United States History and American Revolution: Declaration of Independence

About the Declaration of Independence and its place in United States history and the American Revolution, differrent drafts, the people involved including Jefferson and Franklin, and the historic date July 4th.

July 4 Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. England virtually ignored it, with only a 6-line mention in the London Morning Post, below a theatrical notice.

Virginian Richard Henry Lee made the 1st move for independence on June 6. He voiced a formal demand for a complete break with England, startling both himself and his fellow delegates. The motion was at 1st tabled, but gained support rapidly. By the next Tuesday, June 11, a 5-man committee (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston) had been named to produce the rough draft of a written declaration. When Jefferson got the committee's assignment, he protested, saying the work should have been given to a senior member such as John Adams. Adams demurred. "You write," he said bluntly, "10 times better than I do." It was true. Jefferson's talent for the adeptly-turned, gracious phrase was well-known.

The committee edited their 1st draft heavily. During congressional debate, further changes were made. Jefferson gave his colleagues a total of 20 clauses of flowing rhetoric that had to be cut, deleted, or modified to reflect the common mind of Congress. Clause 20, dealing with slavery, was left out entirely. Politically, it was too dangerous. Many Colonists, including members of Congress, still supported the practice.

Comparison of Jefferson's original wording with the edited version that finally was approved shows the manuscript changes that took place.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature & 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...

"Self-evident" was Franklin's choice, reasoning that one hyphenated word was better than 3 others.

Jefferson denied the draft had drawn upon any other source. But subconsciously, it may have done so. He greatly admired the principles expressed in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1690).

Following approval on July 4, the document went to John Dunlap, a printer, to run off broadsides. The Dunlap manuscript was lost; the holograph copy in the National Archives was made before the loss, but it is not the original.

Aware of the document's historical importance, Congress voted to have it "engrossed on parchment," by Timothy Matlack, a penman. The actual signing of the parchment was on August 2, when most of the 56 men were present. Several, for various reasons, signed later. The last to sign, Thomas McKean of Delaware, had left, after July 2, to join General Washington and did not realize, until 1781, that his signature was not on the historic document. He was allowed, after special authorization, to affix his signature then.

A $2,500 reward was offered by England to learn the names of the signatories, and the Crown declared the act of signing to be high treason, punishable by death. For that reason, all names were kept secret for almost a year.

The hanging threat grimly amused Benjamin Harrison, who had read the draft aloud during debate. A heavy man, he told a fellow signer, Elbridge Gerry, who was both small and frail, that ". . . when the hanging comes . . . it will be over with me in a minute, but you will be kicking the air for an hour after I'm gone."

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