U.S. Declaration of Independence

Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the Declaration of independence
Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on the declaration of independence

The foundational document of the Western Hemisphere’s first republic, the first genuinely republican government of the modern era, the U.S. Declaration of Independence emerged amid an escalating war as one culmination of a long process of struggle between the American colonists and Great Britain and from a protracted process of compromise and negotiation between factions of the propertied white males who drafted and ratified it.

The document itself contained little that was original. Most of the sentiments it expressed and theories of republican government it propounded had deep roots in the French and English Enlightenment, British-American history, and English common law.

It nonetheless captured the spirit of an era, articulating in a single statement of uncommon eloquence the reasons behind the American colonists’ political break from Great Britain and the promise of political equality that, following the promulgation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, formed a cornerstone of the new American republic.

Most delegates to the Second Continental Congress, which began its deliberations in Philadelphia in May 1775 in the wake of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, were hesitant to declare outright independence, despite the rapidly intensifying military conflict.

A broad consensus about the necessity of proclaiming political independence emerged only after King George III’s rejection of the Olive Branch Petition in late 1775 and the publication of Thomas Paine’s hard-hitting pamphlet Common Sense the following January.

Three well-heeled Bostonians were among the most fervent advocates of independence: the merchant John Hancock, the lawyer John Adams, and his cousin, political agitator and onetime beer brewer, Samuel Adams.

Drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress
Drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence
presenting their work to the Congress

The first formal call for a resolution of independence came on June 7 from Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. In response, the congress appointed a committee to draft the resolution, composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman.

This committee, in turn, designated Jefferson to draft the actual document, which was subsequently revised by Franklin, John Adams, and others. On July 2 Congress approved a resolution of independence, and two days later adopted a revised draft of the declaration originally penned by Jefferson. Henceforth, July 4 would be known in the United States as Independence Day.

Rooted in theories of natural rights articulated in previous decades by Enlightenment thinkers as diverse as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the document itself is divided into four parts: an introduction providing the moral and intellectual rationales for independence; a long list of complaints and grievances against King George III; its final assertion of political independence from Great Britain; and 56 signatures, most affixed on August 2 (mainly for logistical reasons, not all delegates who helped draft or voted for the declaration signed it).

Many consider its second sentence to be its most socially radical, encapsulating the essential promise of political equality later codified for adult white males in the Constitution and, in the 19th and 20th centuries, extended to ex-slaves and women: “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.”

The Declaration of Independence was not a law. Nor did it form the basis for the Constitution, adopted 11 years later. Mainly, it was a statement of principle that provided the essential rationale for the political break from Great Britain; an assertion of political unity among 13 distinct political entities in the context of a rapidly escalating military conflict; and a moral touchstone for the radical experiment in political republicanism to follow.