Your guide to the 1776 American Declaration of Independence
The ground-breaking document that laid the foundations for the modern-day United States promised freedom from the yoke of English tyranny, but not equal rights for all
What is the Declaration of Independence?
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.
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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 of Independence?
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.
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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”.
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Did it advocate freedom for all?
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.
8 key facts about the Declaration of Independence
- Within the Committee of Five, Thomas Jefferson assumed the role of lead author. The other four — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R Livingston — made only minor, verbal suggestions.
- The committee spent 17 days writing the declaration – from 11–28 June 1776.
- The text of the declaration can be divided into five sections: the introduction; the preamble; the indictment of George III; the denunciation of the British people, and the conclusion.
- The finished draft was forwarded to Congress on 1 July 1776, but a number of amendments and deletions were made before the text was ratified – including the removal of Jefferson's lengthy condemnation of slavery. The deletion was designed to appease delegates from Georgia and South Carolina, says the New York Public Library (NYPL).
- One of the most widely held misconceptions about the declaration is that it was signed on 4 July 1776 by all the delegates in attendance, says the US National Archives and Records Administration. In fact the document was signed on 2 August after being engrossed (prepared in a large, clear hand), most likely by Pennyslvanian Timothy Matlack. Delegates did indeed vote to adopt the declaration on 4 July, however.
- Jefferson was troubled by the alterations to his text, says the NYPL, so in July 1776 he made several copies of the complete text, highlighting where changes were made, and sent them to five or six friends. Of these copies, only two complete versions are known to have survived: one is owned by the NYPL, and a second is now owned by the American Philosophical Society. The Massachusetts Historical Society owns a fragment of another copy.
- It has been suggested, though never proved, that the NYPL’s copy of the Declaration of Independence is the one Jefferson sent to his former law professor and mentor, George Wythe.
- A handful of delegates who voted for the adoption of the declaration on 4 July never signed it, despite an order of Congress on 19 July that the engrossed document “be signed by every member of Congress”. Non-signers included Robert R Livingston, one of the Committee of Five (who wrote the declaration), who thought the declaration was premature, and John Dickinson, who hoped for reconciliation with Britain.
This guide was first published by BBC History Revealed magazine in 2016