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United States Declaration of Independence

"Declaration of Independence" redirects here; see declaration of independence for other uses

Fragment of a draft of the Declaration

John Trumbull's painting

Public domain picture from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The Declaration of Independence is a document in which the 13 colonies explain their reasons for declaring themselves independent of the Kingdom of Great Britain. The original copy is still on display to the public in the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Table of contents
1 Background
2 The Declaration
3 Inalienable / Unalienable
4 Text of the Declaration
5 Signers of the Declaration
6 See also
7 External links


Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, relations between Great Britain and thirteen of her American colonies had become increasingly strained. Fighting broke out in 1775 at Lexington and Concord marking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Although there was little initial sentiment for outright independence, the pamphlet Common Sense by Thomas Paine was able to promote the belief that total independence was the only possible route for the colonies.

Independence was adopted on July 2, 1776 pursuant to the "Lee Resolution" presented to the Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, which read: "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."

A committee consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, was formed to draft a suitable declaration to frame this resolution. Jefferson did most of the writing, with input from the committee. The Declaration was then rewritten somewhat in general session prior to its adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Jefferson's draft included a denunciation of the slave trade, which was edited out.

The Declaration

A final copy of the Declaration was produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress, on August 2, 1776, at which time most of the delegates signed it (several signed later). Word of the declaration reached London on August 10.

Several myths surround the document: because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people falsely believe it was signed on that date. John Hancock's name is larger than that of the other signatories, and an unfounded legend states that it is large so that King George III would be able to read it without his spectacles. A painting by John Trumbull, depicting the signing of the Declaration with all representatives present, hangs in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States: no such ceremony ever took place. There is no evidence that Benjamin Franklin ever made the statement often attributed to him: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately". The Liberty Bell was not rung to celebrate independence, and it certainly did not acquire its crack on so doing: that story comes from a children's book of fiction, Legends of the American Revolution, by George Lippard. The Liberty Bell was actually named in the early nineteenth century when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.

A fictionalized (but somewhat historically accurate) version of how the Declaration came about is the musical play (and 1972 movie) 1776, which is usually termed a "musical comedy" but deals frankly with the political issues, especially how disagreement over the institution of slavery almost defeated the Declaration's adoption.

The Declaration was also a propaganda tool, in which the Americans tried to establish clear reasons for their rebellion that might persuade reluctant colonists to join them and establish their just cause to foreign governments that might lend them aid. The Declaration also served to unite the members of the Continental Congress. Most were aware that they were signing what would be their death warrant in case the Revolution failed, and the Declaration served to make anything short of victory in the Revolution unthinkable.

The Declaration appeals strongly to the concept of natural law and self-determination. The Declaration is heavily influnced by the Act of Abjuration of the Dutch Republic, by the Discourses on Government of the Republican martyr Alegernon Sydney, to whose legacy Jefferson and Adams were equally devoted; ideas and even some of the phrasing was taken directly from the writings of John Locke, particularly his second treatise on government, titled "Essay Concerning the true original, extent, and end of Civil Government."

The Declaration of Independence contains many of the founding fathers' fundamental principles, some of which were later codified in the United States Constitution. It has also been used as the model of a number of later documents such as the declarations of independence of Vietnam and Rhodesia.

Inalienable / Unalienable

"Inalienable", etymologically, comes from the French word inaliénable, and is more usually used in legal documents than "unalienable."

The idea of inalienable rights, in almost the exact phrasing used in the Declaration of Independence, came from the political philosopher John Locke. The Declaration of Independence was to a large degree inspired by his work "The Second Treatise of Government". In this treatise, Locke developed the important idea of government by consent. Locke wrote that human beings had certain inalienable rights.

Thomas Jefferson originally wrote "inalienable". When subsequent printed and hand-copied reproductions were made, John Adams, fellow Declaration Committee member, arbitrarily had the word changed to "unalienable"; which he believed more correct. The original signed version of the final draft (i.e. the master document) of the Declaration of Independence (not the one in the National Archives) says "inalienable". The inscription on the Jefferson Memorial reads "inalienable". John Adams became the second president of the United States.

Text of the Declaration

The following paragraphs are the better known section from the start of the Declaration:

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.

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, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them 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. -- Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Signers of the Declaration

The signers of the Declaration represented the new states as follows:

New Hampshire:

Massachusetts: Rhode Island: Connecticut: New York: New Jersey: Pennsylvania: Delaware: Maryland: Virginia: North Carolina: South Carolina: Georgia:

See also

External links