Declaration of Independence (1776)

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee brought what came to be known as the Lee Resolution before the Continental Congress. This resolution stated “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states…” Congress debated independence for several days. Four days later, a committee made up of John AdamsBenjamin FranklinRoger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson was given the job of drafting a formal declaration of independence. The Committee of Five gave the task of writing the declaration to Jefferson.

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 twenty years later, the SecondThirdFourth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution would contain prohibitions against the government to prevent the same forms of tyranny that 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. Jefferson’s draft was edited by Franklin and Adams, and the final draft was presented to Congress just over two weeks later.

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from England. Congress made several changes to the wording of Jefferson’s draft, including removing references condemning slavery. On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted. It was signed by John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, 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.”

The Declaration of Independence is considered by many to be the philosophical foundation of American freedom. It has been quoted by Americans as various as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who have referenced it as a beacon of hope for all people everywhere.