Declaration of Independence (United States)

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U.S. Declaration of Independence
U.S. Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is the document in which the Thirteen Colonies declared themselves independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain and explained their justifications for doing so. It was ratified by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776; this anniversary is celebrated as Independence Day in the United States. The original signed copy of the document is on display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.




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

Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, relations between Great Britain and thirteen of her North American colonies had become 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 pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine was able to promote the belief that total independence was the only possible route for the colonies.

Independence was adopted on July 2, 1776, pursuant to the "Lee Resolution" presented to the Continental Congress 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."

Draft and Adoption

On June 11, 1776, a committee 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, was formed to draft a suitable declaration to frame this resolution. Jefferson did most of the writing, with input from the committee. His draft was presented to the Continental Congress on July 1, 1776.

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

The full Declaration was rewritten somewhat in general session prior to its adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, at the Pennsylvania State House. This version was only signed by the President of the Congress John Hancock and the Secreatary Charles Thomson. A famous signing ceremony, often attributed to July 4th, actually took place on August 2nd.


After its adoption by Congress on July 4, a copy 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. The 25 Dunlap broadsides still known to exist are the oldest surviving copies of the document.

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. Mary's printing was the first to list all signatories.

Word of the declaration reached London on August 10.


John Trumbull's famous painting depicts the signing of the Declaration. This depiction can also be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. [1]
John Trumbull's famous painting depicts the signing of the Declaration. This depiction can also be found on the back of the U.S. $2 bill. [1]

On July 19, 1776, Congress ordered a copy be handwritten for the delegates to sign. This copy of the Declaration 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 is the copy on display at the National Archives.

The first and most famous signature on the Declaration was that of John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress. The other fifty-five signers of the Declaration represented the new states as follows:

New Hampshire
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton;
Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry;
Rhode Island
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery;
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;
Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross;
Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean;
Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton;
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;
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton.

Annotated text of the Declaration

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

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.


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.


  • The preamble is presented as a logical demonstration, with one proposition leading to another proposition. From the first proposition (that all men are created equal), a chain of logic is produced that leads to the right of revolution when a government becomes destructive of the people's rights.

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 in the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a 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.


The Declaration proclaims George III to be a "Tyrant...unfit to be the Ruler of a free People."
The Declaration proclaims George III to be a "Tyrant...unfit to be the Ruler of a free People."

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.

  • The signers then list 27 grievances against the British Crown. Many of the grievances are examples of violations of fundamental English law, such as "imposing taxes on us without our Consent", and "depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury". Some historians claim that some of the grievances are exaggerated propaganda (such as the "Swarms of Officers" in truth referring to about fifty men ordered to prevent smuggling).

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.


The Declaration of Independence was signed with the Syng inkstand, which is on display at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
The Declaration of Independence was signed with the Syng inkstand, which is on display at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
  • The signers assert that (since conditions exist under which people must change their government, and the British have produced such conditions) the colonies must necessarily 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 the 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 the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Differences between draft and final versions

Thomas 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, as was a lengthy criticism of the British people and parliament. Also, Jefferson's draft used the phrase "inherent and inalienable rights", which was changed to "certain unalienable rights." Jefferson created a collation of his draft and the final version in his autobiography, which quotes both as using the word "inalienable" rather than "unalienable".


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

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 is also thought to have drawn on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which had been adopted in July 1776.

Philosophical background

The Preamble of the Declaration is influenced by 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 Preamble 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."

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.

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.

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 Nicholas Cage and Diane Kruger. In the film, a hidden treasure map on the back of the Declaration leads treasure hunters to a hidden cache of wealth, hidden from the British by Freemasons during the Revolutionary War.


Several myths surround the document:

  • Because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people falsely believe it was signed on that date.
  • An unfounded legend states that John Hancock signed his name so large that King George III would be able to read it without his spectacles.
  • A painting by John Trumbull, depicting the signing of the Declaration with all representatives present, hangs in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States: no such ceremony ever took place.
  • There is no evidence that Benjamin Franklin ever made the statement often attributed to him: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately".
  • The Liberty Bell was not rung to celebrate independence, but to call the local inhabitants to hear the reading of the document on July 8th, 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.

See also

Image:We The People.jpg
Founding Documents
of the United States
Declaration of Independence (1776)
Articles of Confederation (1777)
Constitution (1787)
Bill of Rights (1789)
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