The Declaration of Independence
On July 4, 1776, the members of the Continental Congress assembled at the State House in Philadelphia to take up a matter of vital importance. Two days earlier the Congress had voted to declare the colonies to be "free and independent states." Now they were considering how to announce that fact to the world. By the end of the day, the final wording had been determined and the Congress voted unanimously to adopt one of history's greatest documents--the Declaration of Independence.
The stirring phrases of the Declaration inspired the patriots to defeat the British, thus guaranteeing independence (see Revolution, American). Since that time the Declaration has been a source of pride and strength for every generation of Americans.
The Movement Toward Independence
When the Revolutionary War broke out at Lexington and Concord, April 19, 1775, few colonists desired independence. Most of them wanted only a larger measure of self-government within the British Empire. In June 1775 General Washington promised to work for "peace and harmony between the mother country and the colonies." As late as September, Thomas Jefferson "looked with fondness towards a reconciliation."
Although they wanted to remain in the British Empire, most of the colonies insisted that they have the right of self-government. As the year 1775 wore on, however, it became clear that both of these goals could not be achieved. Parliament would not repeal the "five intolerable acts" or admit that only the local assemblies could tax the colonists. In August the king called the patriots "rebels," and summoned all British subjects to aid in bringing them to terms. In December he removed the colonies from his protection and blockaded their ports. In effect, then, the king had begun war almost a year before the Declaration was adopted.
The ravages of war were making the people more and more bitter. In October 1775 the British burned the town of Portland, Me., destroying the homes of a thousand people just at the approach of winter. The siege of Boston inflicted severe hardships on its people. Then came the news that 20,000 Hessian troops had been hired to put down the revolt. "The king," wrote Jefferson, "has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed our people." The German mercenaries were intended "to complete his works of death, desolation, and tyranny." On the frontiers he had aroused "the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare" was the destruction of women and children. If the colonists had to preserve their rights by fighting, then they had to have the means of making war and trading with other nations. They could not, however, secure aid abroad so long as they were British subjects, nor could they make a treaty of commerce with a foreign state.
The Declaration Is Framed
The time was ripe. In January 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a vigorous pamphlet 'Common Sense'. How, he asked, could the people at once fight against the king and profess their loyalty to him? The day of compromise had passed. "The blood of the slain, the weeping voice of Nature cries, 'Tis time to part'. Here is the vast continent of North America, suited to become the home of a race of free men; let it no longer lie at the feet of an unworthy king." Thousands of men read this challenge and accepted the idea of complete separation from Great Britain.
In the spring of 1776 North Carolina was the first of several states to direct its delegates in Congress to declare for independence. Virginia voted to have its delegates make the necessary motion. As a result, on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced the dramatic resolution. It declared that "these United Colonies are, and of a right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved."
The Declaration Adopted
The resolution could not be adopted immediately because not all the states had yet told their delegates to vote for independence. Therefore a committee was appointed to prepare a statement of the American case. It was made up of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. Jefferson was chosen to draw up the necessary declaration. It was brought to the floor of Congress on June 28.
On July 2 the Lee resolution was adopted and debate on Jefferson's declaration began. In a list of charges against King George III, Jefferson had attacked slavery and the slave trade. Representatives from southern slaveholding colonies refused to accept this clause, and after heated debate it was dropped.
The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4. A copy was ordered engrossed on parchment. This formal document was signed on August 2 by members of Congress present on that date. Those who were absent signed later
The Declaration did not establish the independence of the American Colonies. It only stated an intention and the cause for action. Complete separation would have to be accomplished by force. Once the Declaration had been adopted, however, there was no turning back.
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Origin of the Declaration
Jefferson put little that was new into the famous document. Its ideas had already been much discussed in America. They had previously been popular in England; John Locke had used them in his book 'On Civil Government', a defense of the English Revolution of 1688 (see Locke, John).
The Declaration is a statement of the American theory of government. Three basic ideas were involved: (1) God had made all men equal and had given them the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (instead of Locke's "pursuit of property"); (2) the main business of government was to protect these rights; (3) if a government tried to withhold these rights, the people were free to revolt and to set up a new government. These three ideas formed the groundwork for the state governments that were established after the Declaration was adopted.
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