Editor’s note: This is part one of a three-part series on the Declaration of Independence.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced into the Continental Congress a resolution, (adopted on July 2) which asserted that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, fee and independent States. While this resolution was being discussed, on June 11 a committee, consisting of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman was appointed to draft a Declaration of Independence. They gave the task of writing the document to Jefferson.
In his autobiography written in 1805, Adams states that the committee of five decided upon “which the declaration was to consist,” and it then appointed Jefferson and himself to form a subcommittee to really write them down. Now Jefferson and Adams have two completely different versions of what happened then.
Adams says: Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught, I said I will not; You shall do it. Oh no! Why will you not? You ought to do it. I will not. Why? Reasons enough. What can be your reasons? Reason 1st. You are a Virginian and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason 2nd. I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular; you are very much otherwise. Reason 3rd. You can write ten times better than I can. ‘Well,” said Jefferson, ‘if you are decided I will do as well as I can.’ Very well, when you have drawn it up we will have a meeting.
Jefferson’s version is completely different. In a letter to Maddison of 1823 he writes: Mr. Adams memory has led him into unquestionable error. At the age of 88 and 47 years after the transactions, … this is not wonderful. Nor should I … venture to oppose my memory to his, were it not supported by written notes, taken by myself at the moment and on the spot… The Committee of 5 met, no such thing as a sub-committee was proposed, but they unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections;… and you have seen the original paper now in my hands, with the corrections of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams interlined in their own handwriting. Their alterations were two or three only, and merely verbal. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress.
The declaration contained three sections: a general statement of natural rights theory and the purpose of government; a list of grievances against the British King; and the declaration of independence from England. More than 20 years later, the Second, Third, Fourth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution would contain prohibitions against the government to prevent the same forms of tyranny as were listed as grievances. Jefferson’s writing was influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, as well as by his study of natural rights theory and the writings of John Locke, including Two Treatises of Government. Franklin and Adams edited Jefferson’s draft, and the final document was presented to Congress about two weeks later.
The draft was presented to Congress on June 28. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from England. Congress made several changes to Jefferson’s draft. The most important of these were the excision of a passage indicting the slave trade and a number of passages were reworded in a more pious form.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, signed it that day. The rest of the Congress signed two months later. By affixing their names to the document, the signers courageously pledged to each other their “lives … fortunes … and sacred honor.”
A formal parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence, adopted in Congress July, 4, 1776, was available for signing on Aug. 2, and most of the 55 signatures were inscribed upon it on that date. The intention of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson later wrote, was not saying something new, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent… Neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiments, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.
Many consider the Declaration of Independence to be the philosophical foundation of American freedom. It has been quoted by such citizens as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. They have called it a beacon of hope for people everywhere.
The Final Text of the Declaration of Independence adopted on July 4, 1776:
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 bonds 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 to 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973.