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Declaration of Independence

Historical Context

The journey to the Declaration of Independence began with a series of bold actions from both the American colonies and Great Britain. Throughout the 1760s and early 1770s, the colonies grew increasingly frustrated with British taxation policies. Since these taxes were imposed without any representation of the colonies in the British Parliament, the famous phrase "no taxation without representation" became a rallying cry.

As tensions mounted, the Boston Tea Party in 1773 served as an act of defiance against British taxation. Colonists, dressed as Native Americans, boarded British ships and dumped an entire shipment of tea into the Boston Harbor, protesting the Tea Act. This move didn't sit well with the British government, which responded by enacting the Coercive Acts, also known as the Intolerable Acts, designed to punish Massachusetts and Boston.

The colonies convened the First Continental Congress in 1774, comprising delegates from twelve of the thirteen colonies. It was here that colonies began to seriously consider their shared grievances and discuss coordinated responses that laid the groundwork for a collective quest for independence.

Responses included facilitating a colonial boycott of British goods through the creation of local Committees of Safety. Despite these efforts, hopes for a peaceful resolution remained. However, with each passing skirmish and tax imposition, the gap between the British crown and its American colonies widened.

Shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775 marked the beginning of armed conflict between colonial forces and British soldiers, abruptly shifting the colonial push from protest to war.

As 1776 dawned, the voice for independence grew louder. Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," published in January, played a pivotal role in shifting public opinion towards independence by arguing that it was the only path forward for the Colonies.1

By mid-1776, Richard Henry Lee formally moved Congress for independence on June 7th. This motion set off debates within Congress about whether it was the right path forward, owing to some colonies' uncertainty or lack of authority to vote for independence.

Despite initial hesitations, measures toward cutting ties became more resolute. On May 10th, the Congress rejected any allegiance to British governance, encouraging colonies to form their own governance systems.

Through debates and growing resolve for sovereignty, the pathway toward drafting the Declaration of Independence became more definitive. Each act of British aggression and each colonial counter-measure added layers to a cumulative call for freedom. Independence was no longer just a radical thought—it had become a necessity for many within the Congress and beyond.

An intense battle scene between colonial militia and British soldiers in a small town setting

Drafting Process

The Second Continental Congress demonstrated their intent through deliberate action. A committee of five was chosen to undertake the task of drafting the Declaration of Independence:

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • John Adams
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • Roger Sherman
  • Robert R. Livingston

Each man embodied the regions, philosophies, and intellects that defined the American sentiment for independence.

Jefferson, hailing from Virginia, was unanimously selected by the committee to compose the initial draft. Known for his eloquence and belief in human rights, Jefferson had already drafted the constitution for Virginia. Under the weight of historical consequence, Jefferson secluded himself in a rented room in Philadelphia. Over the course of seventeen days, he labored on the draft that would articulate the colonies' rationale for breaking away from British rule.

Jefferson's draft candidly laid out the philosophical and moral foundations for independence. It spoke to the inalienable rights of mankind — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — concepts that would resonate beyond the immediate conflict to inspire future generations. However, before Jefferson's words could claim their place in history, they had to withstand the scrutiny of his committee peers and the Continental Congress.

Adams and Franklin offered suggestions, tweaking phrases and making small yet impactful adjustments to Jefferson's original text. Their contributions reflected their experience and wisdom, adding refinement to Jefferson's passionate prose.

As delegates debated the content of the declaration, it became apparent that compromises would be needed. While the essence of Jefferson's words persevered, certain passages — notably those implicating the British populace or condemning the English crown's involvement in the slave trade — were excised. These deletions were concessions aimed at securing unanimity among the colonies, some of which harbored concerns or held economic interests tied to the systems Jefferson critiqued.

The editing process was a series of deliberations on the values and grievances that had led the colonies to this historic juncture. The debates within Congress reflected the divergent interests and philosophical divides among the colonies. Nonetheless, they underscored the collective desire for a document that could not only justify their separation from Britain but also lay the groundwork for a new society based on principles of freedom and equity.

As Congress adopted the Declaration on July 4, 1776, the finalized words asserted colonial defiance and determination. Yet, it's important to recognize that this document was not solely the product of Jefferson's intellect nor entirely reflective of his original draft. It was a testament to the collaborative spirit of the Continental Congress and emblematic of the diverse strands of thought and aspiration that would characterize the new nation.

The drafting and editing process of the Declaration of Independence epitomizes more than a political necessity; it was a manifestation of ingenuity, negotiation, and shared vision. It proved that amidst varied backgrounds and beliefs, these men could craft a narrative compelling enough to embolden a collective break from tyranny, setting an enduring example of American determination and resilience.

Thomas Jefferson sitting at a desk, writing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence by candlelight

Key Principles

Within the Declaration of Independence lies the philosophical bedrock upon which the United States was founded. At the heart of the Declaration are several key principles:

  • Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
  • The notion of all men being created equal
  • The inherent right of the people to alter or abolish oppressive governments

These assertions were central to the immediate cause of American independence and resonated as revolutionary ideals that would influence democratic movements worldwide.

The principle that "all men are created equal" was an audacious assertion in an era marked by entrenched class hierarchies and the widespread institution of slavery. This concept challenged the traditional sociopolitical structure where one's birth determined one's social status and potential. Embedded within this assertion was a call for a societal foundation where an individual's merit, rather than lineage or aristocracy, defined one's worth. Though the complete realization of this principle into societal structures has been an evolving endeavor—marred by contradictions, most notably the institution of slavery—it laid the groundwork for future reformations and civil rights movements that sought to hold America to its founding ideals.

Adjoining the assertion of equality is the declaration of certain unalienable rights endowed to all humanity by their Creator, notably life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This amounted to a deviation from prevailing governmental doctrines that vested sovereign powers in monarchies and elites, often at the expense of the general populace's welfare. The Declaration proclaimed that the principal objective of any government should be to secure these unalienable rights, thereby instituting the welfare of the governed as the ultimate litmus test for any legitimate authority. These assertions championed similar ideological shifts worldwide, encouraging movements aimed at emancipating oppressed populations from tyrannical rule.

Perhaps most potent was the enshrinement of the people's right to alter or abolish oppressive forms of governance. This principle underlined a shift in political thought—the sovereign power resided fundamentally with the people rather than conferred upon rulers by divine right or heritage. It posited that governments are entities created by the people to serve as guardians of their rights and welfare. By declaring the right to overthrow such entities should they become destructors of these ends, the Declaration not only justified American rebellion but also set a precedent for future generations and nations to demand accountability from their leaders.

The originality of these principles enshrined in the Declaration cannot be overstated. They provided a theoretical foundation for democracy that went beyond any specific grievances with British governance. If all men were created equal with inviolable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and if government's legitimate role was to safeguard these rights, any government failing to do so was inherently susceptible to challenge. This represented a shift in political theory and praxis, elevating notions of individual freedom and collective sovereignty over entrenched doctrines of monarchic and aristocratic rule.

These principles laid a philosophical challenge that America would grapple with across centuries: the endeavor to align its sociopolitical realities with its foundational ideals. Each generation since the Declaration's adoption has been tasked with evaluating the disparities between these ideals and societal structures, often prompting significant social transformations toward a more equitable realization of liberty, justice, and equality.

While the Declaration of Independence served its primary purpose of severing ties with Great Britain, its most lasting legacy perhaps lies in its articulation of revolutionary ideas that continue to challenge, inspire, and shape dialogues on liberty and justice within and beyond American borders. These key principles—equality, unalienable rights, and the people's sovereignty to institute and reform their government—remain central tenets guiding both national introspection and global aspirations for democratic freedoms and human rights.

A dramatic scene symbolizing the people rising up to overthrow an oppressive government

Global Impact

The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence reached far beyond the American Revolution, influencing political transformations across continents. In France, the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity took center stage during the French Revolution in 1789. French revolutionaries found in the Declaration a model for challenging absolute monarchy and advocating for a society based on democratic principles and the rights of man. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 embodied similar ideals of liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

In Latin America, the Declaration of Independence served as inspiration for colonial subjects rising against European dominion in pursuit of independence and self-governance. Leaders such as Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín, and Miguel Hidalgo drew motivation from the American Revolution, seeing it as a successful precedent for their own struggles against Spanish rule. The Declaration not only served as a political beacon but also demonstrated that colonies could overthrow an empire and emerge as sovereign states.

The Declaration's assertions regarding universal equality and unalienable rights have permeated global human rights discourse, finding reflection in documents such as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.1 This document delineates a global standard for dignity and justice, echoing the Declaration's decree that all are entitled to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

The Declaration's global impact highlights the contagious nature of ideas asserting human dignity and liberty. It showcased a formula where people could contest tyranny through collective will and principled leadership. It articulated an alternative to monarchic and autocratic dominions—a republic based on the consent of the governed and their inherent rights.

While the United States did not immediately fulfill all the ideals of the Declaration, its insistence on universal principles acted as a catalyst for worldwide movements for freedom and self-determination. Its legacy is an ongoing project towards "a more perfect union," inspiring efforts globally to strive for societies where democracy, freedom, and human rights are imperatives.

The United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights document

Preservation and Legacy

The physical journey of the Declaration of Independence, from its inception to its current home, is a compelling story. After its adoption by the Second Continental Congress, it was inscribed on parchment by Timothy Matlack. Signed by the members present, starting with John Hancock, it began its precarious life in Revolutionary America.

During the war, the Declaration traveled with the Continental Congress to avoid British capture, moving between various locations. Post-revolution, the signed parchment had a nomadic existence before finally coming to rest in Washington D.C.

Exposure to light, fluctuating temperatures, and handling took their toll on the document. In 1921, the Declaration, along with the Constitution, was moved to the Library of Congress under protective measures. In 1952, it was transferred to its current location at the National Archives in Washington D.C., where it is displayed with the utmost care and preservation.

Beyond its physical preservation, the Declaration of Independence holds a significant place in American culture and governance. Each year on July 4th, Independence Day is celebrated with fireworks, parades, concerts, and readings of the Declaration. This day serves as a reflection on the freedoms and ideals enshrined within the document.

Educational institutions and civic organizations use this anniversary to instill an understanding of the values and principles outlined in the Declaration. Legal scholars and political scientists often refer back to the Declaration as foundational in discussions of American democracy, human rights, and international law.

The Declaration of Independence has imprinted itself within American cultural identity. Its preamble is quoted in speeches on civil rights and equality, it appears on merchandise celebrating American heritage, and it frames debates on governance and justice. The document's message of self-determination, liberty, and equality continues to resonate, inspiring activism and advocacy across various issues within American society and beyond.

The Declaration of Independence's legacy is multifaceted, standing as a symbol celebrated every Fourth of July and a beacon guiding the quest for freedom and justice. Its physical journey and preservation, coupled with its impact on American culture and governance, ensure its potency and relevance for future generations.

A vibrant Independence Day celebration with fireworks, American flags, and people gathered together

The Declaration of Independence's most profound legacy lies in its articulation of principles that continue to inspire the pursuit of freedom and equality worldwide. It serves as a reminder that the ideals of liberty, justice, and human dignity remain as relevant today as they were over two centuries ago, guiding us in our ongoing endeavor to realize a more equitable and just society.

William Montgomery
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