United States Declaration of Independence

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: North American History

United States Declaration of Independence
United States Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is the document in which the United Colonies in North America declared themselves independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain as the new nation, The United States of America. The Declaration explained the justifications for doing so. It was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This anniversary is celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. A later copy was engrossed and signed by the delegates; it is on display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It is considered to be one of America's most important founding documents, and July 4 is celebrated as the birthday of the USA.



Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration.
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration.

Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, relations between Great Britain and thirteen of her North American colonies became increasingly strained. Fighting broke out in 1775 at Lexington and Concord, marking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Although there was little initial sentiment for outright independence, the view of the British as oppressors had widened after the passage of the Intolerable Acts, which struck strongly against colonial self-rule. The rising tide against British rule was exemplified and strengthened by works such as the Suffolk Resolves in Massachusetts during 1774 and Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense, released in January 1776.

Draft and adoption

In June of 1776, a committee of the Second Continental Congress consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut (the " Committee of Five"), was formed to draft a suitable declaration to frame this resolution. The committee decided that Jefferson would write the draft, which he showed to Franklin and Adams. Franklin himself made at least 48 corrections. Jefferson then produced another copy incorporating these changes, and the committee presented this copy to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776.

Independence was declared on July 2, 1776, pursuant to the " Lee Resolution" presented by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia on June 7, 1776, which read (in part): '"Resolved: 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."'

The full Declaration was rewritten somewhat in general session of the Continental Congress. Congress, meeting in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, finished revising Jefferson's draft statement on July 4, approved it, and sent it to a printer.

Distribution and copies

John Trumbull's famous painting          is usually incorrectly identified as a depiction of the signing of the Declaration, but it actually shows the drafting committee presenting its work to the Congress.
John Trumbull's famous painting is usually incorrectly identified as a depiction of the signing of the Declaration, but it actually shows the drafting committee presenting its work to the Congress.

After its adoption by Congress on July 4, a handwritten draft signed by the President of Congress John Hancock and the Secretary Charles Thomson was then sent a few blocks away to the printing shop of John Dunlap. Through the night between 150 and 200 copies were made, now known as " Dunlap broadsides". One was sent to George Washington on July 6, who had it read to his troops in New York on July 9. A copy reached London on August 10. The 25 Dunlap broadsides still known to exist are the oldest surviving copies of the document. The original handwritten copy has not survived.

On July 19 Congress ordered a copy be "engrossed" (hand written in fair script on parchment by an expert penman) for the delegates to sign. This engrossed copy was produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Most of the delegates signed it on August 2, 1776, in geographic order of their colonies from north to south, though some delegates were not present and had to sign later. Two delegates never signed at all. As new delegates joined the congress, they were also allowed to sign. A total of 56 delegates eventually signed. This engrossed copy is now on display at the National Archives.

The original signed Declaration is now at the National Archives.
The original signed Declaration is now at the National Archives.

On January 18, 1777, the Continental Congress ordered that the declaration be more widely distributed. The second printing was made by Mary Katharine Goddard. The first printing had included only the names John Hancock and Charles Thomson. Goddard's printing was the first to list all signatories.

In 1823, printer William J. Stone was commissioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to create an engraving of the document essentially identical to the original. Stone's copy was made using a wet-ink transfer process, where the surface of the document was moistened, and some of the original ink transferred to the surface of a copper plate which was then etched so that copies could be run off the plate on a press. Because of poor conservation of the 1776 document through the 19th century, Stone's engraving, rather than the original, has become the basis of most modern reproductions.

The first German translation of the Declaration was published July 6-8, 1776, as a broadside in unfolded form by the printing press of Steiner & Cist of Philadelphia.

National Bureau of Standards preserving the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1951
National Bureau of Standards preserving the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1951

Gustafson (2004) traces the paths taken by the original manuscript copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights prior to being placed permanently in the National Archives. From 1776 to 1921 the Declaration moved from one city to another and to different public buildings until placed in the Department of State library. The Constitution was never exhibited, and the Bill of Rights' provenance up to 1938 is largely unknown. From 1921 to 1952 the Declaration and the Constitution were at the Library of Congress, and the National Archives held the Bill of Rights.

In 1952 the librarian of Congress and the US archivist agreed on moving the Declaration and the Constitution to the National Archives. Since 1953 the three documents have been called the Charters of Freedom. Encased in 1951, by the early 1980's deterioration threatened the documents. In 2001, using the latest in preservation technology, conservators treated the documents and reencased them in encasements made of titanium and aluminium. They were put on display again with the opening of the remodeled National Archives Rotunda in 2003.

Annotated text of the Declaration

The text of the Declaration of Independence can be divided into five sections: the Introduction, the Preamble, the Indictment of George III, the Denunciation of the British people, and the Conclusion. (Note that these five headings are not part of the text of the document.)


These principles show why independence is a necessity.

In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

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.


Outlines a general philosophy of government that makes revolution justifiable.

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 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 hath shewn, 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.


A bill of particulars documenting the king's "repeated injuries and usurpations" of the Americans' rights and liberties.

Such has been the patient sufferance so 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 the 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 mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured 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 benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring 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 compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & 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 endeavoured 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.


This section essentially finished the case for independence. The conditions that justified revolution and have been shown.

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.

The signers assert that there exist conditions under which people must change their government, that the British have produced such conditions, and by necessity the colonies must throw off political ties with the British Crown and become independent states. The conclusion contains, at its core, the Lee Resolution that had been passed on July 2.

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 Honour.

The first and most famous signature on the engrossed copy was that of John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress. Two future presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were among the signatories. Edward Rutledge (age 26), was the youngest signer, and Benjamin Franklin (age 70) was the oldest signer. The fifty-six signers of the Declaration represented the new states as follows (from North to South):

  • New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
  • Massachusetts: Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
  • Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
  • Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
  • New York: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
  • New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark
  • Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
  • Delaware: George Read, Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean
  • Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
  • Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton
  • North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
  • South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton
  • Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Differences between draft and final versions

Fragment of an early draft of the Declaration
Fragment of an early draft of the Declaration

The Declaration went through three stages from conception to final adoption:

  1. Jefferson's original draft.
  2. Jefferson's draft with revisions from Franklin and Adams. This was the document submitted by the Committee of Five to the Congress.
  3. The final version, which included changes made by the full Congress.

Jefferson's original draft included a denunciation of the slave trade ("He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."), which was later edited out by Congress, as was a lengthy criticism of the British people and parliament. According to Jefferson:

"The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offense."


Historical influences

The United States Declaration of Independence was influenced by the 1581 Dutch Republic declaration of independence, called the Oath of Abjuration. The Kingdom of Scotland's 1320 Declaration of Arbroath was undoubtedly also an influence as the first known formal declaration of independence. Jefferson drew on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been adopted in June 1776.

Philosophical background

The Preamble of the Declaration is influenced by the spirit of republicanism, which was used as the basic framework for liberty. In addition, it reflects Enlightenment philosophy, including the concepts of natural law, self-determination, and Deism. Ideas and even some of the phrasing was taken directly from the writings of English philosopher John Locke, particularly his Second Treatise on Government, titled "Essay Concerning the true original, extent, and end of Civil Government." In this treatise, Locke espoused the idea of government by consent. Locke wrote that human beings had certain natural rights. Other influences included the Discourses of Algernon Sydney, and the writings of Wawrzyniec Grzymala Goslicki and Thomas Paine. According to Jefferson, the purpose of the Declaration was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of . . . but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

International Law

Armitage (2002) examines the Declaration of Independence in the context of late-18th-century international law and argues its legitimacy derived more from its broad appeal to diverse audiences than from its comportment with extant principles of international relations. He analyzes the Declaration's structure and fundamental arguments, concluding that its partial reliance on an individual natural rights political discourse seemed outdated, if not obsolete, in an international arena where positivist jurisprudential philosophy was increasingly becoming the preferred referent. Armitage highlights the consequent apprehension felt by leading American statesmen during 1776-78, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, as the manifesto circulated throughout Europe receiving an ambiguous reception at best. Nonetheless, with the de jure acceptance of US independence in the Treaty of Paris (1783), arguments regarding the legal foundations of the Declaration of Independence became irrelevant, as its objective and its success as a document written to appeal to internal as well as foreign audiences became more widely recognized and admired.

Practical effects

Some historians believe that the Declaration was used as a propaganda tool, in which the Americans tried to establish clear reasons for their rebellion that might persuade reluctant colonists to join them and establish their just cause to foreign governments that might lend them aid. The Declaration also served to unite the members of the Continental Congress. Most were aware that they were signing what would be their death warrant in case the Revolution failed, and the Declaration served to make anything short of victory in the Revolution unthinkable. (Or, as Benjamin Franklin wryly noted: "We must all now hang together, or we will all surely hang separately.")

Influence on other documents

The Declaration of Independence contains many of the founding fathers' fundamental principles, some of which were later codified in the United States Constitution. It was the model for the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention Declaration of Sentiments. It has also been used as the model of a number of later documents such as the declarations of independence of Vietnam and Rhodesia. In the United States, the Declaration has been frequently quoted in political speeches, such as Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech.

The Declaration of Independence also acted as inspiration for parts of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the fundamental documents of the French Revolution. The Declaration also influenced the 1945 Vietnam Declaration of Independence written by Ho Chi Minh.

Popular culture

A fictionalized (but somewhat historically accurate) version of how the Declaration came about is the musical play (and 1972 movie) 1776, which is usually termed a "musical comedy" but deals frankly with the political issues, especially how disagreement over the institution of slavery almost defeated the Declaration's adoption.

The Declaration of Independence is also the central subject of the 2004 film National Treasure, starring Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger. In the film, a hidden treasure map on the back of the Declaration leads treasure hunters to a cache of wealth hidden from the British by Freemasons during the American Revolutionary War.


Several myths surround the document:

  • Because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people believe it was signed on that date—in fact, most of the delegates signed the Declaration on August 2, 1776.
  • The famous painting by John Trumbull, which hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol, is (as mentioned in the caption above) usually incorrectly described as the signing of the Declaration, when what it actually shows is the five-man drafting committee presenting its work. Trumbull depicts most of the eventual signers as being present on this occasion, but this gathering never took place.
  • The Liberty Bell was not rung to celebrate independence, but to call the local inhabitants to hear the reading of the document on July 8, and it certainly did not acquire its crack on so doing; that story comes from a children's book of fiction, Legends of the American Revolution, by George Lippard. The Liberty Bell was actually named in the early nineteenth century when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.

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