Independence from Britain
The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in the history of the United States. It marked an official step taken by the American colonies toward independence from British rule.
Many colonists were unhappy with laws that collected taxes but did not give them a say in government. The Stamp Act of 1765, for example, collected taxes on items made of paper such as legal documents, newspapers, and even playing cards. The Townshend Acts of 1767 were a series of acts that involved taxing the colonies to raise revenue for Great Britain.
The Boston Tea Party in 1773, when men boarded a ship full of British tea and dumped it into Boston Harbor, was a protest against taxation without representation. The discontent of the colonists, such as the colonial lack of participation in government, led to war with Great Britain.
During the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), delegates to the Second Continental Congress met in the summer of 1776 to discuss independence from Great Britain. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee, a statesman from Virginia, appointed a committee to investigate how the colonies could become independent. Lee called for the drafting of an official statement of independence. John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman were instructed to draft a resolution. On July 2, 1776, the Congress voted to declare independence from England. After two days of debate and some changes to the document, the Congress voted to accept the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This action represented a formal separation of the American colonies from Great Britain.
Writing the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration is a combination of general principles and an abstract theory of government. The fundamental American ideal of government is based on the theory of natural rights. The opening paragraphs of the document outline the natural rights afforded to all people, calling them self-evident truths, and using them to form the basis of a governmental system. The second portion of the document describes how King George III had disregarded those natural rights to establish a tyranny over the colonies and sets up a justification for American independence. As you read the Declaration of Independence, see how the first part gives notice of the break with England and the reasons for the break. The last part is the list of grievances or complaints against King George III.
One of the most famous phrases in the Declaration is the second sentence: “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 those are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Writing and signing the Declaration of Independence took courage, since the signers would be acting against authority and could be accused of treason, but the drafting of the document was an important step in the founding of our Government.
The Declaration of Independence was first written by Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson had finished his draft, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Jefferson met to make changes. This version was sent to the Second Continental Congress on July 2, and after two days of debate and revisions, the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776. On July 19, the Second Continental Congress ordered that an official copy of the document be made.
Signing the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, but it was not signed until almost a month later. The Congress did not have the approval of all 13 colonies until July 9, 1776. On July 19, the Congress ordered that an official copy of the document be created. The order called for handwritten ornamental script to be used on parchment paper with the title “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America.” The signing of the Declaration of Independence took place on August 2, 1776.
As President of the Second Continental Congress, John Hancock was the first to sign this historic document. He used large bold script and signed under the text in the center of the page. At that time, a general practice was to sign below text on the right and by geographic location. Using this protocol, signatures of the New Hampshire delegates began the list with the column on the right. Delegates from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, the southernmost states, ended the list with the column on the left. Some of the delegates were not in Philadelphia on that day, but signed the document later. One of the New Hampshire delegates, Matthew Thornton, added his signature later at the bottom of the right column. Not all delegates signed the document.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence included future Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Members of the United States Congress. Below are the names of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the states that they represented:
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Robert Treat Paine
Declaration of Independence Facts and Figures
- The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence included future Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Members of the United States Congress.
- John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress and a Governor of Massachusetts, was the first to sign; he used such a large, bold script that people now speak of a ‘John Hancock’ to mean a signature.
- The Declaration of Independence, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is on public display at the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, DC.