Declaration of Independence
The American colonists were British citizens, but they were not being treated like citizens by the British parliament or by the king. British parliament kept passing abusive laws. When the colonists tried to argue these laws, more laws were passed that caused even more abuse. The colonists were becoming more and more angry about the way things were. The Continental Congress decided to fight back. They decided the colonies needed to be independent from Britain.
Thomas Jefferson was given the job of writing the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress committee. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original Declaration in just four days. He reworked it a bit over the next two weeks. When he was done, he gave a copy to Ben Franklin and John Adams to read and edit before the next meeting of Congress, which they did.
The Declaration is not a long document. It begins with two sentences: "When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal stations to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 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."
The Declaration goes on to explain that when a government does not protect the rights of its citizens it loses its right to govern. The Declaration lists specific reasons for breaking from Britain. For the full text of the Declaration, please scroll down. But here are a couple of abuses listed in the Declaration:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. Only two people signed the Declaration on July 4th - John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson as secretary. Five hundred (500) copies of the Declaration were printed and distributed. It was not until Aug 2, 1776, that 56 men, including John Hancock, signed a fresh copy of the Declaration of Independence. Back in Britain, King George received his copy on Aug 10th.
If you want to see the original copy of the Declaration, you will need to visit the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., where this document is on display. If you would like to read the text of this document, scroll to the bottom of this page. Or go here: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript As you read the Declaration, notice the grammar. Some words are capitalized in places that are not grammatically correct. That was intentional. These are important words, expressing important ideas, and Thomas Jefferson wanted to call attention to them. Some words are not spelled the way we would spell them today in America. That's because at the time the Declaration was written, the colonists were British citizens, and some words are spelled the way those words are spelled in Britain today. Some words are a reflection of the times. It is very important to read the Declaration as it was written. The Declaration is a National Treasure. It is one of our country's most important freedom documents because of what it says and how it is written.
The youngest signer was Edward Rutledge who was twenty-six years old. The oldest signer was Benjamin Franklin, who was seventy. Two of the signers later became presidents of the United States - John Adams who became the 2nd president of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson, who became the 3rd president. What might surprise you is that George Washington did not sign the Declaration. He did not sign the Constitution either. (George Washington became the first president of the United States because he was the military hero of the American Revolution.)
The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were incredibly brave. They were the leaders of colonial government. People knew who they were and where they lived. They had families. They took an incredible risk signing the Declaration. There was an outside chance that British parliament might respond by agreeing that perhaps they had been a tad bit unfair with the laws they had imposed on the American colonists. But far more likely, the signers knew once King George received a copy of the Declaration that troops would be sent to arrest them. They also knew that many colonists, although angry at British treatment, did not wish to break from Britain. What these colonists wanted was for things to improve. But things were not improving. They were getting worse. Our founding fathers decided it was time to become independent, even if that meant war with Britain.