The Declaration of Independence was the first official assertion of a nation's people's right to self-government.
When armed combat between groups of American colonists and British soldiers erupted in April 1775, the Americans claimed to be simply fighting for their rights as British citizens. By the next summer, with the Revolutionary War well underway, the drive for independence from Britain had risen in strength, and delegates to the Continental Congress faced a vote on the subject. In mid-June 1776, a five-member committee headed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin was tasked with the responsibility of crafting a formal statement of the colonies' objectives. The Declaration of Independence, primarily written by Jefferson, was formally adopted by Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, a date long remembered as the beginning of American independence.
Even after the Revolutionary War's opening battles began, few colonists desired complete independence from Great Britain, and those who did–such as John Adams–were regarded as radicals. However, things altered dramatically during the next year, as Britain attempted to destroy the rebels with the full weight of its vast army. In an October 1775 message to Parliament, King George III lashed out at the rebellious colonies and commanded the expansion of the royal army and fleet. In January 1776, news of his statements reached America, bolstering the radicals' cause and convincing many conservatives to forsake their aspirations for peace. That same month, Thomas Paine, a recent British immigrant, released "Common Sense," arguing that independence was a "natural right" and the only viable route for the colonies; the booklet sold more than 150,000 copies in its first few weeks.
North Carolina's revolutionary convention voted for independence for the first time in March 1776; seven other colonies followed suit by mid-May. On June 7, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution calling for the colonies' independence before the Continental Congress, which assembled in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall). Congress postponed a vote on Lee's proposal and declared a recess for several weeks in the midst of acrimonious discussion. However, prior to departing, the delegates appointed a five-man committee–including Virginia's Thomas Jefferson, Massachusetts' John Adams, Connecticut's Roger Sherman, Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin, and New York's Robert R. Livingston–to draft a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain. The Declaration of Independence was born from this paper.
Jefferson established a reputation as an eloquent spokesman for the patriotic cause following the publication of "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" in 1774, and he was tasked with the responsibility of drafting what would become the Declaration of Independence. As he wrote in 1823, the committee's other members “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught [sic]. 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…. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress.”
The Declaration of Independence, as written by Jefferson, was divided into five sections: an introduction, a preamble, a body (divided into two portions), and a conclusion. The introduction effectively claimed that the colonies' desire for independence from Britain had become "essential." While the body of the document detailed a list of grievances against the British monarchy, the preamble contains the document's most famous passage: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that governments are instituted among men to secure these rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Until the 1790s, the majority of Americans were unaware that Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence; previously, the text was viewed as a collaborative effort by the whole Continental Congress.
The Declaration of Independence became a watershed moment in democratic history. The Declaration of Independence, together with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, are regarded as the three essential founding documents of the United States government, the first Constitutional Republic in the history of the modern world.
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