enemies.” Additionally, the colonials learned that the British had hired German mercenary troops, called Hessians, to help put down rebel uprisings in the American colonies.

News of the king’s speech reached America in January 1776. Coincidently, at the same time, Thomas Paine’s inflammatory pamphlet Common Sense appeared in print. Paine, a fresh immigrant from England, sought advice from the prominent Philadelphia patriot leader, Dr. Benjamin Rush. In Common Sense, Paine asserted that the British government had two fatal “constitutional flaws”: monarchy and hereditary rule. He wrote that the Americans could only secure their future by declaring their independence. The new government would have to be founded on the principle of self-rule by the citizenry, rather than by a king or other hereditary ruler. Common Sense became a bestseller throughout the colonies. The pamphlet was widely read and opened the debate over independence, a subject that had previously been spoken about only in private.

Lee’s Resolution

In the Second Continental Congress, support for the cause of independence was growing rapidly. In mid-May 1776, Congress passed a resolution prompted by John Adams and Richard Henry Lee that called for the total suppression of “every king of authority under the…crown” and “the establishment of new state government.” At the same time, the Virginia delegates moved that Congress declare independence, negotiate alliances with foreign nations, and establish an American confederation. In early June, at the urging of John Adams, the lanky and patrician Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution that stated, “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.” Additionally, Lee moved that Congress “take the most effectual measures for forming foreign alliances” and prepare “a plan of confederation” for consideration by the individual states. Lee’s resolution set the stage for a formal Congressional declaration of independence.

Congress debated Lee’s resolution and, according to notes kept by Thomas Jefferson, most delegates realized that independence was inevitable but disagreed on the timing. Some of the delegates believed alliance should be established with European countries before proceeding while other delegates, such as those from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, were under instructions from their colonies precluding their vote for independence. The delegates put off a vote on Lee’s resolution until July, which allowed time for the delegates to seek guidance from the state assemblies. In the interim, the Congress appointed a committee to draft a document declaring and explaining independence if Lee’s resolution was approved by Congress.

Portrait of Richard Henry Lee.

Portrait of Richard Henry Lee.

Drafting of the Declaration of Independence

Congress appointed five members to prepare a draft of a declaration on independence. The five included: Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and the elder statesman from Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin. Though documentation is scant on details on how the committee proceeded, from the notes of Jefferson and Adams it is believed that the committee met and, with Adams’s recommendation, assigned Jefferson the task of writing the document based on the members’ inputs. According to Adams, the 33-year-old Jefferson was one with a “reputation of a masterly pen.”

Jefferson spent the next two days in his second floor boardinghouse room alone with his papers and thoughts to write the first draft. He was influenced by George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and his own draft of the Virginia Constitution. After completing the first draft, he submitted it to Adams and Franklin for their review. The two men, along with the other committee members, gave stylist comments for changes to the document. On June 28, the revised draft titled, “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled,” was presented to Congress for debate and approval.

During the final weeks of June, sentiment for independence was growing. The Revolutionary War had been fought within the colonies for over a year and the British military presence was growing as was hatred for the English aggressors. The states that had opposed independence began to instruct their delegates to vote for independence. Many of the states went so far as to issue their own declarations of independence. Though the state documents differed in form and substance, most spoke of the colonists’ past affection for the British Crown but listed many grievances that had forced their change of heart. The states protested he king’s neglect of the colonies, his endorsement of Prohibitory Acts, his hiring of German mercenary troops to battle the American rebels, his use of slaves and Indians against the colonists, and the destruction of their property and the loss of life caused by the British army.

Congress once again debated independence starting in July. The states remained divided, with nine in favor and two opposed—Pennsylvania and South Carolina—and Delaware’s delegates were split on the issue. The New York delegation abstained because their instructions from the state legislature were a year old and did not take into account recent developments. Events unfolded favorably for independence when Lee’s resolution came up for a vote. Delaware’s vote for independence solidified when another delegate, Caesar Rodney, arrived at the last minute; a few of the Pennsylvania delegates were absent for the vote; and the South Carolina delegates had moved in favor of the resolution. When the final vote occurred, delegates from 12 states voted for independence from Great Britain, none opposed, and the New Yorkers abstained.

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson (standing) editing the Declaration of Independence.

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson (standing) editing the Declaration of Independence.

Edits to the Declaration

For the next two days the delegates began editing the document that would become the Declaration of Independence. Only minor edits were made to the opening paragraphs, which Jefferson had worked so hard to craft. Eliminated entirely from the draft was the long paragraph that placed blame for the slave trade entirely on the king. Calling for the elimination of the slave trade was not acceptable for the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina. The delegates also made minor changes to several of the other paragraphs for clarification and to correct inaccuracies. Jefferson watched as the delegates edited his work, and afterwards he made several copies of the committee’s work to show how Congress had “mutilated” his work.

On July 4, 1776, Congress approved the revised text of the document and prepared it for printing as broadsides (poster size) under the supervision of the printing committee. The printer quickly prepared the copies to be sent out to the states with a cover letter from the Congress president, John Hancock. A few days later, New York gave its consent to the document, making the approval unanimous by all 13 states. When the news of New York’s approval reached Congress, they resolved “that the Declaration passed on the 4th, be fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of ‘The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.’ ” The first broadside of the document distributed to the states only had the names of John Hancock and Congress secretary Charles Thomson. The signing by all the delegates occurred on August 2, which became the copy most Americans are accustomed to seeing today. To keep the names of the signers of the Declaration out of the British hands, the full signed copy was not made available to the public until January 1777. Congress was well aware that the men who signed the Declaration would instantly be marked traitors in the eyes of the British, a crime punishable by hanging. Before releasing the names, Congress had also waited for some sign of hope that the Revolutionary War could be won, for the American military campaigns of 1776 were nearly the undoing of the rebel army.

The Declaration of Independence with signatures of the delegates.

The Declaration of Independence with signatures of the delegates.

Jefferson’s Inspiration

Jefferson’s purpose in writing the Declaration was not to set forth a new form of government, but to justify the American cause for independence and provide a philosophical rationale and political justification for the rebellion. In the document, Jefferson sought consensus, not originality, relying on the ideas of the day for inspiration. Writing years later, he noted the Declaration was “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…” He drew from the laws of natural philosophy, the British Whig tradition, the ideas from the Scottish enlightenment, and from the writings of the English philosopher John Locke. The Declaration proclaimed “self-evident trues” that all men are created equal and they possess certain God-given rights allocated to all humans. Among the “unalienable” rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson also asserted that government is instituted only to secure these rights and when government fails in this duty, the people have the right “to alter or abolish it.”

Grievances in the Declaration

After two eloquent and often quoted paragraphs at the beginning of the document, Jefferson goes into a long list of grievances against King George III. Many of the accusations had been enumerated in documents that Jefferson had written or helped write, such as, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms, and the Preamble to the Virginia Constitution. In the final version there were 19 grievances, one of which was divided into eight parts. Some of the more egregious offenses of the king were refusing his assent to laws necessary for the public good, dissolving properly elected state legislatures, creating new offices “to harass our people,” quartering armed troops in the colonies, imposing taxes without consent of the citizens, plundering our seas, ravaging coasts and plundering towns, and “transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny…” Jefferson ends the document with a statement of American freedom from British rule: “…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…”

The American Reaction to the Declaration of Independence

In the letter John Hancock sent with the original broadsides to the states, he called upon the states to proclaim the Declaration “in a manner, that the people my be universally informed of it.” The first public celebration of the Declaration took place on the streets of Philadelphia on July 8. John Adams recorded the event in a letter to Samuel Chase, writing: “Three cheers rended the welkin. The battalions paraded on the Common and gave us the feu de joie, not withstanding the scarcity of powder. The bells rang all day and almost all night.” In Massachusetts, the Declaration was read aloud after Sunday services in churches. In Virginia and Maryland, it was read to gatherings of people when the county court was in session.

By July 9, 1776, George and Martha Washington were in New York City and had seen the Declaration of Independence. General Washington ordered it read aloud from the balcony of City Hall at the foot of Broadway before a large crowd. After hearing the powerful words of the Declaration, soldiers and citizens reacted excitedly, throwing ropes around a large cast lead statue of King George III in Bowling Green, a park in lower Manhattan, and tore it down. The statue was massive, estimated at 4,000 pounds. The king was depicted on horseback, in Roman clothing, in the style of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. They then cut it into pieces and hauled it by wagons to Ridgefield, in western Connecticut, where it was melted down and turning into 42,088 lead bullets to be used against the British. General Washington also had the Declaration read before several brigades of the Continental army and was known to carry a copy with him throughout the Revolutionary War.

An angry crowd tears down the statue of King George III in New York City.

An angry crowd tears down the statue of King George III in New York City.

Fate of the Signers

Once the names of the signers fell into British hands, they became targets of the British troops and loyalists. Before the war ended, more than half of the signers had their property looted or destroyed. Others were imprisoned or forced into hiding by man hunts, and even their families were persecuted. One who suffered greatly at the hands of the British was the lawyer and delegate to Congress from New Jersey, Richard Stockton. When the British occupied Princeton, New Jersey, they ransacked all the houses, but paid special attention to Stockton’s home. They burnt his library, stole all his furniture and household belongings, and hauled him off to the New York prison called the Provost. He was placed in a section of the prison called Congress Hall, which was allotted for captured rebel leaders. After a request from Congress, Stockton was eventually released from prison, but his mental and physical health had been greatly impaired by the harsh treatment he received at the hands of his captors. Destitute, Stockton relied on the help of friends for support. He languished for several years, dying at Princeton in 1781, at age 51.

“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.”

— The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence and the Abolition of Slavery

After an initial flurry of excitement over the document and its implications, little attention was paid to the Declaration until the government of the United States was established. When Thomas Jefferson became the leader of the Jeffersonian Republican political party, the party members touted his authorship of the founding document, while John Adams, a leader in the opposing Federalist Party, relegated Jefferson’s contribution as merely putting the committee’s recommendations into words.

Over the years the document has been criticized for excluding Blacks and women from its bold assertion of equality and the obvious contradiction between that “all men are created equal” and the proliferation of slavery in America. In the early part of the nineteenth century, abolitionist leaders, such as Benjamin Lundy and William Lloyd Garrison, enlisted the Declaration into their cause. Defenders of slavery, both in the North and South, ardently denied that “all men” are “created equal” and have “unalienable rights.” They asserted that these statements only applied to white men, as the document was only meant to announce the independence of America from Great Britain.

While those interested in preserving the institution of slavery gave the Declaration the limited scope of just independence from Great Britain, others, like the abolitionists, took the words “created equal” more literally. Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the cause of equality was Abraham Lincoln. According to Lincoln and his fellow Republicans, the Declaration never implied “…all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity.” They believed the Declaration was not a relic of a distant past but a living document of continued significance. According to Lincoln, it was “a standard maxim for free society” that was to be enforced “as fast as circumstances should permit,” extending its influence and “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.” The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery, became an embodiment of the ideals of the Declaration. In the same spirit, the 14th Amendment passed shortly after Lincoln’s death precluded the states from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

No matter one’s historical or modern interpretation of the words and their meaning, the Declaration of Independence is one of the foundational documents of the United States of America.

Strip of four U.S. 13 cent postage stamps issued in 1976 commemorating the Declaration of Independence and the bicentennial of America.

Strip of four U.S. 13 cent postage stamps issued in 1976 commemorating the Declaration of Independence and the bicentennial of America.

References

  • Boyer, Paul S. (Editor in Chief) The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Goodrich, Charles A. and Thomas W. Lewis. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Updated with Index and 80 Rare, Historic Photos. RW Classic Books, 2018.
  • Maier, Pauline. Dictionary of American History. 3rd Ed., s.v. “Declaration of Independence” New York: Thompson-Gale, 2003.
  • Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress 1774-1790. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishing, 1950.
  • Randall, Willard S. George Washington: A Life. New York: Owl Books, 1997.
  • Transcript of the Declaration of Independence: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Doug West

Comments

Doug West (author) from Missouri on November 29, 2020:

Fran:

Thanks for the comment. I wonder myself what the signer would think about how America turned out? I am sure it would be a mixed review.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on November 28, 2020:

What an in-depth great article. Wonder what the signers would think of today's happenings! Thanks for your article.

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