On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and announced the separation of the 13 North American British colonies from Great Britain. The declaration explained why the Congress, on July 2, “unanimously” by the vote of 12 colonies (with New York abstaining), had resolved that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States.” The day on which the final separation was officially voted was July 2, although the Fourth, the day the Declaration of Independence was adopted, has always been celebrated as our Independence Day national holiday.
On April 19, 1775, when the battles of Lexington and Concord initiated armed conflict between Britain and the 13 original colonies, the Americans claimed that they only sought their rights within the British Empire. At that time, few colonists desired to separate from Britain. As the American Revolution proceeded during 1775-1776, and Britain undertook to assert is sovereignty by means of large armed forces, making only a gesture toward conciliation. The majority of Americans increasingly came to believe they must secure their rights. The losses and restrictions that came from the war greatly widened the breach between the colonies and Britain. It was also necessary to assert their independence to secure as much aid as possible from the French.
On April 12, 1776, the revolutionary convention of North Carolina specifically authorized its delegates in the Congress to vote for independence. On May 15, the Virginia convention instructed its deputies to offer the motion “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States,” which was brought forward in Congress by Richard Henry Lee on June 7. John Adams, of Massachusetts, seconded the motion. By that time, Congress had already taken long steps toward severing ties with Britain.
It had denied Parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies as early as Dec. 6, 1775, and on May 10, 1776, it had advised the colonies to establish governments of their own choice and declared it to be “absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain,” whose authority ought to be “totally suppressed” and taken over by the people; a determination which, as Adams said, inevitably involved a struggle for absolute independence.
The passage of Lee’s resolution was delayed for several reasons. Some of the delegates had not yet received authorization to vote for separation; a few were opposed to taking the final step; and several men, among them John Dickinson, believed that the formation of a central government, together with attempts to secure foreign aid, should precede it.
A committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston was chosen on June 11 to prepare a statement justifying the decision to assert independence, should it be taken. The document was prepared, and on July 1, nine delegations voted for separation, despite warm opposition on the part of Dickinson.
On the following day at the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, with the New York delegation abstaining only because it lacked permission to act, the Lee resolution was voted on and endorsed. (The convention of New York gave its consent on July 9, and the New York delegates voted affirmatively on July 15.) On July 19, Congress ordered the document to be engrossed as “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” It was accordingly put on parchment, probably by Timothy Matlack of Philadelphia. Members of Congress present on Aug. 2 affixed their signatures to this parchment copy on that day and others later. John Hancock, who placed a very large signature to insure King George III saw it, was president of the Continental Congress.
The Declaration of Independence was written largely by Jefferson, who had displayed talent as a political philosopher and polemicist in his “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” published in 1774. At the request of his fellow committee members, he wrote the first draft. The members of the committee made a number of merely semantic changes, and they also expanded somewhat the list of charges against the king. Congress made more substantial changes.
I encourage the public to research and read the entire Declaration of Independence. The text of the header and first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence is as follows:
In CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.