What is the Declaration?
Approved by Congress on 4 July 1776, the Declaration of American Independence stated that America’s 13 colonies were to be “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”.
Signed by delegates from all 13 American colonies – Delaware, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts Bay Colony (including Maine), New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations – it became one of the founding documents of the US government, alongside the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
What events led to its creation?
For 12 years leading up to the Declaration’s approval, America had been resisting attempts by Britain to impose heavy taxes on the colonies to pay for expensive wars against France.
The colonies saw these taxes as unjust, and initially peaceful protests broke into rebellion with the destruction of a shipment of tea in Boston, in response to the unpopular Tea Act of May 1773. The British parliament imposed a number of acts that effectively ended self-government and other historic rights in Massachusetts, and closed the port of Boston.
American patriots set up a shadow government, and 12 colonies joined them, forming a Continental Congress. In April 1775, hostilities broke out into armed conflict, the movement for independence gathered momentum, and the Declaration was adopted in July 1776.
Who wrote the Declaration?
On 7 June 1776, Virginia statesman Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion that proposed America sever ties with Britain and establish a confederation to unite its 13 colonies.
A committee of five men, comprising Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Robert Livingston, prepared a document to outline the justifications for independence.
What does the Declaration actually say?
As well as declaring the 13 British colonies of North America to be independent, the 1,320-word document contains a list of 27 specific grievances against King George III and the British crown, including interfering with the colonies’ right to self-government, introducing legislation without the colonies’ consent, and imposing taxes that prevented free trade.
But it is the document’s liberating preamble that most people remember about the Declaration: “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”.
Did it advocate freedom for all then?
Not for everyone. The document contains very illiberal attitudes to black slaves and Native Americans, the latter of whom are referred to as “merciless Indian Savages” who, the document claims, had been encouraged by the British crown to fight against the Patriots.
Why is 4 July a US national holiday?
Although independence was formally declared on 2 July 1776, the final text wasn’t approved by Congress until 4 July, a date now celebrated annually. The first 4 July celebration took place in 1777, marked by 13 gunshots, one for each of the liberated colonies.
This guide was first published by BBC History Revealed Magazine in 2016