The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson
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Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

Although most colonists did not want to completely sever ties with the British crown, tensions between the Patriots and the British were mounting by 1775. King George III had begun to implement laws that infringed on what the Patriots considered their basic human rights, including “taxation without representation,” unreasonable searches and seizures, and quartering of soldiers. As tensions escalated and the Revolutionary War began, the movement for independence drew within reach. In June of 1776, during a Continental Congress assembly, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Ben Franklin began to draft a document that officially laid out the Patriots’ reasons for separating from the British crown. Their document, The Declaration of Independence, was enacted in Philadelphia on July 4th, a date which has since been recognized as the anniversary of American independence. The Declaration of Independence not only absolved the new colonies from British rule but also enforced basic human rights for all colonists. It has since served as inspiration for future revolutionary movements, including the French Revolution, and for powerful rhetoric, including the “Gettysburg Address” in which Lincoln recalled the signing of the Declaration “four score and seven years ago.” 

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The Lead-Up to The Declaration 

Several factors contributed to the outbreak of the American Revolution. Patriots were enraged when the British Parliament enforced the Sugar Act and Stamp Act and demanded repayment for their debts from the French and Indian War. Colonists were prohibited from speaking up in Parliamentary and assembly settings, and they felt it was an injustice that the British crown continued to tax them unduly, a sentiment encapsulated in the rallying cry of “taxation without representation.” By the time the first shots at the Battle of Lexington and Concord were “heard round the world” in April 1775, most colonists did not desire complete independence from the British crown. Several important men, including John Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine, who were considered radical at the time, began to create pamphlets and speak out about the necessity for independence. In the pamphlet “Common Sense,” for example, Thomas Paine argued that revolution was the only possible outcome for the colonies since independence was the birthright of every colonist. Anger and resentment between the colonists and the British crown mounted for several months, especially in October of 1775, when King George III ordered a royal army and navy to preside in the colonies. 

The Signing of the Declaration 

During the summer of 1776, Virginia statesman Richard Henry Lee enacted a three-pronged resolution that he called the Lee Resolution. This resolution called for declaration, the forming of foreign alliances, and a plan for “confederation.” However, many of the members of the Continental Congress—the first governing body of the United States during the American Revolution—postponed signing the resolution, fearing that the resolution was too hasty and premature. Before recessing, the assembly tasked a five-man committee, which included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert R. Livingston, to draft a formal declaration. Both documents were deferred for approval until June 2, 1776, when the assembly met at the Pennsylvania State House. Twelve of the thirteen colonies approved of Lee’s resolution. However, the assembly continued to deliberate on Jefferson’s declaration, which included corrections by the other authors. Finally, on July 4, 1776, after Congress had edited portions of the text, Congress unanimously ratified the Declaration of Independence. Although July 4th is today the national holiday for the birth of the United States, many historians contend that the document was not actually signed until August 2nd. 

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Thomas Jefferson and the Authorship of the Declaration 

Today, most attribute authorship of The Declaration of Independence to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). At the time, Jefferson was one of the youngest delegates to the Second Continental Congress, and later he would go on to become the third President of the United States. However, he was not the only Patriot involved in the development of the document. The Declaration was drafted by five men—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert R. Livingston—although Jefferson is recognized as the document’s primary author.  

Thomas Jefferson was known for his eloquence and patriotism, especially after the 1774 publication of his pamphlet, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.” Many of his contemporaries encouraged him to write the Declaration, including John Adams, who actually stepped down from the role to hand it over to Jefferson. In writing the Declaration, Jefferson took inspiration from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which states that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Jefferson consulted with various members of the assembly, including John Adams, and with various documents, including his own draft of the Virginia Constitution. 

After he drew up the document, other committee members, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, provided corrections and feedback. Even when the document was brought before the Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, much of the document underwent significant editing and received severe criticism. The assembly removed portions of the document that explicitly denounced King George III and that discussed the slave trade. Jefferson’s preamble, however, went untouched. 

Eventually, the document was ratified on July 4th and signed on August 2nd. In unanimously signing this document, the Second Continental Congress defied British law, committed treason, and pledged to American independence. 

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