By the end of 1775, the military conflicts with Great Britain increased the eagerness of many Patriots to declare their
independence, but many other colonists, including influential members of the Second Continental Congress, were wary about
breaking completely from the Crown. The ties to England remained strong for many Americans and the thought of losing their
political and commercial connections to one of the world’s most powerful nations seemed irrational to them.
Many colonists believed that a rebellion would change their lives for the worse. They were familiar with the living conditions
under British rule and feared the unknown. The upper class in America did not want to lose their status in society and grew
concerned about how average Americans would react to independence. In addition, many colonists wondered if common people could
actually govern themselves.
In early 1776, two significant events propelled the colonies toward severing relations with Britain. First, the pamphlet
Common Sense was published in January. Thomas Paine wrote the political piece criticizing King George III. While colonial
leaders crafted gracious and humble petitions to persuade the king to ease Britain’s control over the colonies, Paine bluntly
called George III a “Royal Brute” who was unworthy of Americans’ respect. The pamphlet encouraged colonists to break free
from England and start a new independent and democratic society. Paine argued that the concept of an island ruling a continent
defied natural law. “We have it in our power to begin the world again,” he insisted.
Reaction to Common Sense was overwhelming. Paine’s diatribe put into words the thoughts of many Americans. Even
members of the Continental Congress accepted Paine’s call to action by urging states to form governments and write their own
statements of independence.
The following month, Congress learned of the Prohibitory Act, closing all colonial ports and defining resistance to the
Crown as treason. Congress responded by authorizing privateers to operate against British shipping. Additionally, Americans
discovered that the British government was hiring foreign mercenaries to crush the colonies. Ultimately, nearly thirty thousand
German-speaking soldiers, collectively called “Hessians” because the majority hailed from Hesse-Kassel, fought in the Revolutionary
War. Many colonists associated mercenaries with radical and illicit behavior including looting and torture. The potential
for such cruelty toward Americans, many colonists concluded, doomed the possibility of a peaceful reconciliation. In April,
Congress opened American ports to international trade. By that time, several revolutionary state governments were committed
to independence from Great Britain.
On June 7, 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced to the Continental Congress a resolution: “That these United
Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” He further called “for forming foreign Alliances and
preparing a plan of confederation.” Lee’s resolution announced America’s break from England, but members of Congress believed
a more formal explanation was needed to unify the colonies, secure foreign assistance, and justify their actions to the world.
Delegates from the middle colonies, however, were reluctant to support the separation from the mother country and postponed
a vote on Lee’s resolution.
In the meantime, Congress appointed a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston,
and Thomas Jefferson to prepare a formal declaration. The committee selected Jefferson, the youngest member of the Continental
Congress and the delegate who received the most votes in the selection process, to write the first draft. Jefferson spent
the next two weeks writing. The committee refined and edited the manuscript before submitting a final version to the Congress
on June 28.
Several ideas Jefferson included in the Declaration of Independence to justify the American Revolution were not new. John
Adams, in particular, claimed that Congress frequently discussed the concepts outlined in the document. Additionally, many
of the terms incorporated by Jefferson derived from proclamations of independence previously issued by several colonial governments.
Jefferson admitted that it was not his task to invent new principles or arguments, but rather the Declaration was intended
be an expression of the American mind.
In the preamble, Jefferson referred to the “natural rights” of humankind popularized by Enlightenment thinkers, including
philosopher John Locke’s call for “the right to life, liberty, and property”—the last of which Jefferson changed to “the pursuit
of happiness.” He also incorporated Locke’s contention that people have the right to overthrow their government when it abuses
their fundamental rights.
In a direct attack on George III, Jefferson provided a lengthy list of the king’s violations of American rights. He accused
King George of imposing taxes on colonists without their consent, and blamed him for the existence of slavery in America—although
Congress deleted that allegation from the final document.
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress unanimously passed Lee’s resolution to declare American independence from British
rule. The delegation from New York, which represented a large population of loyalists who did not want to break all ties with
England, abstained from voting. The Continental Congress spent the next two days debating and amending the Declaration of
Independence. The delegates focused primarily on the list of grievances, cutting Jefferson’s harsh assault on the British
people for backing the king and eliminating about one-fourth of the original wording. The Declaration, the delegates believed,
should explain and justify American independence in a gentlemanly manner.
On the Fourth of July, the delegates adopted the Declaration of Independence. By defying the king and declaring their independence,
the Patriots became rebels subject to the penalties for treason. The American revolutionaries realized that unity was imperative
to their success. “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” vowed Benjamin Franklin.
“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
The Declaration of Independence did not immediately garner a great deal of attention from people outside the British Empire.
Within a few years, however, the document profoundly influenced citizens from other countries hoping to escape the oppressive
tyranny of their rulers. The “French Declaration of the Rights of Man,” most notably, drew upon Jefferson’s ideas and words.
The Declaration of Independence remains an inspiration for freedom-loving peoples.
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