The Declaration of Independence was adopted by delegates from the 13 British colonies in North America on 4 July 1776, a date commemorated as Independence Day in the United States.
While today Thomas Jefferson is remembered for writing the Declaration of Independence, he only later gained renown as its author. In fact, the Declaration went through an involved drafting process and was edited first by a committee, and then by Congress.
American Revolutionary War begins (19 April 1775)
The American War of Independence had begun in 1775. The writing and promotion of the Declaration one year later was an important step towards the founding of the United States of America.
In this document, the delegates that made up the Second Continental Congress announced that they recognised themselves as independence sovereign states, free from British rule.
Second Continental Congress formed (10 May 1775)
The Continental Congress was the group of delegates who acted on behalf of the people in the 13 British colonies that would later become the United States. The first assembly that met in 1774 became known as the First Continental Congress. It gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania following the British Parliament’s passage of the punitive Intolerable Acts.
Warfare between Britain and its North American colonies had already broken out by the time the Second Continental Congress formed on 10 May 1775. Meeting again in Philadelphia, it took responsibility for formally declaring independence from Britain.
The Committee of Five appointed (5 June 1776)
On 5 June 1776, Congress appointed a committee to draft a persuasive statement that would proclaim the reasons for the Thirteen Colonies to secede from the British Empire. There were five people in this committee: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston.
The committee didn’t leave any minutes, so there is uncertainty about how the drafting process took place. However this committee was responsible for the overall drafting and presenting of what would become the Declaration of Independence to the assembled congress of delegates.
Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? (June, 1776)
The committee decided that Thomas Jefferson should compose the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, and it is usually to Jefferson that we attribute the Declaration’s authorship.
Jefferson was a statesman who had previously articulated his political philosophy in A Summary of the Rights of British America (1774). He had limited time to write the first draft of the Declaration which he organised into three parts: a preamble, grievances, and a resolution. The other members of the committee slightly amended what Jefferson had written and added to the list of charges against the king.
Congress edits the Declaration (28 June 1776)
After the Committee of Five edited the first draft, it was then edited again by Congress to produce the final version of the Declaration. These changes included deleting a condemnation of the British people and a reference to Scottish mercenaries.
Despite himself owning hundreds of enslaved Africans on his Monticello plantation, Jefferson had energetically condemned the trade in enslaved people in his version. Congress removed this. This was considered to be offensive to slaveholding delegates from New England and the Southern states.
Congress debates the Lee resolution (1 July 1776)
While completing their edits on the Declaration, Congress resumed debating the Lee resolution. Proposed by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, this had formally asserted the independence of the Thirteen States when it had passed by Congress on 2 July 1776.
The final paragraph of the large “broadside” paper on which the Declaration was printed repeated the text of the Lee resolution. It arguably constitutes an early version of the Declaration, from which the Declaration uses the language of “free and independent States” separate from the British Empire.
Approval of the Declaration (4 July 1776)
The wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved on 4 July 1776. It was then sent to the printer for publication. There are differences in the wording of the original printing and the final official copy. As a result of a resolution passed on 19 July 1776, the word “unanimous” was inserted. During the war for independence, and for some time afterwards, it was central to the political utility of the Declaration for it to be thought of as a collective statement.
The authorship of the Declaration of Independence is usually attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson only later gained renown as its author. At the time, he credited the political philosophers John Locke, Montesquieu and a wider struggle for English liberties.
Who signed the Declaration of Independence? (2 August 1776)
56 members of Congress began signing the Declaration of Independence on 2 August 1776. The large list of delegates who signed the Declaration gave the impression of mutual support and conviction.
Some of these signatories were not delegates to Congress at the time of the vote for independence, while others who did vote did not sign the Declaration. Most, however, had voted in favour of independence on 2 July 1776.
What is the legacy of the Declaration of Independence?
The Declaration has become a lasting statement of human rights, especially its claim 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.”
This line has come to represent a moral standard to which Americans should strive, even if this claim contradicted with the existence of slavery in the United States at the time.
This was noted by contemporary African-American writers like Lemuel Haynes. In 1852, Frederick Douglass proposed in a speech the question: ‘What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ The Declaration took on a significance for the abolitionist movement in the United States, as well as for struggles beyond the United States such as the French Revolution.