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The Declaration of Independence | Study Guide

Thomas Jefferson

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The Declaration of Independence | Key Figure Analysis


Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia. Raised in relative wealth, he was a dedicated student before beginning his law career. He soon earned a reputation as a top–notch legal scholar, though his oratory skills were lacking. Jefferson's career in politics began in the House of Burgesses, colonial Virginia's legislative body. In 1774 he wrote A Summary View of the Rights of British America, which was published without his permission. It positioned him as an early proponent of cutting political ties with the British Parliament. Jefferson was elected to the Second Continental Congress in 1775, and in 1776 he was asked to draft a document justifying the colonies' decision to separate. Jefferson wasn't immediately given credit for his construction of the Declaration of Independence—for years it was seen as a product of the Continental Congress as a whole. That changed in the early 19th century as the importance of the document itself became more apparent. Jefferson went on to serve as governor of Virginia (1779–80), American minister to France (1784–89), and secretary of state (1789–93). He served under President John Adams as the second Vice President of the United States (1797–1801). He won the contentious election of 1800 to become the third President of the United States (1801–09). Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, at Monticello, his famous Virginia estate.

King George III

George William Frederick is more commonly known as King George III of Great Britain. He took the throne when he was 22 following the death of his grandfather, King George II. He is characterized by biographers as a slow and seemingly apathetic child. George III was haunted by feelings of inadequacy throughout his young adulthood as he prepared for the duties of the throne. The combination of low self–confidence and a determination to succeed may account for his tendency to wield his authority like a weapon. George III's attempts to regain control of his once–loyal colonial subjects came to a head in the summer of 1775. That's when he declared them to be in rebellion and outside the purview of his protection. Willing to take nothing less than total submission, he pursued victory in the colonies until 1783, four years past Parliament's initial request to end the fighting. The end of George III's reign was marked by his intermittent insanity. Historians and physicians have theorized this was caused by a metabolic defect.

John Adams

John Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts. Though his father encouraged him to join the ministry, Adams became a lawyer. He was one of the first Bostonians to resist Parliament's influence in the colonies. He led the colonial opposition of 1767's Townshend Acts, which placed additional taxes on goods imported from Great Britain. Adams was elected to the Continental Congress in the summer of 1774. He and his cousin Samuel Adams were considered the "radicals" of the group because of their disinterest in reconciliation with Great Britain. Adams's 1775 "Novanglus" essays argued that Parliament had no authority to institute laws in the colonies and established Adams as the voice of independence. He was the first person to read and edit Thomas Jefferson's early drafts of the Declaration of Independence, which he vigorously defended during congressional debate. Even more noteworthy is his 1776 pamphlet, Thoughts on Government, which served as the blueprint for many state constitutions. Adams remained in the Continental Congress until 1778. After a brief diplomatic trip to France, he returned to Massachusetts in 1779 and drafted its constitution the following year. He was immediately summoned to Paris once more, this time to help negotiate peace with Great Britain. Adams's confrontational nature made him a poor diplomat, and he earned a reputation for "emotional explosions." Adams returned to the United States in the late 1780s and ran for president in 1789. He came in second place to George Washington, which made Adams the country's first vice–president. Adams ran against Jefferson for the presidency in 1796 and won. The two men were political opposites, and their political differences soured their friendship. Jefferson ran against Adams four years later and won. Adams retired to Massachusetts. He died 25 years later on July 4, 1826, just hours after Jefferson passed away in Virginia.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin was born on January 17, 1706, in Boston, Massachusetts. Many people know him as an inventor and scientist, but he was also a printer, writer, publisher, and diplomat who helped the American colonies achieve independence from Great Britain. Franklin entered politics in 1748 when he was elected to the Philadelphia city council. A long–time supporter of the colonies' relationship with the British Empire, he was named to royal office in 1753 as the deputy postmaster general. Franklin's life goal at that point was to make a name for himself in British political circles. He lived in London from 1757–62, returned to the colonies for two years, and then went back to England. Franklin loved the "sophistication" of English life and looked down upon his "vulgar" countrymen. He spent the decade between 1765 and 1775 trying to mend the rift between Great Britain and the American colonies by explaining each side to the other. Franklin was fired from his postmaster position in 1774 for his involvement with the Hutchinson affair. This scandal involved letters that insinuated the governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, was trying to overthrow the Massachusetts constitution. Franklin thought the letters would put the blame for tensions between Great Britain and the colonies on colonial leaders and absolve Parliament. It didn't, and Franklin was laughed out of England. Franklin returned to the colonies in 1775, where he was elected to the Second Continental Congress. He served on the committee in charge of drafting the Declaration of Independence and was the second person to read it and offer feedback. After its approval Franklin returned to Europe, this time making diplomatic overtures to the French government. He remained there for eight years before returning to the United States, where he was treated with suspicion. It wasn't until the publication of his Autobiography four years after his 1790 death that Franklin became a beloved American figure.

John Hancock

John Hancock was born on January 12, 1737, in Braintree, Massachusetts. He's most often remembered for his large and flamboyant signature at the bottom of the Declaration of Independence. He was also integral in the colonial resistance against Great Britain. Wealthy by inheritance and a merchant by trade, Hancock served on the Massachusetts General Court from 1769–74. He and Samuel Adams led the Massachusetts Patriots. On April 19, 1775, they escaped Lexington as British troops were on the way to destroy colonial supply stores in nearby Concord. Hancock was elected to the Continental Congress in 1775 and served as its president from 1775–77. He was the only person who signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and he did so to make the document legally binding. That's why his signature is so prominent when compared to the others, which were added on August 2. Hancock remained in the Continental Congress until 1780. He was elected governor of Massachusetts that same year and served for nine nonconsecutive terms, taking a break in 1786–87 due to poor health. He died while still in office on October 8, 1793.

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