Throughout the 1760s and early 1770s, the North American colonists found themselves increasingly at odds with British imperial policies regarding taxation and frontier policy.
When repeated protests failed to influence British policies, and instead resulted in the closing of the port of Boston and the declaration of martial law in Massachusetts, the colonial governments sent delegates to a Continental Congress to coordinate a colonial boycott of British goods.
Britain began to prepare for war in early 1775. The first fighting broke out in April in Massachusetts. In August, the King declared the colonists “in a state of open and avowed rebellion.” For the first time, many colonists began to seriously consider cutting ties with Britain.
When fighting broke out between American colonists and British forces in Massachusetts, the Continental Congress worked with local groups, originally intended to enforce the boycott, to coordinate resistance against the British. British officials throughout the colonies increasingly found their authority challenged by informal local governments, although loyalist sentiment remained strong in some areas.
Despite these changes, colonial leaders hoped to reconcile with the British Government, and all but the most radical members of Congress were unwilling to declare independence.
The colonists elected delegates to attend the Second Continental Congress that eventually became the governing body of the union during the Revolution. Its second meeting convened in Philadelphia in 1775. The delegates to Congress adopted strict rules of secrecy to protect the cause of American liberty and their own lives. In less than a year, most of the delegates abandoned hope of reconciliation with Britain.
Throughout the winter of 1775–1776, the members of the Continental Congress came to view reconciliation with Britain as unlikely, and independence the only course of action available to them.
When on December 22, 1775, the British Parliament prohibited trade with the colonies, Congress responded in April of 1776 by opening colonial ports – this was a major step towards severing ties with Britain.
The colonists were aided by the January publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, which advocated the colonies’ independence and was widely distributed throughout the colonies.
By February of 1776, colonial leaders were discussing the possibility of forming foreign alliances and began to draft the Model Treaty that would serve as a basis for the 1778 alliance with France.
Leaders for the cause of independence wanted to make certain that they had sufficient congressional support before they would bring the issue to the vote.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a resolution “that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states,” acting under the instruction of the Virginia Convention. The Lee Resolution contained three parts: a declaration of independence, a call to form foreign alliances, and “a plan for confederation.”
Other members of Congress were amenable but thought some colonies not quite ready. However, Congress did form a committee to draft a declaration of independence and assigned this duty to Thomas Jefferson.
The publication of Thomas Paine’s stirring pamphlet Common Sense in early 1776 lit a fire under this previously unthinkable idea. The movement for independence was now in full swing.
On June 11, 1776, the Congress appointed three concurrent committees in response to the Lee Resolution: one to draft a declaration of independence, a second to draw up a plan “for forming foreign alliances,” and a third to “prepare and digest the form of a confederation.”
They appointed a Committee of Five to write an announcement explaining the reasons for independence. Thomas Jefferson, who chaired the committee and had established himself as a bold and talented political writer, wrote the first draft.
On June 11, 1776, Jefferson holed up in his Philadelphia boarding house and began to write. Jefferson’s writing was influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, as well as by his study of natural rights theory and the writings of John Locke, including Two Treatises of Government.
Jefferson later explained that “he was not striving for originality of principal or sentiment.” Instead, he hoped his words served as an “expression of the American mind.”
Through the many revisions made by Jefferson, the committee, and then by Congress, Jefferson retained his prominent role in writing the defining document of the American Revolution and, indeed, of the United States. Jefferson was critical of changes to the document and was justly proud of his role in writing the Declaration of Independence and skillfully defended his authorship of this hallowed document. (LOC)
Less than three weeks after he’d begun, the draft went to Congress. He was not pleased when Congress “mangled” his composition by cutting and changing much of his carefully chosen wording. He was especially sorry they removed the part blaming King George III for the slave trade, although he knew the time wasn’t right to deal with the issue.
On July 2, 1776, Congress voted to declare independence. Two days later, it ratified the text of the Declaration.
John Dunlap, official printer to Congress, worked through the night to set the Declaration in type and print approximately 200 copies. These copies, known as the Dunlap Broadsides, were sent to various committees, assemblies, and commanders of the Continental troops. The Dunlap Broadsides weren’t signed, but John Hancock’s name appears in large type at the bottom.
One copy crossed the Atlantic, reaching King George III months later. The official British response scolded the “misguided Americans” and “their extravagant and inadmissable Claim of Independency”.
On July 19, once all 13 colonies had signified their approval of the Declaration of Independence, Congress ordered that it be “fairly engrossed on parchment.” (To “engross” is to write in a large, clear hand.) Timothy Matlack, an assistant to the Secretary of the Congress, was most likely the penman.
On August 2, the journal of the Continental Congress records that “The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed.”
John Hancock, President of the Congress, signed first. The delegates then signed by state from north to south. Some signed after August 2. A few refused. George Washington was away with his troops. Ultimately, 56 delegates signed the Declaration.
Unlike the other founding documents, the Declaration of Independence is not legally binding, but it is powerful. Abraham Lincoln called it “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to tyranny and oppression.” It continues to inspire people around the world to fight for freedom and equality.
The Declaration of Independence was designed for multiple audiences: the King, the colonists, and the world. It was also designed to multitask. Its goals were to rally the troops, win foreign allies, and to announce the creation of a new country.
The introductory sentence states the Declaration’s main purpose, to explain the colonists’ right to revolution. In other words, “to declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Congress had to prove the legitimacy of its cause. It had just defied the most powerful nation on Earth. It needed to motivate foreign allies to join the fight.
These are the lines contemporary Americans know best: “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.” These stirring words were designed to convince Americans to put their lives on the line for the cause.
Separation from the mother country threatened their sense of security, economic stability, and identity. The preamble sought to inspire and unite them through the vision of a better life.
The list of 27 complaints against King George III constitute the proof of the right to rebellion. Congress cast “the causes which impel them to separation” in universal terms for an international audience. Join our fight, reads the subtext, and you join humankind’s fight against tyranny.
The most important and dramatic statement comes near the end: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” It declares a complete break with Britain and its King and claims the powers of an independent country.
About the Signers
Fifty-six men from each of the original 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence – they mutually pledged “to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”
Nine of the signers were immigrants, two were brothers and two were cousins. Eighteen of the signers were merchants or businessmen, 14 were farmers and four were doctors. Twenty-two were lawyers and nine were judges.
The average age of a signer was 45. Benjamin Franklin was the oldest delegate at 70. The youngest was Thomas Lynch Jr. of South Carolina at 27.
American Revolutionary War
By the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) and Great Britain had been at war for more than a year.
That war lasted from April 19, 1775 (with the Battles of Lexington and Concord) to September 3, 1783; it lasted 8 years, 4 months, 2 weeks and 1 day.
Then, the sovereignty of the United States was recognized over the territory bounded roughly by what is now Canada to the north, Florida to the south, and the Mississippi River to the west.
The British captured five signers during the war. Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward and Arthur Middleton were captured at the Battle of Charleston in 1780. George Walton was wounded and captured at the Battle of Savannah; Richard Stockton was incarcerated at the hands of British Loyalists.
Eleven signers had their homes and property destroyed. Francis Lewis’s New York home was razed and his wife taken prisoner. John Hart’s farm and mills were destroyed when the British invaded New Jersey, and he died while fleeing capture.
Fifteen of the signers participated in their states’ constitutional conventions, and six – Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Benjamin Franklin, George Clymer, James Wilson and George Reed – signed the US Constitution.
Here are a couple myths about the 4th of July and the Declaration of Independence:
#1 Independence Was Declared on the Fourth of July
America’s independence was actually declared by the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776. The Lee Resolution, also known as the resolution of independence, …
… was an act of the Second Continental Congress declaring the United Colonies to be independent of the British Empire. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia first proposed it on June 7, 1776; it was formally approved on July 2, 1776.
So what happened on the Fourth? The document justifying the act of Congress – Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence – was adopted on the fourth, as is indicated on the document itself.
#2 The Declaration of Independence Was Signed July 4
Hanging in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States is a vast canvas painting by John Trumbull depicting the signing of the Declaration.
Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote, years afterward, that the signing ceremony took place on July 4. When someone challenged Jefferson’s memory in the early 1800s Jefferson insisted he was right.
However, David McCullough remarks in his biography of Adams, “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.”
So when was it signed? Most delegates signed the document on August 2, when a clean copy was finally produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Several did not sign until later. And their names were not released to the public until January 1777.
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Charles Carroll were the longest surviving signers of the Declaration of Independence. Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; Carroll was the last signer to die – in 1832 – at the age of 95.
Click the following link to a general summary about the Declaration of Independence: