Declaration of Independence: History, Meaning, Continental Congress, and Facts
The Declaration of Independence by the 13 small, but very much determined, North American colonies will always be regarded as a monumental feet of achievement. The path that these colonies tread was filled with brutal wars and violent clashes with the British Empire, which was arguably the greatest empire at that time.
Officially, their journey towards independence began in April 1775. After about a year of intense fighting, delegates from the 13 colonies (the Continental Congress) met in Philadelphia in July, 1776, to pass a resolution that freed their colonies from Britain’s rule. That solemn resolution of July 4th is what is referred to as the Declaration of Independence.
In this detailed article below, World History Edu explores exactly what the Declaration of Independence meant back then. Also in the article is a chronological explanation of the historical events that took place before and after July 4, 1776.
Conflict breaks out between the Colonies and British Soldiers
1775 is pegged as the exact year when sentiments and tensions boiled to a point where the American colonies began to fiercely rebel against Great Britain’s rule. The goal of these rebellion was to gain greater freedom for the colonies.
However, this movement did not start as a full-fledged independence movement. It started with a few skirmishes and minor bickering with the British Empire. Prior to these minor protests, the colonies had no qualms taking orders from the British crown.
What changed? And how did that metamorphose into a struggle for total independence? In order to properly understand this change, we must go back to the genesis of the conflict.
Continental America shortly before the Declaration of Independence
For close to two centuries (from the 1500s to the 1700s), the British Empire had gradually expanded its reach to virtually all parts of north-eastern America. The first British and European settlers arrived around 1585 and formed the Roanoke Colony. This colony failed and soon there was the Jamestown colony (located in Virginia) in 1607. This colony lasted and became the hub of future British settlers. Soon, the British started expanding across the east coast of North America. By the turn of the 18th century, there were colonies spawning all over the east coast. Their population and land area expanded rapidly. Trade and shipping flourished.
Across the Atlantic, the British crown had better ideas. The monarch, along with Parliament, realized that they would generate vast amounts of revenue by taxing these thriving colonies. By mid-1700s, George III systematically strengthened his grips on these colonies. Armed with several reform acts passed by the British Parliament, massive taxes were levied on the colonies. In the King’s defense, he felt that the colonies should foot the bill of the just ended French and Indian War. This war that lasted from 1754 to 1763 resulted in significant territorial gains for the British Empire. However, it came at a huge financial cost to the British Empire. Hence, taxing the colonies to pay for the cost of the war seemed very reasonable to the Empire.
In 1765, the Stamp Act was passed to collect taxes on printed materials and legal documents in the American colonies. The Act was later repealed after intense opposition from the colonies. The tax offices were destroyed, and the tax collectors were prevented from collecting the taxes. The colonies also refused trading with British merchants and companies. Colonial assembly leaders and politicians such as Patrick Henry in Virginia and Masschussettsans such as Samuel Adams, James Otis and John Adams (future president of the U.S.) strongly condemned the Stamp Act. They banded together to form a resistance that was called the Stamp Act Congress. There were also extensive protests from the Sons of Liberty in Boston, Massachusetts.
The combined efforts of the above two groups (as well as others) made the British government repeal the Stamp Act on March 18, 1766. As punishment for their defiance, the British passed the Declaratory Act to rein in the rebellion that was building across the various colonies. This act also categorically stated that the British government had the right to tax her American colonies. Therefore, more taxes followed even after the Stamp Act was scrapped off. These taxes were met with an even greater resistance from the colonies.
The bone of contention between British Parliament and the American Colonies
As stated above, the conflict evolved around taxes and a lack of representation of the American colonies. This conflict was fueled by the different interpretation the two groups had about the British constitution. The British parliament believed that the British constitution grants the right to impose taxes upon the colonies. They took the orthodox interpretation of the constitution. Their interpretation makes parliament the highest authority in the empire. They could do as they deemed fit for the empire. On the contrary, the American colonies argued that the British constitution granted certain rights to them. These rights supersede the authority wielded by parliament. Therefore, the British parliament had no authority to impose any tax system upon the American colonies without given them any representation in parliament.
Additionally, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 as well as other trade regulations had gravely restricted the colonies westward expansion into the Ohio Valley. The colonies regarded this as the British trampling on their rights. They felt that the British wanted to confine the colonies eastward in order to properly regulate trade routes and ports. If the colonies expanded westward, the British officials would have had a difficult time and the forces would be spread thin.
From the British point of view, these measures were absolutely crucial because they were meant to prevent clashes between the colonies and the few French and Native Indian settlers to the west. They also argued that the taxes imposed on the colonies only covered a fraction of their soldiers expenses in the colonies. The colonies however felt that the French or Native Indian threat was under wraps, so why should the British forces be stationed in their colonies.
As time went by, the issue was no longer about taxes and trade regulations in essence. The conflict evolved into a much greater quest for freedom from the British Parliament. Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson , John Adams and James Wilson began publishing editorials that supported the rights of the colonies to self-govern themselves.
The Skirmishes Shortly Before the Declaration of Independence
The protest against successive British tax laws got ever more brutal as time passed. An example of such protests occurred on December 16, 1773 in Boston, Massachusetts. The event that took place on that day is popularly known as the Boston Tea Party. It was a crucial stand by the colonies against the British monarch. The British realizing how popular tea was among the colonies decided to impose very high taxes on them. To make matters worse, the colonies were forced to buy tea from one company: the British company, the East India Trading company.
In response, the various colonies climbed aboard the ships carrying the tea and dumped about 342 chests of tea and cargo into the sea. The ring leader of this protest was Samuel Adams (cousin of John Adams), the leader of the Sons of Liberty group based in Boston. However, some historians still doubt if Adams was the one who actually orchestrated the Boston Tea Party.
The British Empire fumed over this incident because aside from it being a rebellious action, the Boston Tea Party cost the East India Trading company huge sums of losses. King George III had to act quickly and decisively. He did this by imposing an even steeper tax laws on the colonies. The British military presence on the continent also sharply increased. However, rather than having the desired effects, the King’s increased suppression of colonial dissents forced the American colonies to band together to form the first continental congress.
By the early 1770s, the British soldiers had to contend with an increased number of colonial militias. These militias went to great lengths to sharpen their fighting and battle skills in order to fully take on the British soldiers.
The political front also saw all the 13 colonies set up functioning local councils and assemblies. In 1774, the colonies had each elected a delegate to represent them at the first Continental Congress. They realized that they would fair way better if they united and faced off their common enemy- the British Empire. Delegates from the colonies (except Georgia) met at Carpenter’s Hall, Philadelphia, from September 5 to October 26, 1774.
What ranked most on their agenda was the Intolerable Acts (also known as the Coercive Acts) imposed on them by the British Parliament. The first works that were done by the first Continental Congress proved very instrumental in the 1776 Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, the delegates decided to coordinate their efforts in response to any further oppression from King George III. They also decided to boycott all goods coming from Great Britain.
There were some delegates who suggested that the Congress exhaust all possible means of dialog with the British crown. As a result, Congress sent a letter to George III bemoaning the negative effects of the Intolerable Acts. Time and time again, the British monarch blatantly ignored their appeals. King George III and Prime Minister Lord North were bent on enforcing the decisions of the British Parliament. They maintained that the only way of restoring order in the American colonies was to completely crush the rebellion. In between all these bickering and sporadic wars, the Continental Congress decided to reconvene in May 1775.
The Second Continental Congress
In the course of about one year nothing significant had happened on the part of the British government. There still existed draconian British tax laws in the colonies. It was around this time that the American Revolutionary War is said to have officially started. It was marked with the Lexington and Concord War of 19 April 1775.
Therefore, events of this nature made the planned Congress meeting of May 1775 even more crucial. This time around, the Second Continental Congress had an additional colony in the form of Georgia. Delegates from all thirteen colonies met at the State House in Philadelphia. Notable delegates present at the Second Continental Congress were John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry. Many of the delegates firmly believed that time for dialog was long over. They agreed that they needed a proper army to take on the British army. This led to several reinforcements in the rank and file of the various local militias. And on June 14, 1775, George Washington was made general of the new Continental Army.
The July 8 letter from Congress to King George III
Some members of the Congress still believed in giving peace a chance. They convinced the Congress to send a letter to the King. This letter was sent on July 8, 1775. Unfortunately, there was no meaningful response from the British monarch. Instead, the King looked for a swift means to crush the rebellion. In the British Parliament, the Proclamation of Rebellion was issued on August 23, 1775 to ensure that the gains of the colonies were crushed immediately. All sympathizers of the American colonies, both domestic and abroad, were quickly rounded up.
In spite of all these, some factions in the Second Continental Congress continued to press for dialog with the British Parliament and monarch. The Parliament, in turn, passed the Prohibitory Act in December 1775. In effect, this act imposed an economic blocked on the American colonies. The colonies and their colonial congress were now officially considered enemies of the empire. The Continental Congress saw this act as a sign that their declaration of independence was a reachable objective. John Adams tagged the British Prohibitory Act of 1776 as an “Act of Independency”. From there on wards, the American Revolution was in full force and throttle.
Militias spring up to fend off the King’s troops
Prior to the full-blown revolutionary war, a few disgruntled colonists had already started rebelling against the British crown. This small group of people, often led by John Adams, organized a few protests here and there to express their disapproval with the British Parliament and the King of Britain, King George III. These groups numbered only a few local trade men but later included influential business men in the colonies. The band of militia also comprised minutemen that could be called into battle at a minute’s notice. They were instantly regarded as radicals and traitors of the British Empire.
King George III responded by bolstering existing British soldiers in the various colonies. He rallied the British Parliament to take decisive action against the rebels. Then in the latter part of October 1775, the American continent saw a spike in the number of British soldiers. The King deployed more and more soldiers to those rebelling colonies. To add insult to injury, the King asked the colonies to pay for the wages and rents of his soldiers stationed in the colonies.
On the contrary, the mood among the colonists was positive. The colonists started to feel that they had wind in their sails. They had successfully rattled King George III’s cage and his entire empire. With this, came more and more sympathizers joining the colonists’ cause for greater freedoms. By January 1776, the rebels in those colonies no longer operated on a small scale- their numbers swelled exponentially. Colonist leaders like John Adams felt extremely confident that they could push back the impending British forces.
The Press’ role in the lead up to Independence
The euphoria and anxiety were so high that conservatives and pacifists joined the cause of these colonies. Amidst all of these, a lot of propaganda stories were cooked up by both the colonists and the British forces. It was not uncommon to find so many editorials and pamphlets that argued in favor of independence in the press. An example of this was the one written by Thomas Paine in 1776.
Paine’s pamphlet, titled “Common Sense”, was a spectacular hit all around the colonies. It sold about 150,000 copies in the first couple weeks after its publication. In the pamphlet, Paine reasoned that the colonists’ fight for freedom and independence was their God-given “natural right” and that not even someone as powerful as George III or Parliament could stop them from pursuing this noble undertaking of theirs.
Read More: Notable Accomplishments of Thomas Paine
Revolutionary Conventions and Instructions from the Colonial Assemblies
Even though majority of the public was in support of Congress and their push for independence, the colonies had difficulties declaring independence because most of their delegates lacked the authority to do so. The delegates from these colonies, as per the instructions and regulations of their colonies, were not allowed to vote on any independence declaration. These complex legalities, as well as other internal political factors, are what accounted for the delay in Congress declaration of Independence.
Eventually, the above complex political and legal disagreements within and among the colonies were ironed out. In March 1776, North Carolina successfully cleared the ambiguity in their legal framework and voted for independence. North Carolina used the Halifax Resolves to issue out a formal instruction to its congressional delegates to vote for independence. North Carolina’s action resulted in other colonies voting in similar fashion.
By May 1776, a total of 7 colonies (Rhode Island, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Hampshire) issued out instructions to their congressional delegates as well. The other colonies followed suit and revised their congressional instructions at both state and local levels. There were literally tens of legislative acts and formally written instructions to congressional members and delegates dotted across the 13 colonies.
The records show that Rhode Island took a bold step and officially declared the state independent from Great Britain. Therefore, Rhode Island became the first colony to issue a legislative act to back their independence. Another very famous instruction came in the form of a court instruction by South Carolina’s Chief Justice, William Henry Drayton. He is quoted as saying:
the law of the land authorizes me to declare … that George the Third, King of Great Britain … has no authority over us, and we owe no obedience to him.
A quote from Chief Justice, William Henry Drayton
However, in the 5 remaining colonies skepticism and bureaucratic challenges made issuing instructions very difficult. These colonies were New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The 7 pro-independent states worked tirelessly to get these 5 remaining colonies to issue out their instructions. To tackle this, the Continental Congress passed a resolution on May 10 1776. The resolution paved way for constituents and local assemblies in those 5 colonies to issue out instructions to their respective delegates.
Lee’s Resolution for Independence
Back in London, the British crown was obviously worried. The matter even got worse for George III. A Virginia representative, Richard Henry Lee, tabled a motion before the Continental Congress during a June 7, 1776 meeting in Pennsylvania. Lee’s motion called for immediate independence of the colonies from Britain’s rule.
Unfortunately the motion was not passed because the various delegates could not come to a broad consensus. Those against the Lee’s motion for Independence argued that the colonies’ immediate goal should be to secure foreign aid and political support. They regarded Lee’s motion as too early.
Those in favor of Lee’s motion, most notably John Adams, reasoned that without a formal declaration foreign nations would continually regard their colonies as part of the British Empire. Therefore, those foreign countries were unlikely to intervene and support the American Revolution financially or politically.
The meeting was adjoined to June 10 1776 after delegates from Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and New York fervently shot down the Lee’s resolution. However, on June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress set up a five-member committee that included Thomas Jefferson (Virginia delegate), Roger Sherman (Connecticut delegate), John Adams (Massachusetts delegate), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania delegate) and Robert R. Livingston (New York delegate). The Congress tasked the Committee of Five to come up with a formal statement explaining and justifying why the American colonies should be independent sovereign states.
The Work of the Committee of Five in Drafting the Declaration Document
John Adams proposed to the committee that Thomas Jefferson be selected to write the main draft of the independent statement. His motion was unanimously seconded by all the other committee members. The reason why Thomas Jefferson was trusted with this task was because of his vast experiences in writing and publications. He was an eloquent writer with several editorial and newspaper publications to his name. One famous example of this was his 1774 piece, titled the “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”.
It was also agreed that Adams periodically consulted with Jefferson during the writing process. In one of Jefferson’s later notes, he stated that:
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 historical records show that the Committee of Five had about three weeks to write up this draft and present it to Congress. Therefore, the writing was most likely done in haste. After several consultations among the 5 men, the draft was born. The draft had 5 sections: introduction; a preamble; a body (with two sections); and a conclusion.
On June 28, 1776, the Committee presented their document to Congress. It was titled “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.” It must be noted that the Committee of Five did not take any minutes of their meetings. As a result of this, there exist very little details about how the drafting of the document occurred.
The Draft Document is put before Congress
In the next couple of days, Congress collectively made some further alterations to the committee’s document. Some statements were removed and others added. For example, the assertion that slavery was imposed by the British on the colonies was removed from the document. Jefferson was not too happy about this and many other changes that Congress made to his draft. However, he was content with the fact that the central theme of the document (Liberty and Freedom) remained intact.
On July 1, 1776, the document was put before Congress that was presided over by Benjamin Harrison of Virginia. There was still slight opposition to the planned declaration of independence. John Dickinson maintained that foreign aid might get affected after the declaration. Hence, he proposed that the declaration be postponed a bit later into the future when enough support had been obtained. Then, there were the counter arguments in favor of an instantaneous declaration. This back and forth went on for some time.
Finally, the day of voting came. Although there were multiple delegates from every colony, the voting system rules allowed for a single vote from each of the colony. What this meant was that the delegates from a colony had to decide among themselves whether to vote yes or no, or to abstain.
First day of Congressional Voting
The first round results showed that South Carolina and Pennsylvania voted against the independence declaration. The New York delegates decided to abstain because they did not have the legal authorization from their colonial assembly (their authorization later came on July 10, 1776). The Delaware vote was nil because the two delegates (George Read and Thomas McKean) from the colony could not come to a consensus. George Read voted no while McKean voted yes. The delegates from the nine remaining colonies voted yes. The resolution was now half way through. All that was left was for Congress to vote on it. However, this was not done immediately because Edward Rutledge (South Carolina) called on Congress to conduct the second voting the following day.
Second day of Congressional voting
On the second day (July 2, 1776) of delegate-level voting, South Carolina delegates all voted yes. Also, Pennsylvania was able to turn their earlier no into a yes. With regard to Delaware, the nil vote turned into a yes upon the arrival of Caesar Rodney. And as stated earlier, the New York delegates had to abstain because they still had no authorization.
At the end of day’s sitting , the result showed that the total number of yeses stood at 12. It was a very resounding victory for the colonies. The colonies had successfully declared themselves free from British rule. Most of delegates felt a sense of joy and pride. They had just given birth to new country: a country that will be underpinned by freedom and equality. John Adams tried to describe the atmosphere in Congress in a letter to his wife, Abigail Adams. A line in the letter reads as:
The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America
John Adams’ July 2, 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail
From July 3 to July 4, 1776
Further deliberations went on in Congress from July 3 to the early hours of July 4. In the course of proceedings, Congress made minor changes to about one-fifth of the document. The final document was completed on 4th July, 1776. Finally, after about 11 years since Stamp Act of the British, the colonies had successfully declared the United States of America independent from the British Empire. The United States now had the power to enter into alliances and treaties, engage and trade with foreign countries. This glorious news spread like wild fire all across the American continent and even into Europe. Several copies of the Independence Declaration document, that were made at John Dunlap’s printing shop in Philadelphia, were dispatched to the all the 13 colonies and beyond.
The 5 Sections of the Final Declaration document
As stated above, the Declaration document has 5 sections: introduction; a preamble; a body (with two sections); and a conclusion. The body contains the indictment of King George III and the Denunciation of the British People.
The title of the Declaration read as: The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America
The Introduction starts by emphasizing the God-given rights of the people. It portrays this as a Natural Law that allows the people to be politically independent and not bound to any submissive ideology or institution foreign or domestic. Here is an extract from the Introduction:
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.
The Preamble justifies the revolution of the colonies. It explains that the people are totally justified to revolt against a government or a system that destroys the natural rights. It was such a profound statement to make at that time. The document clearly states that every man under the Laws of Nature was born equal and as such the colonies had unalienable rights. They were entitled to things like Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The Preamble then explains how these things can be fully secured.
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 to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Extract from the Preamble that explains the rights of the colonies
The Indictment section listed the circumstances where King George and the British Parliament violated the unalienable rights of their American colonies. The indictment section lends support to the Preamble. Example of some of the offenses (“repeated injuries”) committed by the King include: the King’s refusal to submit to the Laws; he prohibited governors of colonies to enact laws that were of significant importance to the colonies; he grossly disregarded the plight of large districts of people; and his dissolution of the people’s representatives on countless times because they opposed his usurpation of the rights of the people. There were a total of 27 indictments against King George III. And as a result of those indictments, the King had to be denounced immediately.
The Declaration’s Denunciation section stated that because of all the various rights usurpations and injuries committed by the King on his colonies, the people are now justified to revolt and seek a government of their own: a government that would be made of people representatives. The Denunciation also made mention of the number of times that the colonies reached out to the King but to no avail. And because the British Empire and the crown remained silent and unresponsive to the demands of the colonies, the colonies had no other option than to separate themselves from the empire.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpation, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence… We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends
Extract from the Denunciation
In the Concluding section, the Declaration document emphasized the necessity of separating from the British Crown. It stresses that the rights of the colonies cannot be bound to any foreign power. By so doing Congress absolves the allegiance the colonies owed to the British Empire. This invalidated the relationship between the united colonies and the State of Great Britain. The Declaration ends with Congress pledging its undying support for the Declaration.
…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; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Likely Philosophical Sources that influenced the Declaration Document
Many of Thomas Jefferson’s ideas, and by extension that of the Continental Congress, were not entirely novel. According to Jefferson himself, the ideas of the Declaration came out of the collective consciousness and sentiments of the public.
Some of the ideas were also drawn from the Constitution of Virginia. George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights also somehow influenced the Declaration. Links can also be drawn to the 1689 English Declaration of Rights that ushered Britain into a constitutional monarchy and ended King James II reign.
Similar to the partial revolution in England, the American Declaration of Independence was based on a model that says that the leader’s sovereignty comes from parliament (the people) and not family lines or birth. Similarly, we could make mention of the Scottish Declaration of Arbroath (1320) and the Dutch Act of Abjuration (1581).
The most profound of these influences would have to be from John Locke. Locke was a renowned English philosopher and a physician. The Continental Congress must have drawn a lot from his works on Liberalism and social contract. Jefferson considered Locke as one of the three greatest minds to ever live (the others were Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton).Francis Bacon’s ideas did not just influence Jefferson only, but the rest of the Congress. In all likelihood, Congress must have picked some of their ideas from the father of empiricism, Francis Bacon.
Furthermore, traces of the Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui’s ideas can be seen in the Declaration. As a matter of fact, his books The Principles of Natural (1747) and The Principles of Politic Law (1751) were like the gospel truth to the various Congressional delegates back then. Burlamaqui was the first to propose that man’s quest for happiness was a natural right and inalienable from him. This particular notion of finding one’s bliss in life featured extensively in the Preamble of the Declaration.
The bottom line is that these ideas in the Declaration did not come out of the vacuum, they were the compressed result of logical reactions and beliefs of more than three centuries of human evolution. The signers simply synthesized and unified those innovative ideas in a brilliant manner.
The Signers of the Declaration of Independence
The moment Congress voted on it, the Declaration of Independence became official. As a matter of fact, the delegates’ signatures are not what made the declaration official because Congress had already passed the Declaration. The number of delegates that signed was 56. John Hancock, President of the Congress, was the first person to put his signature. Hancock signature was so huge that it occupied about 5 inches of space on the document. For the next century or so, the term John Hancock became synonymous with signature. Some reports claim that Hancock wanted to make his signature so visible that it could easily be read by the King. This was Hancock’s way of saying, the colonies were done and through with the British Empire’s rule.
Also on the document were the signature of several founding fathers such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. All in all, the backgrounds of the signers were not that diverse considering the fact that it was in the 18th century. The races of these signers were entirely Caucasians. There was no representation from the African American community or the Native Americans. There were no women in Congress back then therefore the document had no woman signers. At the age of 26, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina was the youngest signer while Benjamin Franklin’s age of 70 made him the oldest signer of the Declaration of Independence document.
Complete list of all 56 Signers of the Declaration
Even though, the Declaration was on July 4, 1776, it is possible that not all 56 signers appended their signatures on that very day. An account from Thomas McKean points to the fact that some members of Congress were not present on July 4, 1776. The account went on to say that some of the 56 signers had not even been elected to Congress as at 4th July 1776. However, on August 2, 1776, those that weren’t present on July 4 signed the parchment paper copy of the Declaration.
Interesting Note: The Syng inkstand that majority of the signers used is the same inkstand that would later be used to sign the United States Constitution in 1787.
The Public’s Reaction to the Independence Declaration
The general public reacted in a very joyful manner to the July 4th Declaration. All across the American colonies (now independent states), the atmosphere was one of utter bliss and relief. In some colonies, the public ripped apart anything that had to do with the British Empire. Statues, landmarks, buildings and signs of the Empire were all brought down.
Congress printed about 200 large paper sized copies for distribution. The printing was done in the vicinity of Congress at John Dunlap’s printing shop in Philadelphia. The copies appeared in all thirteen colonies on notice boards and in newspapers. There were also public readings of the Declaration in those colonies. The first of those readings occurred on July 8 in Philadelphia.
The document was also published in several languages, most notably German. The Colonial Army’s General, George Washington, was given a broadside copy. On July 9 for example, Washington proclaimed the declaration to the army in New York City. The rationale behind the proclamations being made in army camps was to whip up morale in the troops. The proclamation also served as a means to encourage people to join the continental army.
The Declaration makes its way to Continental Europe
Congress made sure that the British officials in the various colonies had copies of the Independence Declaration. These officials, in turn, sent them to the King George and the British Parliament. It made big headlines on the streets of London. The declaration was seen in most British newspapers. Soon, the entire continental Europe was reading about it in their newspapers. From Rome, all the way up the north in Warsaw, it was translated into various languages.
Congress also sent copies to the various nations abroad. This was a sign that the United States had now assumed sovereignty. Some countries and empires sought to restrict the circulation of the declaration for fear of similar thing happening in their colonies. Spain for example was very apprehensive about the Declaration. They feared their colonies in the South America could use the United States’ Declaration to agitate for greater autonomy and even independence.
The British Empire’s Response to the Declaration in America
The British Parliament, as well as some members of the British public, gave a very sharp rebuttal to the Declaration. They believed that the signers of the declaration lacked the moral authority to do so given that they had not completely eliminated slavery and the persecution of African Americans in their colonies. If the signers believed so much in liberty, equality and freedom, how come they could not grant those same God-given rights to the African Americans living in their colonies? Where the African Americans that worked on the plantation farms not created equal? Questions like these and many more rebuttals flowed from the British Tories.
Also, the immediately after the Declaration, Britain responded in its typical manner. However, this time around the conflict and wars were more vicious. France, a former foe, came to their rescue. With independence now proclaimed, France as well as other European nations could support the colonies. Congress signed the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778. Soon, other foreign governments such as the Netherlands (in 1782) and Spain (in 1783) followed in similar fashion as France did. The war with the British Empire would continue until 1783 after the various parties (America along with her European allies versus Great Britain) signed the Treaty of Paris.
The Declaration’s contradiction with Slavery
Thomas Jefferson must have had his conscience prick him for putting in the Declaration draft that “all men are created equal” while at the same time owning hundreds of slaves. Jefferson tried to pin this on the British. In his initial draft he claimed that the British Empire had imposed on the American colonies slavery, and that the colonies simply had to obey the wishes of the British Empire. This point was eventually removed by Congress because they feared that tagging the entire British society as pro-slavery would alienate the few British and parliamentarians who were on the side of the American colonies.
Many historians believe that Jefferson as well as other members of the Congress were particularly hypocritical in this regard. Thomas Day, a famous English abolitionist, saw the work done by Congress as well as their Independence proclamations as the highest form nonsense. How could these Congress men openly proclaim that all men are born equal and yet keep hoards of slaves on their farms and plantations?
In spite of their strong beliefs and philosophies, slavery was not immediately abolished after Declaration. It would take a mammoth 89 years to do so. However, the Declaration did give a lot of 19th century abolitionist the impetus to go ahead and fight for African Americans. Leaders like William Lloyd Garrison and Benjamin Lundy drew a lot of inspiration from the Declaration. Some abolitionist even turned radical and believed that the Declaration text called for the destruction of a government that condoned slavery.
Up into the 1819 and 1821 when new states wanted to join the union, many Congressmen openly kicked against the idea of accepting states that had not abolished slavery. They held the view that admission of such states will undermine the entire principle of the Independence Declaration.
On the flip side of the argument, the pro-slavery camp and states back then argued that the Constitution was the most important thing legal document and therefore the Declaration of Independence and its text could certainly not be applied in the debate. Some pro-slavery politicians from North Carolina and Indiana argued that the founding fathers never intended to apply the “all men are created equal” principle to black people.
Abraham Lincoln reads The Declaration into the Constitution
The decades that followed the Declaration of Independence did not see many changes in the legislative framework that could actually abolish slavery in America. The only few states that had any form of legislation prohibiting slavery was Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia. This was good news for the abolitionists. However, the abolitionists still had to deal with the rest of continental America. It was very shocking because the so called tyrant of the American colonies, Great Britain, even abolished slavery in 1833. However, America, whose founding principles were based on equality of all men, had yet to abolish it.
The responsibility of doing this fell to an Illinois statesman and politician by name Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did one thing that his predecessors had for decades refused to acknowledge or abide by. America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln drew from the Declaration of Independence during one of the most trying times in America’s history. He, along with some northern states in the Union, was strongly opposed to slavery because he felt that the principles of the Declaration document should be taken in words and not in spirit.
Abraham Lincoln was an example of those who wanted to see slavery come to an end. He had great admiration of the Founding Fathers and believed that the Declaration of Independence was designed to also end slavery else why include the text: “all men are born equal” in it. Lincoln argued that the Founding Fathers envisaged the abolishing of slavery in future. According to Lincoln the drafters of the Declaration never really condoned slavery. Rather they sought to gradually eradicate it from their states. Lincoln vehemently opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1853 (an act that sought to legitimize slavery) because it violated not just principles of the Declaration but that of the Nature’s Law. He believed that the phrase was a universal truth, a truth that sought to improve the lives of all men across the world. An extract from Lincoln’s Peoria’s speech is as follow:
Let us repurify it. Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. … If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union: but we shall have saved it, as to make, and keep it, forever worthy of the saving
Lincoln’s Peoria speech in October 1854
Lincoln’s pursuit for equality and liberty brought him into conflict with Stephen Douglas all throughout the middle part of the 19th century. Douglas maintained that the “all men are created equal” phrase only applied to white men.
As time went by, Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration gradually became a crucial spectrum through which the U.S. constitution would be interpreted. Lincoln was therefore the first person to read the Declaration of Independence into the United States Constitution. The principles from the Declaration of Independence (along with the U.S. constitution) had successfully brought about an end to slavery in 1865.
The Declaration gets picked up by the Women’s Suffrage Movement
At the Seneca Falls Convention (in New York) in July 1848, the women’s right movement pondered why the famous and most natural law principle: “all men are created equal” surprisingly excluded women in the wording. Soon the members of these movement started demanding suffrage for women using the motto: “all men and women are created equal”. Their goal of attaining suffrage (voting rights) for women was not realized until 1920 kind courtesy to the 19th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
Relevance of the Declaration document after the American Revolution
After the American Revolution, the public sort of paid less attention to the Declaration. They did however celebrate the 4th of July. The Declaration document was like an indictment document against the British crown, particularly King George. And although the principles and the philosophies that underpinned the Declaration are undeniably relevant, the text and the specifics had served its purpose. The text and the indictments on the declaration could therefore not be used in subsequent political debates such as when the American Constitution was been drafted. What featured most during the drawing up of the constitution was George Mason’s draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
The Declaration served its purpose but the principles that it was based upon was as natural as the ones propounded by George Mason or John Locke. Besides, it will seem rather strange for subsequent American generations to incorporate the words of an indictment document (against a British monarch that once usurp the rights of colonies) into every political discourse. Regardless of this, the Declaration still influenced other countries to take make similar revolutions against oppressive monarchs and government.
The Declaration’s influence on other Countries and their fight for Independence
It is likely that had the Americans not revolted against Britain, the French would not (or might have not) happened in 1789. Less than five years after the American Revolution, a mighty French monarchy crumbled. Theirs was swift and way more brutal and uncivilized than their American counterparts. However, the same principles that drove the Declaration of Independence are the same ones that underpinned the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789.
Along with the French Revolution, the American Declaration of 1776 caused a lot of ripples in the political fabric of several countries. Examples of such major social and political upheavals were:
- The Manifesto of the Province of Flanders in 1790
- The Venezuelan Declaration of Independence in 1811
- The Liberian Declaration of Independence in 1847
- The Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence in 1945
- The Haitian Revolution of 1804
- The Argentine Declaration of Independence in 1816
- Chilean Declaration of Independence in 1818
- The Decembrist Revolt against the Russian Empire in 1825
The Independence Declaration also fueled people revolt and uprising in countries such as El Salvador (1821), Guatemala (1821), Honduras (1821), Mexico (1821) Uruguay 1825, Nicaragua (1821), Bolivia (1825), Ecuador (1830), Colombia (1831), Paraguay (1842), Dominican Republic (1844), Costa Rica (1821) and Hungry (1849). All of these countries shared had one thing in common: they sought to bring down centuries of imperial and monarchical regimes in their societies.
Reproduction of the Declaration document over the years
The first 200 official copies that were made found their way to army troops and assembly halls all across the 13 states.
Congress later made an engrossed copy that was signed by all 56 delegates. It is believed that Timothy Matlack was the person who hand wrote the document. This slightly different version is what we see in circulation today.
The engrossed copy is an invaluable asset for the United States. It is often well preserved and well-guarded. Today, it can be found at the Library of Congress. However, up until 1921, the engrossed copy of Declaration was housed in the State Department. Considering how priceless and valuable the copy is, the engrossed copy has been safely transferred to the United States Bullion Depository in times of war or other chaotic conditions. The most recent case of this occurred after the Pearl Harbor attack. The copy remained in the depository all throughout World War II.
In 1952, the engrossed copy found a new home however. Congress decided to put it on continuous display at the National Archives. Specifically, it can be found at the “Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom”.
Original Copies and Versions of the Declarations in the 21st century
Up to this day, there exist about 26 copies of the John Dunlap’s broadside copies. One of them can be found at The National Archives in England.
Also, there exist 9 copies of the Goddard broadside that Congress printed in 1777. The Goddard broadside was printed by Mary Katherine Goddard, hence its name. This version lists the signers of the Declaration.
As recent as April 21, 2017, an engrossed copy of the Declaration was found in the archives of West Sussex County Council in England. In this version, the signers were not categorized into states. Historians are still scratching their heads as to how this engrossed copy came across the Atlantic into England. And why did it take this long a time for it to be discovered?
Art works of the Declaration of Independence
There exist several art works and paintings that commemorate the Declaration of Independence. Most famous among them is John Trumbull’s painting that shows the drafting committee of five presenting their draft to Congress on June 28, 1776.
The figures and faces in Trumbull’s painting are not exactly the same ones that were present in Congress on June 28, 1776. The Independence Hall however, is painted exactly how it was back in 1776. This 12-by-18 foot (3.7 by 5.5 m) painting of Trumbull was commissioned by the U.S. Congress in 1817. It has remained hung in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda since 1826.
Also, John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Declaration signing appeared on the reverse side of the $100 National Bank Note of 1863. And Since 1976, exactly 200 years after the Declaration, an engraved rendition of Trumbull’s painting has featured boldly on the $2 bill.
Modern Arts and Pop Culture references to the Declaration of Independence
The 4th of July Declaration of Independence continues to resonate with Americans as well as countless number of people across the world. In America for example, the date has been incorporated into several art works and architectural designs. The One World Trade Center in New York City has a height of 1776 feet (541 m) to commemorate the year in which the Declaration was made.
In popular and urban culture, so many songs and movies have used the Independence Declaration as their main themes. Examples of such songs are Neil Diamond’s Coming to America and American Land by Bruce Springsteen. Notable mention of such movies are the 1776 (a musical); the T.V. series John Adams; and the 2004 critically acclaimed film, National Treasure that starred Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger.
The 4th of July, 1776 is definitely the single most memorable date in the history of the United States of America. Exactly as John Adams predicted (although his was July 2), this day that has been and will forever be celebrated for generations and millennia to come. The interesting thing about July 4 is that not only does it go beyond a bunch of 13 colonies’ pursuit for independence, it was man’s way of taking his destiny into his (or her) own hands. It was not just a political revolt, it was a mental revolution: a new way of thinking that has enabled massive technological, economical, political and cultural progressions in the human race.
The 4th of July will forever symbolize our pursuit for happiness as well as a natural desire to become the very best version of ourselves. And kind courtesy to this solemnized and profound document the stage was set for freedom, equality and liberty across the globe.