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Declaration of Independence

A photo of the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence. John Dunlap of Philadelphia was the printer. (Courtesy National Archives)
A photo of the first printed version of the Declaration of Independence. John Dunlap of Philadelphia was the printer. (Courtesy National Archives)

The Declaration of Independence is one of the two most famous documents of the United States of America. The other one is the Constitution, but the Declaration came first. It was adopted on July 4, 1776, by representatives of the 13 original colonies from New Hampshire to Georgia. That was the beginning of the nation. The place of meeting, the Pennsylvania State House, in Philadelphia, became known as Independence Hall, and Americans celebrate their country's birthday every July 4. Men on horseback carried printed copies of the Declaration up and down the coast from Portsmouth and Boston to Charleston and Savannah. In Philadelphia it was soon written on parchment and signed by 56 delegates. Anyone who looks at it in its glass case in the National Archives, in Washington, D.C., will find some of the faded signatures hard to read. But the president of the Second Continental Congress, John Hancock, of Massachusetts, wrote his name large so that nobody could miss it. And these men, during the rest of their lives, were proud that their names were there.

 

 

This was the most important paper that any of them had ever signed. It announced to the world that the 13 former British colonies in North America were now free from the rule of King George III. They were now independent states, but they were also united and determined to defend their freedom at any cost. Some of the signers were rich men who were risking their fortunes, and all of them were risking their lives. Ever since that time, Americans have rightly called them patriots and have regarded their Declaration as something sacred--like the flag, almost like the Bible. During World War II the old piece of parchment was kept safe in a vault beneath the ground at Fort Knox, Kentucky, along with the Constitution and the country's supply of gold. Since then the Declaration has been carefully preserved and guarded, but anybody who wants to see it can do so. Thousands of Americans look at it every year, and it draws many visitors from other lands. The main reason for this is that it is more than an assertion of American independence. It is also a declaration of the right of all men in all countries to be free from tyranny of any sort. Abraham Lincoln said this in a speech in Independence Hall on his way to be inaugurated as president, and it is still true today.

Why It Was Adopted

When the delegates in Philadelphia said they were willing to die for freedom, they were talking of something they knew about. They and their fathers had had much more freedom than the French and Spanish colonists in the New World. They had legislatures of their own that met in Williamsburg or Boston or Annapolis or some other capital. They were used to managing their own affairs. Their taxes had been light. They did not like some of the provisions of the Navigation Acts, which required them to do most of their business with England. But the British Government let them get around some of these.

The American colonists counted on England to protect them against their enemies. Their main enemies were the French until the end of the French and Indian War, about a dozen years before the Declaration of Independence. As a result of that war, the French were driven from Canada and the rest of the North American continent. The colonists were then freed from a great danger and were much less dependent on the British. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, the leaders decided that they could get along better without the British. The main reason was that after the French and Indian War the government in England asked things of the colonists that it had not asked before and tried to take away rights they had long enjoyed.

The British were thinking mostly of their own problems. They had spent a great deal of money in the war with the French, and after it they had to manage a much larger empire. They tried to get money from the American colonies by taxing them. The most famous case was that of the Stamp Act. But the colonies had no representatives in Parliament, which passed this law. So they said: "No taxation without representation." The British gave up the Stamp Act, but said that Parliament had the right to pass any law for the Americans that it wanted to. They tried to enforce the trade laws better in order to get more of the income they needed. The British, because of promises to the Indians, tried to keep the Americans from moving westward as fast as they liked. The colonists thought there were more British soldiers in America than were needed. These "redcoats" were a tough lot, and stones were sometimes thrown at them. Once when this happened, they fired into the crowd and killed a few people. This was what the colonists called the Boston Massacre. So the quarrel went on year after year. The colonists refused to buy British goods when their arguments did no good, and at times they were violent. They said they were loyal English people, but they were determined to defend their rights.

The main events that led to actual fighting took place in Massachusetts. One of these was the Boston Tea Party. Toward the end of 1773, a group of colonists dressed themselves like Indians and threw into Boston Harbor three shiploads of tea belonging to a British company. They were determined that nobody should buy the tea and pay the tax on it. Somebody might have been tempted to do so, because the British Government tried to help the company by lowering the tax so that the selling price would be cheap. Many Americans did not like the destruction of British property by a mob, but the British Government punished Massachusetts so severely that people in all the other colonies feared the loss of their own freedom. Parliament passed the Intolerable Acts. They said that no ships should sail into or out of Boston Harbor. They changed the form of government of the colony in order to increase the powers of the king and the royal governor. They tried to prevent town meetings. They were trying to take from the colony of Massachusetts the right to manage its local affairs. The First Continental Congress met because of this crisis. The other colonies promised to support Massachusetts, and the farmers of New England took up their rifles against the redcoats. The American Revolution began with the firing at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775. This is the reason for the celebration of Patriot's Day in Maine and Massachusetts. Blood was shed at Bunker Hill a little later, and these events led to the Declaration of Independence.

What had happened was that the British Government had become stricter with the colonies at just the time they were growing stronger and more independent in spirit. The Americans were like a young man who had grown up and was determined to manage his own affairs. The British Government was like a father who wanted his grown son to stay at home, to obey him, and to help contribute to the expenses of the family. In earlier years the father had granted his son much freedom, but he was now trying to take this away. The son did not always behave well, but he was determined to be a man. The result was a family quarrel that ended with his leaving the family.

How It Was Adopted

The men who announced to the world that the states were now free and independent were members of the Second Continental Congress. This was a good deal like what we call a convention. There was no law saying there had to be a Congress, as the Constitution now states. When the delegates met, they were still subjects of the king. They did not ask him if they might meet, and if they had asked him, he would have said no. After the Americans fired their rifles at Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, King George III said they were rebels, and he sent troops to force them to submit. Some of these soldiers were not even British, but were Germans (Hessians) whom the King had hired from their German ruler.

The Continental Congress was as firm as the King. It elected George Washington, of Virginia, to command the Continental Army and defend Massachusetts. Until this time the Americans had been blaming Parliament, not the King. They had refused to obey some laws that Parliament had passed and has said that it had no right to pass them. They had legislatures of their own. But they hesitated to break with the King and give up the flag under which they had lived all their lives. One thing that helped them decide to do it was a fiery pamphlet by Thomas Paine called Common Sense. Paine said that there was no sense in having a king, and that it was absurd for a big continent to be ruled by a small island. People in the different colonies, especially in New England and Virginia, were urging the delegates to declare independence. They reached the decision to do so on July 2, by adopting a resolution presented by Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia. This resolution comes at the end of the paper they adopted on July 4. Several weeks before this, they had elected a committee to draw up a paper. As the first sentence of this says, "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" required that they should declare the causes of the painful separation from their home country.

What It Means

The Declaration was addressed to the whole world in language of dignity and beauty. Luckily the task of writing it fell to Thomas Jefferson, the delegate who was best fitted to perform it. He thought this the most important thing he ever did, though he later became president of the United States. The members of the committee who were most helpful to him were John Adams, who was older than he was and became president sooner, and Benjamin Franklin, who was older still and was regarded as the most famous man in the Congress. Franklin was one of the best writers of the time, but somebody said that he would have put a joke in the Declaration if he had written it. Some changes were made by Congress when the paper was presented, chiefly by leaving things out. We can still see the Declaration as Jefferson wrote it with his own quill pen. He did this in his lodgings on the second floor of a plain brick house, and he used a folding writing box that he set upon the table. It had been made for him by a carpenter after his own design. He gave it to one of his granddaughters and her husband as a wedding present shortly before he died, and it is still preserved.

The first great public paper of the American republic falls into two main parts. One of these, which is only a paragraph, tells of the rights that belong to everybody. The second, which is longer, tells of things the British had actually done against the rights of Americans. These were charges against the King. George III was not personally responsible for all of these actions, but Jefferson did not want to mention Parliament. He and others had already denied its authority over them. There was a reason for every one of the charges, but nobody now thinks that George III was a tyrant like Stalin or Hitler. He was a foolish king who asked too much of his American subjects and then tried to force them to obey him. They thought him a tyrant because they were so used to being free and governing themselves. The charges against him are of interest to students of history, but most people have forgotten them.

The first paragraph will always be interesting to most Americans because it sums up what they believe and have tried to live up to. It also appeals to people everywhere because it talks about all men, not just Americans. Many of the ideas in it came from English writers, such as John Locke. Jefferson did not claim that he was original. He said that he was stating what all the patriots believed.

In the Declaration he stated that all men are born equal. This does not mean that they are born equal in wealth. It does not mean that at birth they all have the same strength of body or mind. What it means is that they are equal in rights, whether they are rich or poor, strong or weak. It means that people have the same rights if they are Americans or Europeans, or are from Asia or Africa. They have them because they are all human beings. They have a right to live, to be free, and to be happy. Everyone, no matter who he is, should be treated as a human being. In many times and places people have not been treated that way. Americans themselves have not always lived up to their beliefs. But, as Abraham Lincoln said, the Declaration tells Americans what they ought to do, and they must keep on trying to do it.

This part of the Declaration also says that governments have been set up to protect the lives and liberties and happiness of people. They exist for no other reason. It is not right to have a government the people do not like. They have the right to change it. Hardly any of the governments of Jefferson's time were based on the "consent of the governed," and many of those of the 20th century are not. Many of the countries have dictators who are more cruel and powerful than any of the rulers of Jefferson's day. In what is called the free world, however, governments are based on the consent of the governed, and the people can change them when they do not like them. That is one of the things we mean by democracy. The Declaration tells us that tyrants should always be resisted. After all these years it reminds us that every person has the right to be free and to be treated like a human being.

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