Name: ___________________________ Americans Declare Independence Date:
The 4th of July, Independence Day, the day in 1776 that the American colonists declared their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America. Thomas Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal – and America was free. Many Americans know this story, but don’t really know this story. Declaring independence and writing the Declaration of Independence took time, debate, discussion, and compromise. Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence did not secure independence for America; much work remained.
The war started in Lexington MA, in April of 1775. The Battle of Bunker Hill took place in June, 1775. Both Great Britain and the American colonists realized war existed. Still, by May of 1776 many of the colonial leaders serving in the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, PA did not want to break away from Great Britain. In fact, delegates from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York received directions from their colonies that they COULD NOT vote for independence, they could ONLY work to stay with Britain.
By June 1, 1776 many, but not nearly all delegates felt the colonists should declare independence. John Adams of Massachusetts argued repeatedly for the colonies to break from Britain. Some towns in Massachusetts and Virginia began to declare independence on their own. Early in 1776, writer Thomas Paine published a pamphlet titled Common Sense in which he argued that it was time for Americans do break from Great Britain. He stated that “A government of our own is our natural right”(excerpt 1) and that the time for independence had come. Yet opponents to independence, both in and out of the Congress remained. Many American colonists simply wanted to stay with Great Britain.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia made a proposal in Congress. He proposed that:
“The 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.” (excerpt 2) Delegates agreed that all colonies must favor independence in order to declare it. On June 7, all colonies did not favor independence. Congress delayed the idea. Yes, nearly 14 months after the bloodshed in Lexington and Concord, Congress delayed a vote on breaking away from Britain. While they waited, Congress created a committee to write up a Declaration, in case they decided to break away. The committee chose Thomas Jefferson of Virginia to write a draft.
Thomas Jefferson worked on some drafts of a Declaration. He used many ideas that had been written about many times before by colonists. He also used thoughts of European philosophers such as John Locke. Toward the beginning of the essay, he wrote what are probably the most famous words of the declaration: (at least in the final draft):
“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 abolish it, and to institute new Government…“(excerpt 3) In the next part, Jefferson gave examples of how Great Britain’s King violated colonists’ rights. While many earlier colonial complaints blamed the Parliament, Jefferson blamed the King. His examples included unfair taxes, keeping armies in the colonies during peacetime, and about 20 other complaints. A additional complaint Jefferson put in early drafts was:
“he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s 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.” (excerpt 4) This complaint blamed the King for African slave trade and slavery in the colonies! Many historians note that Jefferson himself owned hundreds of slaves and continued to own them long after America gained independence, still he wrote this in the rough draft. Many delegates in the Congress would not accept this complaint and it was taken out before adoption of the final draft. Other complaints about the King violating rights (which existed in the final draft) included:
• He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.
• He has combined with others…
-For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
-For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:
-For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
-For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
-For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury (excerpt 5) After listing many complaints about the King, after explaining how the King did not protect colonist’s rights, Jefferson took the next step. Since governments are created to protect rights and the King did not, the colonies were breaking from Great Britain. Here, in the last paragraph, after explaining governments and the wrongs of the King, Jefferson wrote that the United States is independent from Great Britain. In the last part of the Declaration, the Americans claimed 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…” (excerpt 6) Later in June, Jefferson shared his draft with some delegates. John Adams and Ben Franklin suggested some changes and adjustments. After some changes, John Adams copied the current draft, sometime before June 28. This draft, compared with the final draft, lets historians see some of the changes were made. (Adams complete copy can be seen on masshist.org)
On July 1, 1776, Congress again began to discuss possibly breaking from Britain. At this time, 9 of the 13 colonies favored independence. Congress delayed voting for one day. By the next day, South Carolina delegates changed their mind, new delegates arrived from Delaware, and delegates from Pennsylvania did not show up (so that the vote would be unanimous). On July 2, 1776 the colonies voted 12-0 for independence. New York did not vote. Finally, 459 days after the war started, the colonial leaders declared themselves free! John Adams actually wrote to his wife that he believed that July 2 would be a day celebrated throughout American history.
Congress spent the next two days editing Jefferson’s declaration. Arguments over what should be in and out of the declaration took place, Jefferson was saddened and angry that so many of his words changed or deleted. A final copy was sent to printer John Dunlap on July 4, 1776. Dunlap’s copies (there are still about 24 in existence) did not have any signatures on them. Dunlap’s copies state at the top that the Declaration was from July 4, 1776. At the bottom they showed that John Hancock was the President of the Congress (not the President of the United States, the President of the Congress). Congress sent copies that Dunlap made throughout the 13 colonies….NO..throughout the 13 states. (or did they remain colonies?) The Declaration was read to people in cities and towns; General Washington directed a reader to read it to the Continental Army. Americans declared freedom. The war was now to complete the break from Britain.
The famous picture of the Declaration of Independence with the signatures of the many delegates did not come until later. The Declaration with the large signature of John Hancock and signatures of other delegates was printed and signed later that summer. Even though the famous example of the Declaration says “July 4, 1776” at the top, it was printed and signed in August.
The Declaration of Independence did not end the war or guarantee independence for these “United States”. At nearly the same time that the delegates declared independence, British forces were arriving in New York to take control of New York City and to try to destroy George Washington’s army. Washington ended up being defeated in New York and evacuated toward New Jersey. The Declaration proclaimed America a country in July, 1776, but several years of war remained. When the Declaration of Independence reached Britain, many British mocked the idea of American independence. The King continued to expect victory over what he saw as colonists. Was the nation born on July 2, 1776 or on July 4, 1776? Whether or not the United States was born, the war continued. Not until after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 did the significant fighting stop, and it was 1783 before Great Britain completely recognized America’s independence.
When Thomas Jefferson neared his death in 1826, he wanted the fact that he wrote the Declaration of Independence placed on his gravestone. In 1776, his emotions were different. Jefferson sent copies of the edited copy and his original draft to friends; he asked which they liked better. While Congress declared independence, Jefferson remained concerned over edits to his writing.
Today, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most famous documents in American history. It has been studied, copied by other revolting groups and debated endlessly. The Declaration of Independence presents the world with an organized set of ideas about what governments are, why they are created and when people can overthrow governments. A truly interesting document.