United States Declaration of Independence
U.S. Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence is a 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. A signed copy is on display to the public in the National Archives in Washington, DC. The independence of the American colonies was recognized by Great Britain on September 3, 1783, by the Treaty of Paris.
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."
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 original draft included a denunciation of the slave trade, which was later edited out. His draft was presented to the Continental Congress on July 1, 1776. The Declaration was rewritten somewhat in general session prior to its adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, at the Pennsylvania State House. The adopted 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". The original has never been found. The 25 Dunlap broadsides still known to exist are the oldest surviving copies of the Declaration.
Fragment of an early draft of the Declaration
The Declaration is divided into three main sections: a preamble, a list of grievances, and a conclusion. The preamble, the most celebrated part of the document, states that whenever a people decide to revolt, they are obligated to "declare the causes which impel them to the separation." It is mainly a sequential argument in support of the revolution:
1. All men are created equal
2. They are guaranteed by God a set of unalienable rights
3. Governments are established to safeguard these rights, and derive their just power from the consent of the governed
4. Whenever a government neglects its duties, the people have a right to change or abolish it and form a new government that will guarantee their safety and happiness
5. Long-established governments should not be overthrown for trivial reasons
6. However, repeated crimes and abuses require that the people revolt
7. Such has been the case with Great Britain
The Declaration then backs up its argument with a long list of grievances against the King and his actions. There are some historians that claim that many of the complaints are exagerrated propaganda, but that overall they are an accurate portrayal of royal crimes. Once the King's guilt is sufficiently proven, the document concludes with a statement on British-American relationships, a formal declaration of America's independence and powers as a sovereign nation, and a pledge by the signers to support the Declaration with their "Lives," "Fortunes," and "sacred Honor."
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. Word of the declaration reached London on August 10.
Several myths surround the document: because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people falsely believe it was signed on that date. John Hancock's name is larger than that of the other signatories, and an unfounded legend states that it is large so 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, 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.
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.
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.
The Declaration appeals strongly to the concept of natural law and self-determination. The Declaration is heavily influenced by the Act of Abjuration of the Dutch Republic and by the Discourses of Algernon Sydney, to whose legacy Jefferson and Adams were equally devoted. Ideas and even some of the phrasing was taken directly from the writings of John Locke, particularly his second treatise on government, titled "Essay Concerning the true original, extent, and end of Civil Government."
The Declaration of Independence contains many of the founding fathers' fundamental principles, some of which were later codified in the United States Constitution. It has also been used as the model of a number of later documents such as the declarations of independence of Vietnam and Rhodesia.
Inalienable vs. unalienable
"Inalienable", etymologically, comes from the French word inaliénable, and is more usually used in legal documents than "unalienable."
The idea of inalienable rights, in almost the exact phrasing used in the Declaration of Independence, came from the political philosopher John Locke. The Declaration of Independence was to a large degree inspired by his work "The Second Treatise of Government". In this treatise, Locke developed the important idea of government by consent. Locke wrote that human beings had certain inalienable rights.
Thomas Jefferson originally wrote "inalienable". When subsequent printed and hand-copied reproductions were made, John Adams, fellow Declaration Committee member (and later second President of the United States), arbitrarily had the word changed to "unalienable"; which he believed more correct. The original signed version of the final draft (i.e. the master document) of the Declaration of Independence and the inscription on the Jefferson Memorial both read "inalienable". However, the copy in the National Archives reads "unalienable".
Text of the Declaration
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.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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. -- Such has been the patient sufferance of 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 Facts be submitted to a candid world.
- [List of charges against the King follows]
The conclusion and formal declaration: 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 Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Signers of the Declaration
The signers of the Declaration represented the new states as follows:
- Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton Massachusetts:
- John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, 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:
- Caesar Rodney, George Read, 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
National Bureau of Standards preserving the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1951
- National Archives Declaration of Independence Page
- The Declaration of Independence: A History A National Archives page detailing the history of the physical document from conception to today.
- The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence By Stephen E. Lucas - A thorough linguistic examination of the document.
- "Drafting of the Declaration of Independence. The Committee: Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Livingston, and Sherman." 1776. Copy of engraving after Alonzo Chappel. - credits National Archives and Records Administration -- large version
- Mural of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull -- *large version
- Teaching about the Declaration of Independence
- Video of Declaration of Independence being read by Mel Gibson, Michael Douglas, Kevin Spacey, Whoopi Goldberg, Edward Norton, Benicio Del Toro, Renee Zellweger, Winona Ryder, Graham Greene (actor), Ming-Na, and Kathy Bates. Introduction is by Morgan Freeman.
- U.S. Independence celebrated on the wrong day? - National Geographic
- Download High-resolution images of DeclarationFrom the National Archives
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