On this day in 1776, the Continental Congress adopts our Declaration of Independence. It had already resolved on July 2 that “these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States . . . .” Now it formally adopted a written document, too.
It took nearly a month to write the Declaration. You may know that Thomas Jefferson was the primary author, but he had help, too.
What is the rest of the story?
On June 11, Congress nominated a “Committee of Five” to draft a declaration. This committee did not leave a written record of its deliberations. Instead, the accounts we have were written many years later, when memories had faded. Many of them were conflicting. We may never know exactly how our Declaration was drafted, but we can get a general idea of the series of events.
The Committee apparently started by holding several meetings in which it created a high-level outline of what the document should say. Then, according to John Adams’s later recollection, the Committee of Five appointed a subcommittee of Adams and Jefferson. Adams declined to draft the document. Jefferson remembered it a bit differently. He remembered being appointed, directly, by the Committee. (See July 2 history post.)
Diary entries and such partially support both men’s recollections . . . . and partially contradict both men’s recollections.
Jefferson later described the goals that he had in mind as he sat down to write. He was not trying to “find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of.” Instead, he wanted to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independant stand we are compelled to take.” He wanted it to be an “expression of the American mind.”
Again according to Adams, he and Jefferson met to discuss the first draft of the document. Adams later described himself as “delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded.” This initial draft contained a “vehement philippic against negro slavery,” which also pleased Adams, although it was later struck. Jefferson’s draft was presented to the entire Committee of Five at some point. Some alterations were suggested. A draft was presented to Congress on June 28.
Congress made changes—naturally! Adams felt that “they obliterated some of the best of it.” Jefferson was also unhappy. He sent a copy of the original to Richard Henry Lee, who concurred that Congress had “mangled” the manuscript. However, Lee added cheerfully, “the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen.”
Once approved, news of the Declaration spread far and wide. George Washington had it read to his troops. It was published in newspapers, read before towns, and forwarded to Europe. Mere days later, it was read aloud in Philadelphia, as the city’s bells tolled to mark the event.
What must it have been like to stand in front of the Pennsylvania State House on that day in 1776, hearing the closing lines of our Declaration?
“We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America . . . solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are 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; . . . . And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Happy Independence Day, everyone!
David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas (2004)
Declaration of Independence (1776)
Journals of the Continental Congress (June 11, July 2 & July 4, 1776)
Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1998 edition)