How the Declaration of Independence wooed Americans away from Britain

Cutting ties with a king might have seemed like "Common Sense" in the 1770s, but the desire was not unanimous among the colonists—until the Declaration convinced them otherwise.

By K. M. Kostyal
Published 29 Jun 2022, 13:28 BST
Opener or in Birth of a Nation
John Trumbull's painting "Declaration of Independence" depicts the five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presenting their work to the Congress. The painting can be found on the back of the $2 bill. The original hangs in the Capitol rotunda.
Photograph by Image courtesy of the Picture Art Collection, Alamy Stock Photo

In perhaps the most famous words from the Declaration of Independence—“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"—the founders of the United States of America define the rights that a good government must secure and protect. If these rights were trampled, then that was grounds for divorcing the tyrant – but not everybody was keen to break up with Britain and King George III. 

Slowly but surely, the Founders had to make a case for freedom, convincing reluctant individuals and colonies—even after hostilities had broken out. The Declaration of Independence is the culmination of that effort, carefully explaining, point by point, why the colonists had no choice but to separate from "Mother England." 

Cheering colonists gather in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, to hear a reading of the Declaration of Independence, as depicted in this hand-colored woodcut.
Photograph by Image courtesy of North Wind Picture Archives, Alamy Stock Photo
King George III, r. 1760-1820, was determined to subjugate the rebellious Americans.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Guildhall Art Gallery, Bridgeman Images

Setting the stage

The Declaration of Independence is a relatively short document, little more than 1,300 words, but it was the result of a long struggle, one that had been simmering between Britain and its North American colonies for more than a decade. By 1775, tensions had risen between the Americans and the British in colonial America, resulting in the first battle of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord that April. 

In those early days of the Revolution, few Americans wished to completely break away but rather wanted their rights as British citizens to be protected. They wanted their voices heard by Parliament as well as the king. In fact, those who supported independence, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were considered dangerous radicals. 

King George III dug in, ordering more troops to fight the rebels to put down the insurrection. In August 1775, he declared his American subjects were “engaged in open and avowed rebellion.” In May 1776, Congress learned the king had negotiated with Germany to hire mercenaries to fight in America. Americans began to realise their mother country was acting like a tyrant.

Then, in January 1776, political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine published Common Sense, arguing that independence was a “natural right” and the colonies’ only course of action. Buying it by the thousands, the colonists came to realise they were fighting a losing cause—there could be no reconciliation. They needed to establish their sovereignty. The stage was set for the penning of the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Paine was born in England and arrived in Philadelphia in December 1774. In the fall of 1775 he began drafting a history of the relationship between the colonies and England. His ideas were treasonous and heretical, but inspiring and accessible to the masses.
Photograph by Image courtesy of Science History Images, Alamy Stock Photo
Common Sense published in 1776 was widely read and with it, Paine solidified his spot as the scribe of the revolution. Paine donated his earnings from the publication to the Continental Army for mittens.
Photograph by IanDagnall Computing, Alamy Stock Photo

Revolutionary debate

The efforts ramped up on June 7, 1776, when the Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall). Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee introduced his resolution beginning: "Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of 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 the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

In the debate that followed, it became clear that some states were “not yet ripe for bidding adieu to the British connec­tion but they were fast ripening,” as one delegate put it. To give them time to ripen, the Congress delayed a vote on the resolution until July 1 and called a recess. It also appointed a five-member committee to draft a document explaining the reasons for declaring independence should Congress so decide.

The declaration committee—John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia—assigned 33-year-old Jefferson, who “had the reputa­tion of a masterly pen,” the task of writing the document. Years later, John Adams, a committee member, said he had passed the assignment to Jefferson because “a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this busi­ness.” Also, Adams admitted, he himself was “obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular.”

Making the case for freedom

Considered to be the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson later served as the nation's first secretary of state, second vice president, and third president.
Photograph by Image courtesy of GL Archive, Alamy Stock Photo

Jefferson knew the works of Enlightenment phi­losophers like John Locke and scientific pioneers like Isaac Newton, and he pulled their ideas into his com­position, along with those from the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

He composed five sections, including an introduction that states the reasons the colonies must depart the British Empire. Jefferson explains how the inalienable rights of citizens (who, at the time, did not include women, Native Americans, and African Americans) were being trampled by King George III. The preamble concludes: “[A] long train of abuses and usurpations … evinces a design to reduce [a people] 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."

The body contains two sections, the first of which provides evidence of the king’s “long train of abuses and usurpations” upon the colonies and the second stating how the king refused to address the colonies’ grievances. The document concludes that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be free and Independence 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 ought to be totally dissolved.”

Thomas Jefferson and his enslaved valet Robert Hemings spent nearly 100 days in Philadelphia between May and September 1776. They stayed at the house of Jacob and Maria Graff, where Jefferson drafted the Declaration. The site today, Declaration House, was reconstructed by the National Park Service in 1975.
Photograph by Richard Levine, Alamy Stock Photo

At times, Jefferson’s prose soared, but he never swayed from his true purpose: to build, in good 18th-century style, a legalistic argument against tyranny. After Adams and Benjamin Franklin both made minor edits to Jefferson’s text, it was ready to be presented to the Continental Congress.

Path to independence

The Liberty Bell hung in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) from the mid-18th century until the crack and subsequent repairs silenced it forever after nearly 90 years of use. The bell took on new meaning in the 19th century as a symbol for abolitionists wishing to end the enslavement of people.
Photograph by trekandshoot, Alamy Stock Photo

Congress reconvened on July 1, 1776. Twelve of the 13 colonies adopted the Lee Resolution for independence the following day (New York's delegates abstained, since their instructions were to only pursue reconciliation with the king). Congress then turned to Jefferson’s declaration, which they debated, considered, and revised through July 3 and late into the morning of July 4. Substantial editorial revisions were made, including condensing the final five paragraphs (much to Jefferson’s dismay), but the preamble remained more or less intact.

Congress approved the final draft on July 4.

The shop of John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress, printed the first copies of the Declaration of Independence—it’s believed about 200 copies were produced, about 25 of which exist today. Riders subsequently carried broadsides of the document through the colonies. On July 8, church bells rang out in celebration, and Jefferson’s words echoed in public gatherings. On July 9, New York reversed its decision, permitting its delegates to join the other colonies in favour of breaking with Britain.

Following their adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress leaves Independence Hall to hear reading of it, as depicted in this hand-colored woodcut.
Photograph by Image courtesy of North Wind Picture Archives, Alamy Stock Photo

Roar of revolution

Engravers made copies of the Declaration of Independence, but the original is housed in the National Archives.
Photograph by Susan Law Cain, Shutterstock

An official version of the declaration was embossed on parchment and, on August 2, signed—the first and largest signature was that of the president of the Congress, John Hancock of Massachusetts. Not every man who was present at the July 4 meeting signed the document on August 2. Historians believe seven of the 56 signatures were placed later. Two delegates did not sign: John Dickinson of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York.

Nevertheless, these Americans were now publicly and irreversibly enemies of the empire they had until so recently embraced. “We are in the very midst of a revolution,” John Adams proclaimed, “the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations.”

King George III plunges from his plinth in this romanticized version of the July 9, 1776 event in New York City, watched by Native Americans. The actual statue featured the monarch in Roman garb, and Africans Americans may have assisted in its spontaneous destruction.
Photograph by Image courtesy of IanDagnall Computing, Alamy Stock Photo

The Declaration today

The Declaration of Independence, faded but still visible, can be seen today  beside the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights in the echoing, semicircular Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives museum in Washington, D.C. The documents are preserved within a state-of-the-art case that protects them against air and moisture. At night and in the event of an emergency, the documents are retracted into a deep vault for safekeeping.

The Declaration of Independence has a permanent home today in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Photograph by Michael Ventura, Alamy Stock Photo

 Portions of this work have previously appeared in Founding Fathers. Copyright © 2016 National Geographic Partners, LLC
To learn more, check out Founding Fathers. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.


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