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Course Hero. "The Declaration of Independence Study Guide." December 14, 2017. Accessed February 3, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Declaration-of-Independence/.
Course Hero, "The Declaration of Independence Study Guide," December 14, 2017, accessed February 3, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Declaration-of-Independence/.
Few documents have had as deep an impact on the course of history as the United States' Declaration of Independence. This historic text—which would set the stage of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83)—was primarily authored by Thomas Jefferson, a U.S. founding father who would go on to serve as the third president of the United States. Although the document wasn't considered particularly important by colonists at the time, the political and cultural impact of the Declaration of Independence for future generations of Americans would be undeniable.
Written in 1776, and famously ratified on July 4 of the same year, the Declaration of Independence cemented the 13 colonies' decision to rebel against British rule and become an independent country, no longer beholden to the interests of an English king. Although a bloody conflict would follow, U.S. history is often considered to have truly begun with the creation and signing of this momentous declaration. The Declaration of Independence served not only as a formal decree of rebellion, but also as a rallying cry to a people oppressed by the British Crown and as a foundation for the values and culture that would develop alongside the newly established nation.
There are 26 known copies of the "Dunlap printing" of the Declaration of Independence—the first printing commissioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 from the printer John Dunlap. In 1968 one of these rare copies was discovered in an unassuming Philadelphia bookstore after the establishment closed down. The remarkable find was purchased for $400,000 by two businessmen from Dallas, Texas, who organized a tour for the declaration to be seen across the country. Finally, the document was donated to the Dallas Public Library, where visitors can see the original Declaration free of charge. Dallas City Manager George Schrader noted the importance of the acquisition, stating:
It is not going to perish. It's going to be around. And it's free. And it brings to people who otherwise wouldn't have access an enormous amount of information and services.
Another rare copy of the Declaration of Independence was discovered in 2017—in England. The "Sussex Declaration" was found in a small library archive in West Sussex, England, in 2017. Researchers believe the copy may have ended up in England because of the "radical Duke," Charles Lennox, who supported the colonists' desire to be free of English rule despite his nobility and titles in the United Kingdom.
There was quite a range of ages present for the signing of The Declaration of Independence. Many of the Founding Fathers who signed the document were younger than 40. The two youngest were Edward Rutledge and Thomas Lynch Jr., both from South Carolina, and both only 26 years old at the time. Benjamin Franklin was the oldest to sign the declaration at the age of 70.
As the founding fathers solidified their plans to secede from British rule, the Declaration of Independence underwent many edits, revisions, and rewrites.
Thomas Jefferson was the chief author of the Declaration, but made numerous concessions to his colleagues who wanted to add or omit certain lines and paragraphs. Jefferson was concerned when he was encouraged to remove a passage from his rough draft in which he condemned the slave trade of the 18th century, blaming the human rights abuses inherent to slavery on King George III. The passage described the institution of slavery as "a cruel war against human nature." Many scholars speculate that Jefferson intended to include this passage in response to an offer from Lord Dunmore in 1775, which promised freedom for slaves if they fought alongside British troops.
It's commonly assumed that the Declaration of Independence was finalized and signed on American Independence Day—the 4th of July. However, the actual signing of the document didn't occur for nearly a month after. The Continental Congress had made the decision to declare independence on July 2, formally accepting a "more poetic" declaration—authored by Thomas Jefferson—two days later. Although John Hancock signed the handwritten copy that Jefferson had drawn up immediately, the other members of Congress didn't sign until another copy of the Declaration was written and returned to them on August 2, 1776.
The most famous copy of the Declaration of Independence is currently on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC. However, this coveted document was locked away during World War II (1939–45), when fears of invasion from the axis powers prompted the U.S. government to store items of great importance for safekeeping.
In 1941 the Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, asked for the immediate transfer of valuable materials from the Library of Congress to Fort Knox in Kentucky. Several weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Declaration was hurried to Fort Knox, escorted by Secret Service Agents and U.S. soldiers. In 1944 the Declaration was moved back to the Library of Congress—after withstanding some damage in storage—and finally sent to the National Archives for public display in 1952.
Perhaps the most remarkable case of the discovery of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence occurred in 1989—at a flea market. A collector purchased a seemingly worthless painting for 4 dollars, unaware that a copy of the Declaration was folded up behind it. Upon discovery of the document, the collector decided to auction the original through Sotheby's. David N. Redden of Sotheby's described the rarity and importance of the find, describing the copy as "unspeakably fresh." Selby Kiffer, an American printing specialist, noted that:
The discovery of any first-printing copy of the declaration, even a fragmentary one or a poor copy, would be exciting. But on this one, the condition is beyond reproach. It was folded up when we first saw it—the way the owner said it was in the painting, less than one-tenth of an inch thick. I had to agree with him it was just as well that he kept it that way.
The Declaration of Independence has had a profound geopolitical impact that extends far beyond U.S. borders. The United States' decision to declare independence from British rule inspired the independence movements of nations for centuries afterward, and many governments excerpted the Declaration in their own statements of autonomy. More than 100 nations have issued declarations of independence from colonial European rule, or other foreign occupation, since 1776. The U.S. Declaration had a notable influence on the 1789 "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen," which served as the catalyst for the French Revolution (1789–99). In Africa, the Liberian Declaration of Independence of 1846 was inspired by Jefferson's document.
Oddly, the Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, written by Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Min in 1945, contains direct references to the U.S. Declaration, even though the United States would subsequently fight to end the Vietnamese revolution during the Vietnam War (1955–75).
The mystery of a hidden message on the back of the Declaration of Independence inspired the popular 2004 film National Treasure, starring actor Nicholas Cage. Although there's not really an invisible treasure map on the back of the document, there is a mysterious sentence. The writing itself is nothing out of the ordinary—it simply reads, "Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776." However, no one knows who wrote this label on the original Declaration. This sentence appears at the bottom of the back of the document and, while no one can be sure who was responsible, many historians believe the label was written while the document was stored at one of numerous locations prior to the 20th century.
John Adams, who would serve as the second U.S. president from 1797–1801, understood the enormous impact that the Declaration of Independence would have. He was so convinced of the document's importance that, in a note to his wife, he immediately predicted the celebration of Independence Day. However, since the decision to rebel against British rule was accepted by Congress on July 2, 1776, Adams believed the Fourth of July would actually be the Second of July. In the letter, Adams proclaimed:
But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty.
Although Adams may have been slightly off in terms of timing, he certainly did predict the enduring celebration of American independence for generations to come.
Along with the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution was another incredibly important document in the establishment of the United States as a sovereign nation. Ratified on June 21, 1788, the Constitution was signed by six individuals who had also left their signatures on the Declaration of Independence more than a decade earlier. Neither Thomas Jefferson nor John Adams was among the signers of the Constitution, but Benjamin Franklin did, in fact, sign both documents. In addition to Franklin, Robert Morris, James Wilson, George Read, Roger Sherman, and George Clymer have their signatures on both historic pieces of legislation.