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Early Conflicts and Colonial Actions: 1774–1776

Declaration of Independence

Decision to Declare Independence

Although initially in favor of reconciling with Great Britain, the Second Continental Congress heeded the public's call for independence.

In January 1776 editor and writer Thomas Paine anonymously published a pamphlet called Common Sense. A six-part document, Common Sense relies on reason, logic, and biblical and historical examples to explain why the American colonies needed to separate from British rule and govern themselves independently. Unlike the Declaration and Resolves of 1774, which listed specific grievances against Parliament, Paine attacked the institution of the monarchy and its relationship with Great Britain's legislative body. The pamphlet was an immediate and resounding success. The first two printings sold out within a month, and by the end of the year, at least 25 editions had been printed. But while the general public was enthusiastic about Paine's ideas, the members of the Second Continental Congress weren't so sure. Many, including John Adams, found Paine's words far too harsh. They worried the pamphlet would negate all their previous efforts to reconcile with the British government.

Despite their misgivings, the Continental Congress couldn't stand in the way of the will of the people. By the spring of 1776, state assemblies were issuing resolutions calling for American independence, and they expected their congressional leaders to do the same. The growing support for independence coincided with escalating tensions between the British and Continental armies. The congress knew the Continental Army didn't have enough money or weapons to win a war. It would need outside help from England's adversaries, namely France and Spain. To achieve this, the American colonies would have to declare their independence from Great Britain.

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in June 1776. After editing and debate, it was approved on July 4.

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution to the Continental Congress calling for colonial separation from the British Empire. A committee of five congress members—John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman—was assembled to draft a document defending the colonies' decision to become a nation separate from the British Empire. Jefferson, the head of the committee, wrote what came to be known as the Declaration of Independence in just 17 days. After incorporating edits and suggestions from Franklin and Adams, Jefferson presented the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress on June 28. Further debate ensued before the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776, by delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies. (After receiving a copy of the declaration the following week, New York's legislature immediately approved it.) John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, was the only signatory—someone who signs an official document—on the version of July 4. All but two of the 57 other delegates added their signatures to the final copy, which was completed in August 1776. Copies of the declaration were sent to each colony on July 5, 1776, and then to King George III, British Parliament, and other world powers within the following weeks.

One glaring omission from the declaration was the issue of slavery. Thomas Jefferson initially included a passage blaming King George for waging "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere" and determining "to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold." However, the congress decided to remove any mention of slavery from the document, as it feared losing the support of colonies economically dependent on the institution, namely Georgia and South Carolina. Unfortunately, omitting this issue from the Declaration of Independence removed any impetus for freeing the enslaved population from bondage. Continuing the practice of slavery would lead to further tension between the northern and southern states, ultimately culminating in the American Civil War (1861–65).
The Declaration of Independence was presented to John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, on June 28, 1776, as memorialized by artist John Trumbull, who was himself a revolutionary.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-07154

Significance and Effects of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence aired Americans' grievances against the British government.

The Continental Congress's Declaration of Independence was a declaration, an announcement or proclamation, of the colonies' separation from Great Britain. It is divided into three parts. The introduction and preamble briefly summarize the philosophy behind the colonists' decision to declare independence from Great Britain. This philosophy is based on human rights, which include "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." A government that refuses to acknowledge those rights isn't a fair government, and subjects of unfair governments have the right to form new ones. The grievances section of the Declaration of Independence lists all the ways King George III wronged the colonists. The final section of the document reiterates Congress's disapproval of the king and condemns British citizens for failing to advocate for a better relationship between the British government and its American colonists. It ends with an explicit statement of American independence.

The Declaration of Independence wasn't a legal document. It was instead a justification of the colonies' decision to secede from Great Britain, which was approved unanimously on July 2, 1776—two days before the formal document was approved. The grievances were proof the British government didn't care about its American colonies. In addition to telling the British government exactly what it did wrong, the grievances assured potential allies the colonies had no intentions of making amends with their former ruler.

Americans Remain Divided

The Declaration of Independence was met with mixed feelings in the colonies and resentment in Britain, yet it sparked revolutionary fervor throughout the world for decades to come.

The declaration was also written to convince American citizens of the need for independence. Not everyone in the colonies supported secession from Great Britain. Many colonists remained loyal to the king. The congress knew the Continental Army didn't have a chance of winning the war if its soldiers didn't believe in the cause they were fighting for. This is why the declaration attributes Great Britain's misdeeds to the king, not Parliament. Blaming all the problems on the king was the best way to get people to support the idea of independence. Colonists who already supported the patriot cause were encouraged by the Declaration of Independence. Others—most notably the upper class—found fault with the notion American colonists were in any way different from native Britons. In London, Parliament issued a statement calling the declaration a "trivial document issued by disgruntled colonists." The British press and populace agreed and cast the colonists as "ungrateful" for all the British Empire had given them.

King George III had little to say about the Declaration of Independence in public, though he did call the Continental Congress "daring and desperate" for ending the colonies' relationship with Great Britain. The revolutionary fervor that spread throughout the West in the late 18th century was a turning point for many countries. France, in particular, experienced its own revolution from 1787 to 1799, a bloody and violent affair that ended with the eradication of the French monarchy. Other foreign leaders were deeply interested in the declaration, particularly the introduction and preamble's language about inalienable human rights. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, dozens of countries, including Venezuela and Vietnam, referred to this information and other sections of the document when forming their own independent countries.
The Declaration of Independence was officially completed in August 1776, when most members of the Continental Congress signed it.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 1656604