Eyewitness Reports in History Declaration of Independence Part 1

An eyewitness account of the founding fathers writing the Declaration of Independence for the United States of America written by Thomas Jefferson.


Declaration of Independence

When: July 4, 1776

How: No document in American history has been so thoroughly scrutinized as the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, its author, wrote 1,817 words; Congress made 68 changes, killing 480 words and leaving the final version at 1,337 words.

Its lofty phrasing embodies the soul of, and has been the guiding force for, the American political system since its adoption: "... all men are created equal ... inalienable rights ... life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.... Governments [derive] ... their just powers from the consent of the governed...."

Many reference sources quote "unalienable rights" instead of "inalienable," as Jefferson wrote it. The un came from the broadsides hurriedly printed on the night of July 4 and may have been a simple typo or the printer's personal preference. The printer, John Dunlap, was not above editing manuscripts while setting type.

Jefferson asserted that in writing the Declaration he "turned to neither book nor pamphlet" for reference. Yet there are in it ideas and even phrasing reminiscent of Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and, in particular, the English philosopher John Locke.

Years later, after the Revolution had been won and Jefferson had been in politics long enough to have enemies, he was charged with having borrowed too heavily from other writers. John Adams, a former close friend from whom he was briefly estranged, said of the Declaration, "There is not an idea in it, but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before."

Jefferson replied: "I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether." The important thing, Jefferson wrote, was, "not to find new principles ... never before thought of ... but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject [in] terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we [were] impelled to take."

Two days before the Declaration was passed, Congress had passed a resolution calling for independence from Britain. Jefferson's paper was merely a formal statement of why Congress had taken that action; certainly it was no place to introduce novel ideas.

Jefferson, 33, wrote it between June 11 and June 28, 1776, to formalize the resolution then before the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia. The resolution, offered June 7 by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, said: "That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...."

The idea of independence was not new. But in July, 1776, a formal statement to that effect was essential. The colonies desperately needed foreign alliances, particularly with France and Spain. Such aid could not be expected if the colonies fought merely for taxation with representation.

The task of writing a declaration of independence was assigned to a committee of five, consisting of Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, with Jefferson the principal author. Jefferson rarely took the floor in Congress. He was more comfortable working alone or in committees. Adams, on the other hand, was in his element in open debate, lashing out at opponents with quick eloquence. Jefferson would not rise to defend so much as a comma in his document. That task he left to Adams.

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