Declaration of Independence


When was the “United States” created? When did the former colonies consider themselves to be a “nation”? According to the first words in the title of the Declaration of Independence, the document was the result of a “unanimous Declaration of thirteen united States of America.” Similarly, in the body of the Declaration, the colonies declared themselves “Free and Independent States.

While it is clear that the colonies were asserting their independence from Britain on July 4, 1776, it is less clear that the colonies considered themselves a single unified nation. Rather, as used in the signed copy of the Declaration the term “united” was a lower case, adjective, describing the plural, “united States of America.” It would take over a decade before a collective national identity would emerge, leading to the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. For this reason, many historians consider the adoption of American’s Constitution as the second American Revolution. “Constitution Day” (also known as “Citizenship Day”) is celebrated on September 17, the date that the Constitution was signed in Philadelphia in 1787, when a free and independent “nation” was ready to finally emerge.

The preamble of the Declaration of Independence contains Jefferson’s bold description of natural rights which is arguably the most famous part of the Declaration. Most Americans are very familiar with the aspirational “truths” that the founders held to be “self-evident,” including the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course, it would take over a century and the bloodiest war in American history for Jefferson’s rhetoric that “all men are created equal” to be grudgingly recognized as a matter of law.

In 1776, the easily overlooked concluding paragraph of the Declaration had more immediate importance. The last paragraph loudly and defiantly trumpeted to the world “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.” In the last sentence the signers of the Declaration mutually pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor in support of the act of treason that they were committing:

We therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled do , in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these states, reject and renounce the allegiance and subjection to the kinds of Great Britain and all others whe may herafter claim by, through, or under them; we utterly dissolve and break off all political connection which may have heretofore subsisted between us and the people or parliament of Great Britain; and finally we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states, and that as free and independent states they shall herafter have [full] power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

Historian Joesph Ellis argues in Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation that in 1776, the term “American” began as an epithet used by the British to refer to the backwater, provincial colonists. The “initial identification of the colonial population as ‘Americans’ came from English writers who used the term negatively, as a way of referring to a marginal or peripheral population unworthy of equal status with full-blooded Englishmen.” By grounding the Declaration in the natural rights “to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” Jefferson was asserting that all Americans were equal to and possessed the same rights as British citizens.

Indeed, in the summer of 1776 Thomas Jefferson considered Virginia, not the united States of America, to be his “country.” Click here for a link to Jefferson’s letter of July 1, 1776 to William Fleming. In a cover letter to George Washington dated July 6, 1776 enclosing a copy of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock (pictured below) explained that Congress had declared the colonies “free and independent States” as follows:

“Altho it is not possible to foresee the Consequences of Human Actions, yet it is nevertheless a Duty we owe ourselves and Posterity, in all our public Counsels, to decide in the best Manner we are able, and to leave the Event to that Being who controuls both Causes and Events to bring about his own Determinations….the Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve the Connection between Great Britain and the American Colonies, and to declare them free & independent States; as you will perceive by the enclosed Declaration, which I am directed to transmit to you, and to request you will have it proclaimed at the Head of the Army in the Way, you shall think most proper.” Click here for a link to Hancock’s letter to Washington.

Likewise, the seminal Virginia Resolution referred to the “United Colonies,” not the United States. On May 15, 1776, perhaps the most important date leading to the Declaration of Independence, Virginia instructed its delegation to the Continental Congress to propose a declaration of independence declaring the “United Colonies free and independent states.” Of course the Virginia Resolution recognized that the “regulations of the internal concerns of each colony” would be left to the respective colonial legislatures. Accordingly, Ellis explains that in declaring themselves independent, the thirteen colonies came together temporarily to win the war, but expected to go their separate ways thereafter.

“The government they created in 1781 [under the Articles of Confederation] was not really much of a government at all and was never intended to be. It was, instead, what one historian has called a ‘Peace Pact’ among sovereign states that regarded themselves as mini-nations of their own, that came together voluntarily for mutual security in a domestic version of a League of Nations.” Click here for a link to Ellis’ The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789As explained by Ellis, the colonies were held together prior to 1776 by their membership in the British empire. The only thing holding them together after 1776 was their common goal of leaving the British empire.

Thus, it would take more than a decade for the newly independent colonies to recognize that they needed to form a unified country. The gradual realization that the Articles of Confederation was a failure was necessary for this nationalizing process to result in a “more perfect union.” In fact, the term “union” is used six times in the Constitution, including Article IV which provides  that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.” Of course, the President’s annual State of the Union address retains this nomenclature.

At the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania was assigned the final task of editing the twenty-three articles of the draft Constitution.  Morris took the “Committee on Detail” draft and compressed it into the seven Articles that remain in place today.

In doing so Morris (who is pictured above) also revised the preamble in what Ellis describes as “probably the most consequential editorial act in American history.” The Committee draft of the preamble to the Constitution originally provided that “We the people of the states of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, South-Carolina, and Georgia, do ordain, declare and establish the following constitution…” Morris single handedly elected to replace this unwieldy list with the phrase “We the People of the United States.” Independence for the new nation was now complete.

Patrick Henry, the outspoken Anti-Federalist, challenged the phrase “We The People” during heated debates with James Madison at the Virginia ratification convention. Henry inquired, “Who authorized them to speak the language of ‘We the People,’ instead of ‘We the States’?” Madison replied that government should be established “by the people at large.” According to Madison, “In this particular respect the distinction between the existing and the proposed governments is very material. The existing system has been derived from the dependent derivative authority of the legislatures of the states; whereas, this is derived from the superior power of the people.”

In giving credit to Morris as the “penman” of the Constitution, Madison admitted that Morris could not have made a “better choice.” Thus, the concept of independence for the “united States of American” begins with Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence. In crafting the Constitution a generation later, in the same room in Philadelphia, Madison and Morris recognized that a new independent nation was being formed, by “We the People of the United States.” Ellis reasons that it was not by accident that the same location was selected for the Constitutional Convention that gave birth to the Declaration of Independence. “By choosing the same city, the same building, even the same room where those values were first discovered and declared, the delegates were making a statement – whether they knew it or not – that whatever they produced should be regarded as a continuation rather than a rejection of the ‘the spirit of ’76.’ ”

Background regarding the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence: On May 15, 1776, at the urging of Richard Henry Lee, the Fifth Virginia Convention adopted a Resolution which instructed Virginia’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress to declare independence from Britain. This Resolution provided authorization for Richard Henry Lee to propose the “Resolution for Independence” in Philadelphia – also known as the Lee Resolution – which directly led to the Declaration of Independence.

The May 15 Virginia Resolution proposed that the Continental Congress declare “the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament”:

“Resolved, unanimously, That the Delegates appointed to represent this Colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain; and that they give the assent of this Colony to such declaration, and to whatever measures may be thought proper and necessary by the Congress for forming alliances, and a Confederation of the Colonies, at such time and in the manner as to them shall seem best: Provided, That the power of forming Governments for, and the regulations of the internal concerns of each Colony, be left to the respective Colonial Legislatures.”

When the Second Continental Congress convened on May 10, 1776, it authorized the printing of money, established a committee to supervise relations with foreign countries, and created the Continental Army. When Lee presented his Resolution on June 7, the only delegation to the Continental Congress that had been affirmatively instructed to declare independence was Virginia. North Carolina had adopted the Halifax Resolves on April 12, 1776. The Halifax Resolves were the first official colonial action calling for independence. The Resolves were unanimously adopted in Halifax, North Carolina, and encouraged the Continental Congress to push for independence. Nevertheless, the Halifax Resolves spoke to all delegates from all the colonies, but arguably stopped short of the explicit and affirmative instructions contained in the Virginia Resolution.

By early June, over half of the colonies had followed North Carolina and Virginia’s lead. Against this backdrop, on June 7 Richard Henry Lee introduced his motion (otherwise known as Lee’s Resolution) before the Second Continental Congress calling for independence. John Adams seconded the historic motion. Lee’s Resolution contained three parts: 1) a declaration of independence; 2) a call to form foreign alliances; and 3)  “a plan for confederation.” During the tense and uncertain debate at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Congress decided to postpone a vote on Lee’s Resolution. An extended recess was called though July 1 to permit further consultation between the delegations and their home colonies. Before departing Philadelphia, the delegates appointed a committee to draft a formal statement in support of independence. The rest is history.

Thomas Jefferson (of Virginia), John Adams (of Massachusetts), Roger Sherman (of Connecticut), Benjamin Franklin (of Pennsylvania) and Robert Livingston (of New York) were assigned to the drafting committee, which delegated the drafting to Thomas Jefferson (who is pictured above in a portrait by Charles Wilson from 1791).

In drafting the Declaration, Jefferson drew upon various sources, including the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the political philosophy of John Locke, and his own draft of a Virginia constitution. The Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted by George Mason and was unanimously adopted in June of 1776 by the Virginia Convention. Article 1 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which clearly inspired Jefferson, provides that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights of which . . . they cannot deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” The young Jefferson had tremendous respect for Mason, who Jefferson labeled the “wisest man of his generation.” Click here for a link to the American Patriot’s Handbook (George Grant, 2009).

Originally, the delegates wanted Richard Henry Lee to prepare the draft of the Declaration of Independence. However, Lee had already been appointed to the “Committee of Confederation” to write the Articles of Confederation. When Lee’s wife became ill he was forced to return to Virginia, at which point Jefferson agreed to prepare the draft in place of his fellow Virginian.

The Second Continental Congress returned from its recess on July 1. On July 2, the same date the the British fleet arrived in New York, twelve colonies voted to declare independence by adopting Lee’s resolution:

Resolved: That these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.

Lacking instructions to vote for independence, the New York delegation abstained. On July 9 the New York Provincial Congress voted to “join with the other colonies in supporting” independence, making the decision unanimous.

Late into the morning of July 4th, Adams and Franklin edited Jefferson’s draft. Later in the day Congress proceeded to delete one-fifth of Jefferson’s text, but left the preamble intact. Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4th. John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress is believed to be one of the few, if only signatories on July 4. Most historians agree that the Declaration was not signed until August 2, the same date that additional British reinforcements arrived in New York, after being repulsed from Charleston.

While John Adams described the Revolution as “the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations,” the British had a different perspective. Click here for a link to Adams’ letter to  William Cushing. For example, Ambrose Serle, Admiral Howe’s secretary, believed that the Declaration only underscored “the villainy and the madness of these deluded people.” According to Serle (and likely Admiral Howe), “A more impudent, false, and atrocious proclamation was never fabricated by the hands of man.”

On July 4, 1776, from the highest point in Manhattan Artillery Captain Alexander Hamilton watched through his telescope as the British fleet sailed east. Including troop transport and supply ships, 480 British warships would sail into New York Harbor. In a diary entry, one of Washington’s soldiers recorded that it seemed “all London was afloat.”

After receiving a copy of the Declaration from John Hancock, Washington directed that the Declaration of Independence be read aloud before his assembled troops in New York on July 9. After the formal reading of the Declaration, a mob of cheering soldiers and New Yorkers proceeded down Broadway to Bowling Green to overturn the lead statue of King George III, which was melted down into musket balls. At the same time, the British fleet and the “most formidable force on earth” was in route and amassing outside of New York City. As described by historian David McCullough, “by the scale of things in the American colonies of 1776, it was a display of military might past imagining.” Click here for a link to McCullough’s book, 1776 (Simon & Schuster, 2005). All told, 39,000 British troops would land on and around Staten Island within a month of the Declaration, “a well-armed, well-equipped, trained force more numerous than the entire population of New York,” comprising the the largest expeditionary force in English history. The British attack on New York would begin on the morning of August 27, 1776, as the British began their assault not on Manhattan, but on Brooklyn.

In Philadelphia, publisher John Dunlap was assigned the job of printing copies of the Declaration of Independence for distribution to the colonial legislatures. The printed versions are referred to as the “Dunlap Broadsides,” which were printed into the night of July 4th, by order of Congress. Twenty-four copies are known to exist, including George Washington’s personal copy.

The handwritten copy above is Jefferson’s draft, which unlike the final signed copy uses a capital “U” for United States. The printed copy above is an example of the famous 1823 version printed from the famous William J. Stone engraving. The printed copy below is an example of one of the Dunlap Broadsides.

What were the reasons for declaring independence? The ultimate decision to declare independence was the result of over ten years of growing tension with Britain, starting with the Stamp Act of 1765, the Boston Massacre in 1770, and the Boston Tea Party in 1773. The July 2 vote to declare independence came 444 days after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord. Without any representation in Parliament, the growing list of grievances and escalating cycle of recriminations resulted in the Intolerable/Coercive Acts passed by Parliament in 1774. The five Intolerable/Coercive Acts are listed below:

Click here for a discussion of the Boston Port Act.

Click here for a discussion of the Massachusetts Government Act.

Click here for a discussion of the Administration of Justice Act.  

Click for for a discussion of the Quartering Act.

Click here for a discussion of  the Quebec Act.

All told, the Declaration of Independence lists 27 “repeated injuries and usurpations” which impelled the colonies to their separation from Britain. Examples are listed below:

“For imposing taxes on us without our consent.”

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

“He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”

“For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.”

–  “For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies.”

– “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:”

– “For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”

– “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”

– “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”


Additional reading:

Declaration of Independence (National Archives)

The Declaration Resources Project (Harvard University)

Sources used by Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence (Library of Congress)

Virginia Declaration of Rights (Library of Congress)

The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (Edmond S. Morgan, 1956)

American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Pauline Maier, 1997)

The Man who wrote the words “We the People” (National Constitution Center)

Lee Resolution (our

Juneteenth – American’s Second Independence Day

The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro, Frederick Douglass, July 4, 1852 

Copied below is a copy of the Declaration of Independence contained in Hening’s Statutes at Large Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia:

Hamilton Takes Command (Smithsonian Magazine)


Copied below is the May 15, 1776 Virginia Resolution unanimously instructing Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress to propose a declaration of independence:

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