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Declaration of Independence,full and formal declaration adopted July 4, 1776, by representatives of the Thirteen Colonies in North America announcing the separation of those colonies from Great Britain and making them into the United States.
The Road to Its Adoption
Official acts that colonists considered infringements upon their rights had previously led to the Stamp Act Congress (1765) and to the First Continental Congress (1774), but these were predominantly conservative assemblies that sought redress from the crown and reconciliation, not independence. The overtures of the First Continental Congress in 1774 came to nothing, discontent grew, and as the armed skirmishes at Lexington and Concord (Apr. 19, 1775) developed into the American Revolution, many members of the Second Continental CongressContinental Congress,
1774–89, federal legislature of the Thirteen Colonies and later of the United States in the American Revolution and under the Articles of Confederation (see Confederation, Articles of).
..... Click the link for more information. of Philadelphia followed the leadership of John HancockHancock, John,
1737–93, political leader in the American Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Braintree, Mass. From an uncle he inherited Boston's leading mercantile firm, and naturally he opposed the Stamp Act (1765) and other British trade
..... Click the link for more information. , John AdamsAdams, John,
1735–1826, 2d President of the United States (1797–1801), b. Quincy (then in Braintree), Mass., grad. Harvard, 1755. John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams, founded one of the most distinguished families of the United States; their son, John Quincy
..... Click the link for more information. , and Samuel AdamsAdams, Samuel,
1722–1803, political leader in the American Revolution, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Boston, Mass.; second cousin of John Adams. An unsuccessful businessman, he became interested in politics and was a member (1765–74) and clerk
..... Click the link for more information. in demanding independence.
The delegates from Virginia and North Carolina were in fact specifically instructed on independence and on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry LeeLee, Richard Henry,
1732–94, political leader in the American Revolution, b. Westmoreland co., Va.; brother of Arthur Lee, Francis L. Lee, and William Lee. He served in the house of burgesses (1758–75), where he favored ending the slave trade.
..... Click the link for more information. called for a resolution of independence. On June 11, John Adams, Benjamin FranklinFranklin, Benjamin,
1706–90, American statesman, printer, scientist, and writer, b. Boston. The only American of the colonial period to earn a European reputation as a natural philosopher, he is best remembered in the United States as a patriot and diplomat.
..... Click the link for more information. , Thomas JeffersonJefferson, Thomas,
1743–1826, 3d President of the United States (1801–9), author of the Declaration of Independence, and apostle of agrarian democracy. Early Life
Jefferson was born on Apr. 13, 1743, at "Shadwell," in Goochland (now in Albemarle) co.
..... Click the link for more information. , Robert R. Livingston (see under LivingstonLivingston,
family of American statesmen, diplomats, and jurists. Robert R. Livingston (1654–1728)
Robert R. Livingston, 1654–1728, b. Roxburghshire, Scotland, was raised in Holland and immigrated to America in 1673 after his father died.
..... Click the link for more information. ), and Roger ShermanSherman, Roger,
1721–93, American political leader, b. Newton, Mass. Sherman helped to draft and signed the Declaration of Independence. He was long a member (1774–81, 1783–84) of the Continental Congress, helped to draw up the Articles of Confederation, and
..... Click the link for more information. were instructed to draft such a declaration; the actual writing was entrusted to Jefferson. The first draft was revised by Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson before it was sent to Congress, where it was again changed. That final draft was adopted July 4, 1776, and Independence Day has been the chief American patriotic holiday ever since. It is interesting to note, however, that the July 4 document is merely a fuller statement justifying the resolution of independence adopted by Congress on July 2, 1776.
The Declaration and Its Importance
The Declaration of Independence is the most important of all American historical documents. It is essentially a partisan document, a justification of the American Revolution presented to the world; but its unique combination of general principles and an abstract theory of government with a detailed enumeration of specific grievances and injustices has given it enduring power as one of the great political documents of the West. After stating its purpose, the opening paragraphs (given here in the form used in the engrossed copy) assert the fundamental American ideal of government, based on the theory of natural rightsnatural rights,
political theory that maintains that an individual enters into society with certain basic rights and that no government can deny these rights. The modern idea of natural rights grew out of the ancient and medieval doctrines of natural law, i.e.
..... Click the link for more information. , which had been held by, among others, John LockeLocke, John
, 1632–1704, English philosopher, founder of British empiricism. Locke summed up the Enlightenment in his belief in the middle class and its right to freedom of conscience and right to property, in his faith in science, and in his confidence in the goodness of
..... Click the link for more information. , Emerich de VattelVattel, Emerich de
, 1714–67, Swiss philosopher and jurist. He served (1746–58) as Saxon minister at Bern and later in the cabinet of Augustus III at Dresden.
..... Click the link for more information. , and Jean Jacques RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works
Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
..... Click the link for more information. .
"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 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."
Then follows an indictment of George IIIGeorge III,
1738–1820, king of Great Britain and Ireland (1760–1820); son of Frederick Louis, prince of Wales, and grandson of George II, whom he succeeded. He was also elector (and later king) of Hanover, but he never visited it.
..... Click the link for more information. for willfully infringing those rights in order to establish an "absolute Tyranny" over the colonies. The document states that colonial patience had achieved nothing and therefore the colonists found themselves forced to declare their independence. The stirring closing paragraph is the formal pronouncement of independence and is borrowed from the resolution of 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 Honor."
Signers of the Declaration
Not all the men who helped draw up or voted for the Declaration signed it (Robert R. Livingston, for example, did not) nor were all the signers present at its adoption. All the signatures except six (Wythe, R. H. Lee, Wolcott, Gerry, McKean, and Thornton) were affixed on Aug. 2, 1776. The first is that of John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. The remaining 55 (see individual articles on each) are those of Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott, William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris, 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, William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton, Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, and George Walton.
See studies by J. H. Hazelton (1906, repr. 1970), C. L. Becker (1922, repr. 1962), and F. R. Donovan (1968); D. Malone, The Story of the Declaration of Independence (1954); D. F. Hawke, A Transaction of Free Men (1964, repr. 1989); R. Ginsberg, ed., A Casebook on the Declaration of Independence (1967); G. Wills, Inventing America (1979); J. Fliegelman, Declaring Independence (1993); P. Maier American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1997); J. N. Rakove, ed., The Annotated U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence (2009); J. J. Ellis, Revolutionary Summer (2013).
Independence, Declaration of:see Declaration of IndependenceDeclaration of Independence,
full and formal declaration adopted July 4, 1776, by representatives of the Thirteen Colonies in North America announcing the separation of those colonies from Great Britain and making them into the United States.
..... Click the link for more information. .