Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence announced the beginning of the United States of America to Great Britain and the world, justifying the colonies’ decision to secede from Britain and setting forth the political philosophy of the new republic.

Summary of Event

The Declaration of Independence was the culmination of a gradual, ten-year shift by the colonies from active participants in the British Empire British Empire;and American independence[American independence] to rebellious advocates of a total break with the mother country. This decade of accelerating estrangement was fueled by fundamental disagreements over the Proclamation of 1763, Proclamation of 1763 the Sugar Act Sugar Act (1764) and Currency Act (1764), Currency Act (1764) the Stamp Act Stamp Act (1765) and Quartering Act Quartering Act (1765) (1765), the 1766 Declaratory Act, Declaratory Act (1766) and the 1767 Townshend Revenue Act, Townshend Revenue Act (1767) as well as the Boston Massacre (1770), Boston Massacre (1770) the Tea Act and Boston Tea Party (1773), Boston Tea Party (1773) the 1774 Coercive Acts, Coercive Acts (1774) and the 1775 Battle of Lexington and Concord. Lexington and Concord, Battle of (1775)
[kw]Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776)
[kw]Independence, Declaration of (July 4, 1776)
American independence
Declaration of Independence, U.S.
[g]United States;July 4, 1776: Declaration of Independence[2270]
[g]American colonies;July 4, 1776: Declaration of Independence[2270]
[c]Government and politics;July 4, 1776: Declaration of Independence[2270]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 4, 1776: Declaration of Independence[2270]
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;Declaration of Independence
Lee, Richard Henry
Paine, Thomas
Franklin, Benjamin
[p]Franklin, Benjamin;Declaration of Independence
Adams, John (1735-1826)

In the opening months of 1776, the colonists faced a momentous decision. Should they content themselves with a return of British authority as it existed prior to 1763, or should they irrevocably sever all political ties with and dependence upon Great Britain? Since Great Britain was unwilling to give them that choice, offering instead only abject surrender to parliamentary sovereignty, Americans in increasing numbers concluded that complete independence, not merely autonomy within the British Empire, must be their goal.

Many of the undecided colonists were won over to defiance of the Crown as a result of Parliament’s Parliament;British Prohibitory Act, which called for a naval blockade of the colonies, the seizure of American goods on the high seas, and the dragooning of captured provincial seamen into the Royal Navy. For many colonists, news of the British ministry’s decision to employ German mercenaries for use in America was the last straw. The requirements of the struggle itself lent weight to the idea of complete separation. People would not do battle wholeheartedly for vaguely defined purposes, nor would French or Spanish aid, deemed essential to military success, be forthcoming if the colonies fought merely for a greater freedom within the empire.

In January, 1776, these colonial issues were the subject of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (Paine)
Common Sense. Although it may be doubted that Paine’s widely read pamphlet was the immediate impetus for the break, and although he advanced no new arguments, Paine expressed cogent and compelling arguments for a free America that would pursue its own destiny. Although Americans of almost every persuasion were already disputing the right of Parliament to rule over the colonies, there remained among the colonists a strong attachment to the British crown and to King George III. George III Monarchy Monarchy;Thomas Paine[Paine] in general, and the Hanoverian king in particular, received a scathing denunciation from Paine, who asserted that kings were frauds imposed upon people capable of governing themselves. George III, Paine reasoned, was no exception and had engaged in oppressive acts that had destroyed every claim upon American loyalties. Paine held that the break should come immediately, while Americans were in arms and sensitive to their liberties. Independence, he argued, was inevitable for a wealthy, expanding continent that could not long be tied to a small and distant island controlled by “a Royal Brute.”

Signing the Declaration of Independence.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

One by one, the Southern and New England colonial assemblies authorized their delegates to the Continental Congress, Second (1775) Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, to vote for independence. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee, obeying instructions from Virginia, introduced at the congress a resolution declaring the colonies independent. Temporarily, the Middle Colonies hesitated to make such a drastic decision, causing a delay in acting on the matter; but on July 2, with only New York abstaining, the vote was twelve to nothing in favor of Lee’s resolution declaring that “the United colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.”

Anticipating this outcome, the congress had earlier formed a committee, composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Livingston, Robert R. Robert R. Livingston, and Sherman, Roger Roger Sherman, to prepare a statement concerning independence. The now famous document was drafted by Jefferson with some assistance from Adams and Franklin. Congress, after first making some revisions, such as deleting Jefferson’s passage denouncing the king for not ending the slave trade, adopted it on July 4.

The purpose of the Declaration of Independence was not to change the legal status of America; on July 2, the Continental Congress had voted to sever the colonies from the British Empire. The intent of Jefferson and his colleagues was rather to explain and justify the action of the congress in terms meaningful to Americans and Europeans alike. In doing so, Jefferson drew heavily upon Enlightenment;America Enlightenment thought. Besides a preface and a conclusion, the Declaration of Independence consists of a statement of the right of revolution based upon the philosophy of natural rights, a list of grievances against the king, and an account of the colonists’ inability to obtain redress of grievances within the structure of the British Empire.

Some modern scholars consider the barrage of accusations heaped upon the king to be lacking in dignity and significance in relation to the rest of the document. They point out that George III was a strict constitutionalist whose conduct in the political arena was in accord with the practices and traditions of the earlier Hanoverian monarchs. Moreover, most of the programs and policies held to be reprehensible by the colonists hardly originated in the mind of the king. Still, George III favored a rigid policy of government, and he consistently turned a deaf ear to the remonstrances of the American assemblies and congresses. To counter the public mood of the times, it was essential for Jefferson to lay America’s troubles at the feet of the king. Since the time of the Continental Congress, First (1774) First Continental Congress in 1774, patriot leaders had denied that there was any legitimate parliamentary authority to cast off; it was only the lingering loyalty to the Crown that held many colonists to the empire, and the portions of the declaration dealing with George III’s performance as king were designed to undo that loyalty.


The enduring significance of the Declaration of Independence transcends the British-American conflict. The statement that “all men are created equal” “Men are created equal, All”[Men are created equal, All]
”All men are created equal”[All men are created equal] —that they have certain unalienable rights under God that governments may not destroy—not only inspired people at the time but also has moved people in the United States and elsewhere ever since. The phrase, applied narrowly at first, came to be the focus of debate as women, people of color, the young, and the poor—excluded de facto from the document’s guarantees—began to fight for full equality. Women were denied the right to vote in federal elections until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Nineteenth Amendment in 1920; African American men received this right in the Fifteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870; persons between eighteen and twenty-one years of age were given the right to vote by the Twenty-Sixth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)[Twenty Sixth Amendment] Twenty-sixth Amendment in 1970.

Rights and liberties other than voting—due process of law, fair housing and public accommodations, equal opportunity in employment and college admissions—have all been fought for and gradually won by groups previously discriminated against. The force that sparked the emergence of this powerful movement was the burning desire of the supporters of the Declaration of Independence to be free to shape their own destiny. The message they conveyed has left a lasting imprint on the conscience of the world.

Further Reading

  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1967. An intellectual history of the revolution based on a close reading of the ideas that found their way into the era’s pamphlets.
  • Becker, Carl L. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1951. The classic study of the power of the ideas embodied in the document.
  • Gerber, Scott Douglas, ed. The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002. Contains primary documents and twelve essays about the declaration, including essays describing the document’s drafting; its political theory; its relation to the Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights; and its reception.
  • Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Random House, 1997. Examines the evolution of the Declaration of Independence, placing it within the context of similar British and state documents, describing its drafting and editing, and exploring how the document has been redefined over the years.
  • Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. A comprehensive history of the revolution.
  • Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. A pioneering study of women’s contributions to the revolution.
  • Wills, Garry. Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978. Links Jefferson to the ideas argued by the Scottish Enlightenment figures.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Asserts that the move toward independence was radical in nature.

Proclamation of 1763

Stamp Act Crisis

Townshend Crisis

Boston Massacre

Boston Tea Party

Lord Dunmore’s War

First Continental Congress

Battle of Lexington and Concord

Second Continental Congress

Paine Publishes Common Sense

France Supports the American Revolution

Indian Delegation Meets with Congress

New Jersey Women Gain the Vote

Battle of Oriskany Creek

Battles of Saratoga

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

Cornwallis Surrenders at Yorktown

Treaty of Paris

U.S. Constitution Is Adopted

Publication of The Federalist

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Declaration of Independence, U.S.