Declaration of Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Document that declared the independence of the thirteen colonies in America from England.

The Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Its adoption and publication changed the struggle between England and the thirteen colonies from a rebellion into a war for independence. The declaration was written in June and July, 1776, mostly by Thomas JeffersonJefferson, Thomas of Virginia, with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Richard Henry Lee introduced the initial resolution calling for such a declaration on June 7, 1776.Code, U.S.

The motion for independence passed by voice vote on July 2, 1776. The motion declared “that these United Colonies are, and of right should 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 should be, totally dissolved.” Broadsides of the declaration were read in major American cities and to soldiers in the Continental Army throughout July.

On July 19, 1776, Congress resolved to have the declaration written on parchment and signed by every member. John Hancock signed as president of the Congress. Not all the men who were present on July 2 eventually signed the document; some delegates had opposed independence and were replaced by men more in sympathy with the Patriot cause. However, most of the signatures were included by the end of August, 1776, although Thomas McKean of Delaware claimed not to have signed until 1781. The original parchment document is on public display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Currier and Ives print of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

(Library of Congress)

The adoption of the Declaration of Independence came after more than a decade of constitutional crises within the British Empire. In April, 1775, open warfare began between colonists and British soldiers. The declaration embodied both specific complaints against royal government in North America and general Enlightenment philosophy. Delegates to the Congress agonized over the wording of the declaration and made many changes to Jefferson’s original draft. They deleted his inclusion of the African slave tradeSlave trade;Declaration of Independence[Declaration of Independence] as one of the crimes of the British people and crown. They removed 480 words, leaving 1,337.

Thomas Jefferson, principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

(White House Historical Society)

Although Jefferson railed against any changes, the final document became a masterpiece of English prose and political theory. Its assertion “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” remains a powerful expression of American ideals. The declaration describes government as a mutually agreed upon institution designed by people to protect, not grant, these natural rights. The bulk of the remainder of the declaration listed the specific charges to support the case that the British government had failed to uphold natural rights in America. The declaration asserted that when government failed to uphold natural rights, people had a natural right to alter their government.

Although the Declaration of Independence contained many of the ideas later expressed in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the document is of uncertain legal and constitutional status. The document was placed at the top of U.S. Code as the organic laws of the United States. The Supreme Court, however, has been reluctant to treat it as part of U.S. organic law. Some early reformers cited the declaration as giving them the constitutionally recognized right of rebellion. Many of the declaration’s principles found expression in the amendments to the Constitution, particularly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Articles of Confederation

British background to U.S. judiciary

Fundamental rights

Jefferson, Thomas

Natural law

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