Declaration of Independence
by Richard J. Behn
Table of Contents
Preparations for the Declaration of Independence
Drafting the Declaration
Passage of Independence
Debating and Editing the Declaration
Signing and Response
The Declaration of Independence was a long time coming for its supporters in America. Historian Crane Brinton wrote: "In America hardly a colony escaped some form of rioting in the period between the Stamp Act  and Lexington , and all of them saw a steady growth of agitation through merchants' committees, correspondence committees, Sons of Liberty, and similar groups."1 The impact of the Declaration would be a far longer lasting. Long after the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, its impact was felt around the world. Declaration author Thomas Jefferson wrote John Adams in 1821: "The flames kindled on the 4th of July 1776, have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume these engines and all who work them."2
In early 1776 the American forces impelling dissolution of the bonds with England accelerated - especially after publication of English immigrant Thomas Paine's Common Sense on January 6. More and more Americans realized that relations with the mother country had deteriorated to the point of separation and divorce. Paine wrote: "We have boasted the protection of Great Britain, without considering that her motive was interest not attachment; that she did not protect us from our enemies on our account, but from her enemies on her own account, from those who had no quarrel with us on any other account, and who will always be our enemies on the same account."3 In February in a revised version of his phenomenally popular pamphlet published in February, Paine wrote: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birth-day of a new world is at hand."4 Paine's booklet had a dramatic impact on moving public opinion to support of independence. As Paine concluded, "however strange it may appear to some, or however unwilling they may be to think so, matters not, but many strong and striking reasons may be given to show that nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined DECLARATION FOR INDEPENDENCE." In addition to Paine's reasoning in Common Sense, historian Jack Rakove wrote that another "source of its remarkable success was Paine's vivid imagery. Though his train of thought sometimes meandered, Paine always knew how to regain readers' attention with arresting turns of phrase."5
Thomas Paine helped frame the question of independence for his fellow Americans. Paine maintained, according to John Ferling, that "if the American Revolution succeeded, generations yet unborn would owe a debt of gratitude to their forebearers who struggled to defend - and expand - freedom."6 Still, observed historian Pauline Maier: "Paine's influence was more modest than he claimed and than his more enthusiastic admirers assume. Common Sense helped provoke public debate on Independence, as did the news from England that arrived at the time of its publication. But thereafter the argument for separation from Britain among Americans turned, as it always had, on what the Mother Country did, who was responsible for its actions, and what implications those considerations carried for the American future."7
Words were important for the revolutionaries who founded America. They had been perfecting the language of independence for years. Historian Edmund S. Morgan noted that November 1772, a "Committee of Correspondence" in Boston was assigned "to prepare a statement of colonial rights, list violations (past, present, and future), communicate these to other towns, and invite similar statements from similar committees in return....The Boston Committee produced its first report (which Adams wrote) on November 20, 1772. It was a ringing denunciation of a dozen ways in which England had violated colonial liberties."8 Such documents themselves were based on the experience and reading of America's leaders. The leading Founders were an experienced and educated bunch - well read in classics and recent political philosophy. (The signers of the Declaration of Independence were an educated group. Historian Crane Brinton wrote: "Of its fifty-six signers thirty-three held college degrees in an age when few ever went to college; only about four had little or nor formal education."9) The Founders were governmental innovators as well as governmental thinkers. Historian Forrest McDonald noted that "Patriots were agreed that the proper ends of government were to protect people in the lives, liberty, and property and that these ends could best be obtained through a republican form. They had had abundant experience - probably more Americans had participated directly in government at one level or another than had any other people on earth - and if their experience turned out to be inadequate, enough of them were familiar with the theoretical works of Aristotle and Polybius, of Machiavellii and Harrington, of Locke and Hume and Montesquieu, to see them through."10
The Founders read and picked among classical and contemporary scholars to design their new governments at the state and national levels. Historian Walter A. McDougall wrote that "educated colonists from New England to the Carolinas read and wrote intensely and with utter self-consciousness, which is one reason their steps toward independence were gradual and in every case reactions to British actions. What they were trying to do was to understand history, apply its lessons to their own thorny problems, and arrive at conclusions that would not create worse problems in the future."11 Historian Forrest McDonald noted that "the Framers were politically multilingual; they could speak in the language of Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, Locke, the classical republicans, Hume, and many others, whichever seemed rhetorically appropriate to the particular argument at hand."12 Framers like Washington's neighbor George Mason read widely among European thinkers. Biographer Robert Allen Rutland wrote: "The influence of John Locke is discernible in Mason's writing in the years just prior to 1776. But Mason was able to apply those principles to local politics and to give them a new meaning in their American application. He believed in equality for freemen, free elections, annual rotation in office, and a free press. He saw the necessity for designating the people as the source of all political power."13 Historian Carl Becker wrote: "Locke, more perhaps than any one else, made it possible for the eighteenth century to believe what it wanted to believe: namely, that in the world of human relations as well as in the physical world, it was possible for men to 'correspond with the general harmony of Nature'; that since man, and the mind of man, were integral parts of the work of God, it was possible for man, by the use of his mind, to bring his thought and conduct, and hence the institutions by which he lived, into a perfect harmony with the Universal Natural Order. In the eighteenth century, therefore, these truths were widely accepted as self evident: that a valid morality would be a 'natural morality,' a valid religion would be a 'natural religion,' a valid law of politics would be a 'natural law.' This was only another way of saying that morality, religion, and politics ought to conform to God's will as revealed in the essential nature of man." Becker wrote: "Locke's natural law is the law of reason, its only compulsion is an intellectual compulsion, the relations which it prescribes such as would exist in men should follow reason alone."14
Americans had to be selective in their political philosophers because they viewed themselves as special and distinct from European influences. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote: "Adams was sure that America could resist the evil if men like himself stood out against the insidious process. England had carried freedom into the modern world was failing to cherish it. Now in this dark hour it was up to Americans to keep freedom alive in the world. Americans, Adams wrote in a piece intended for the newspapers, were predestined for this special role. 'They know,' he said, 'that Liberty has been skulking about in Corners from the Creation, and has been hunted and persecuted, in all Countries, by cruel Power. But they flatter themselves that America was designed by Providence for the Theatre, on which Man was to make his true figure, on which science, Virtue, Liberty, Happiness and Glory were to exist in Peace.'"15
Carl Becker wrote: "The truth is that the philosophy of Nature, in its broader aspects and in its particular applications, was thoroughly English. English literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is steeped in this philosophy. The Americans did not borrow it, they inherited it...In political theory and in political practice the American Revolution drew its inspiration from the parliamentary struggle of the seventeenth century. The philosophy of the Declaration was not taken from the French. It was not even new; but good old English Doctrine newly formulated to meet a present emergency."16 Historian Jeffry H. Morrison noted that the founders were great borrowers. "There was not a man among them - not Jefferson, not Franklin, not even the cerebral Madison, certainly not Washington - who was a truly original political thinker or profound philosopher in his own right."17 Political scientist Garret Ward Sheldon concluded: "The political theory contained in the Declaration...reflects the three dominant ideologies present during the American Revolution and the founding of the American republic. Those political philosophies were British liberalism (after The Second Treatise of Government by John Locke), Classical Republicanism (drawn from ancient Greek and Roman political thinkers, such as Aristotle and Cicero), and Christianity (especially the Reformed theology of John Calvin, prevalent in most of the colonial churches)."18 The documents produced by the Founders show both continuity with the English tradition and a deliberate break with it. Historian Pauline Maier wrote: "The milestones of English history are marked not so much by stone monuments as by parchment documents, including an abundance of addresses, petitions, and declarations. Members of the Continental Congress were imitating their English ancestors, as they readily acknowledged, when they sent addresses or letter to the people of England, Ireland, and Quebec, submitted petitions to the King, issued a declaration on taking up arms, and commissioned another on Independence."19
Though Adams' work is less well known than the works of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, or John Marshall, he was an influential synthesizer of political ideology and the natural rights philosophy on which the country was constructed. According to Benjamin Rush, Harvard-educated Adams had the most "learning probably, both ancient and modern, than any man who subscribed to the Declaration of Independence."20 Adams wrote: "If men through fear, fraud or mistake, should in terms renounce and give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the great end of society, would absolutely vacate such renunciation; the right of freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of Man to alienate this gift, and voluntarily become a slave."21 In his Thoughts on Government in 1776, Adams wrote "We ought to consider what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all divines and moral philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or, in one word, happiness, to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best. All sober inquirers after truth, ancient and modern, pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity, consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this."22
The civil process of producing documents was as fundamental to the American Founding as the process of winning battles (or avoiding annihilating defeat). Historian Walter A. McDougall wrote that the First Continental Congress in 1774 "turned to the issues of rights and resistance, for which the more militant members had plans in their pockets. The first was a Declaration of Rights inspired by Virginia's Fairfax Resolves and Massachusetts' Suffolk Resolves. It rejected Parliamentary authority over internal colonial affairs and asserted each colony's right to see to its own defense. (Redcoats Go Home!)"23 Jefferson biographer Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., wrote: "A Summary View of the Rights of British America was indeed a bold statement. Although too extreme for 1774, it would not long be so regarded. Its circulation propelled Jefferson into the front ranks of the champions of American rights and established those credentials that two years later placed him on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence."24 Political scientist Harry V. Jaffa wrote that The Summary View of the Rights of British America was "almost certainly was a major reason that Jefferson was chosen as a draftsman (with John Dickinson) of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms in July 1775 and a year later of the Declaration of Independence."25
In the spring of 1775, Peyton Randolph asked Jefferson, then 31, to compose a resolution for the Virginia House of Burgesses - a "Declaration on the Necessity of Taking Up Arms." Jefferson wrote: "We conceive that we alone are the judges of the condition, circumstances and situation of our people, as Parliament are of theirs." Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall wrote:"Only a few days after Jefferson had taken his seat at Virginia's green-blaize-covered table in the State House, he had been appointed vice chairman of a committee writing a Declaration on the Necessity of Taking Up Arms to be published by Washington as soon as he arrived at camp outside Boston. The document was much more important now after the lethal affair at Boston."26 The necessity of taking up arms would over the next year become the necessity to declare independence.
Important documents came in the form of resolutions and speeches. By 1775, public opinion was maturing. In a speech on the anniversary of the Boston Massacre, Massachusetts leader Joseph Warren said: "Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of. Our enemies are numerous and powerful; but we have many friends, determining to be free, and heaven and earth will aid the resolution. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important question, on which rests the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves."27
Preparations for the Declaration of Independence
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's legislature met upstairs in the State House while the Continental Congress convened on the first floor in a large room in which the desks of delegates faced east and were arranged by state. It was not a love fest on the first floor. William M. Hogeland wrote: "People from different colonies disliked one another anyway. Getting to know the habits, smells, tropes, and pomposities of fellow delegates, under unpredictable circumstances, in an unsettling city, kept the delegates skittish and prickly."28 There were personality clashes spurred by delicate egos - such as the oversized one possessed by Massachusetts businessman John Hancock. Moreover, the Founders moved at different speeds to the conclusion that only independence would solve the problems created by their association with Britain. Those who moved quickly became the country's leaders. "Within a decade Washington, Adams, and Jefferson had evolved from virtually disinterested bystanders to activists who pulsated with a revolutionary mentality," wrote historian John Ferling. "Each yearned for a world in which the individual enjoyed greater independence. Each had moved, and since his youth had been moving, toward a conception of freedom as an escape from dependence."29 Some like Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin labored for rapprochement even after he realized that reconciliation was effectively dead. Historian Pauline Maier asked: "Was there any realistic prospect of such a settlement? By 1775 Jefferson and others in the vanguard of colonial resistance had moved beyond any desire to return to the situation of 1763."30
Appointed to the Continental Congress in June 1775, Jefferson helped compose a response to the policies of Lord North. Almost immediately, Jefferson was appointed to a committee charged with preparing a "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms." Pennsylvania's cautious John Dickinson had primary responsibility for the document but incorporated many ideas from Jefferson's proposed draft. Historian Lance Banning wrote: "Dickinson, an influential leader since the early days of the resistance, thought the language would foreclose the possibility of reconciliation with the mother country. Dickinson, as Jefferson recalled, 'was so honest a man, and so able a one, that he was greatly indulged even by those who could not feel his scruples.' The committee simply passed the job to him, and notwithstanding general 'disgust' with the 'humility' of Dickinson's own language, 'Congress gave a signal proof of their indulgence to Mr. Dickinson, and of their great desire not to go too fast for any respectable portion of our body,' by approving his revision and then permitting Dickinson himself to draft its second petition to the king. 'Mr. Dickinson's delight...was the only circumstance which reconciled them to it.'"31
Dickinson's draft concluded: "Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable." It was Dickinson who fine-tuned Jefferson's language, but Jefferson's ideas would be resurrected in his later Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms, "Our attachment to no nation upon earth should supplant our attachment to liberty." He added "Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us."32 In their draft of July 6, 1775, Jefferson and Dickinson wrote: "With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers, which our beneficient Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance employ for the preservation of our liberties; being with one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live as slaves."33
Dickinson, a sickly but tough political operator with property and a political presence in both Pennsylvania and Delaware, had the advantage that attendance at Congress was not a personal sacrifice. That was not the case for Jefferson, for whom the distance from his young family was an considerable trial and mental burden. Jefferson was gone from Philadelphia from December 1775 to May 1776. Virginia had a tacit rotation system among its five-member delegation to insure coverage and allow its members to return home. When Jefferson returned to the Congress just two months after his mother died in March 1776, many state delegates had changed. By the time that Jefferson returned to Congress, the independence issue had been advanced by forceful advocates like Massachusetts cousins John and Samuel Adams, who at 54 he was 13 years older than John. John was the front man in congressional debates; Sam was the backroom deal maker and persuader. Sam pressed relentlessly forward for the first half of 1776. In his letters, noted biographer Mark Puls, Sam "set out a series of political goals for 1776: to win approval in Congress for a formal declaration of independence, to unite the colonies into a confederation, and to obtain a foreign alliance with France or another nation."34 Sam would later question if independence might not have been proclaimed earlier, but concluded: "The Colonies were not then all ripe for so momentous a Change."35
Moderates, who did not think the time was right for independence, were fighting a rear guard action - especially after Washington drove the British out of Boston in March 1776. Jack Rakove wrote: "Having consistently recognized how difficult securing independence would be, moderates now ceased to oppose adoption of those measures that their radical colleagues had insisted should be implemented prior to a final declaration. On March 19, Congress authorized privateering voyages against British chipping, an example of 'offensive' rather than 'defensive' resistance. April 6, it proclaimed American ports open to foreign vessels. Although moderates did not share the republican enthusiasm that led Jefferson to assert that the creation of new, reformed governments that become 'the whole object of the present controversy,' they agreed that, in most colonies, the improvisational rule of committees and conventions should be brought to and end."36 Sam Adams wrote to James Warren on April 16: "It is folly for us to suffer ourselves any longer to be amused. Reconciliation upon reasonable terms is no part of their plan: the only alternative is independence or slavery. Their designs still are as they ever have been to subjugate us. Our unalterable resolution should be to be free. They have attempted to subdue us by force, but God be praised! in vain. Their arts may be more dangerous than their arms. Let us then renounce all treaty with them upon any score but that of total separation, and under God trust our cause to our swords."37
The movement toward independence accelerated in May 1776. Samuel Adams was arguing that the conflict established that independence was already de facto reality.38 On May 10, Congress passed a resolution pushing the establishment of permanent state governments to replace the old colonial ones and their improvised successors. Under the preamble authored by John Adams, Maryland and Pennsylvania were being pushed to replace their own proprietary governments. Historian Edmund Cody Burnett wrote: "The brunt of the opposition [to the Preamble] was borne by James Duane of New York and James Wilson of Pennsylvania." Adams later observed: "Mr. Duane called it to me a machine for the fabrication of Independence. I said, smiling, I thought it was independence itself, but we must have it with more formality yet."39
Adams' preamble declared: "Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good Conscience, for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies; therefore, resolved, &c." Historian Merrill Jensen that Adams' preamble "provided the theoretical foundation for revolution which Jefferson was to elaborate in the Declaration of Independence."40 Adams recognized that the resolution moved the question of independence toward fruition - "total absolute independence, not only of her Parliament but of her Crown, for such is the amount of the resolve of the 15th."41 John Adams wrote James Warren on May 20:
Every post and every day rolls in upon us Independence like a torrent. The delegates from Georgia made their appearance this day in Congress with unlimited powers and these gentlemen themselves are very firm. South Carolina has erected her government and given her delegates ample powers, and they are firm enough. North Carolina have given theirs full powers, after repealing an instruction given last August against Confederation and Independence. This days post has brought a multitude of letters from Virginia, all of which breath the same spirit. They agree they shall institute a government - all are agreed in this they say.42
Independence efforts also accelerated outside the Pennsylvania State House, but some were focused on pressuring the state legislature meeting on the second floor - so that independence could be moved toward approval on the first floor. Pennsylvania constituted a stumbling block to a declaration of American independence. Historian Francis Jennings noted that "Pennsylvanians resisted the movement for American independence. It is misleading to suggest that they were slow in making up their minds. Quite to the contrary, the minds of a great many were determined for liberty within the empire but against secession from it."43 Historian Merrill Jensen noted "Most of the older leaders of the proprietary and Quaker parties had buried their enmities and joined forces to oppose independence which they feared would destroy what they repeatedly called 'our excellent constitution.' With John Dickinson as their leader, both in the assembly and in Congress, they refused to change the instruction of November 1775 forbidding the Pennsylvania delegates in Congress to vote for independence."44
Countervailing forces were developing in Philadelphia with behind-the-scenes help from the dynamic Massachusetts cousins, Sam and John Adams. Samuel Adams biographer John K. Alexander wrote that years later, John Adams "depicted Samuel as a less than brilliant man who was, nevertheless, a brilliant politician. According to John, his cousin 'had the art of commanding the learning, the oratory, the talents' of the best among his colleagues. Moreover, Samuel practiced his art 'without anybody's knowing or suspecting he had it, but himself and a very few friends.'"45
Pro-independence leaders seized control of a key Philadelphia political committee and pushed first for a state convention and then for new elections to give greater representation to western Pennsylvania.46 John Adams himself predicted that the election on May 1 would "give a finishing blow to the Quaker interest in this city - at least its ascendancy. It will strip it of all that unjust and unequal power which it formerly had over the balance of the province."47 An eclectic collection of pro-independence politicians in Philadelphia had been working hard with Samuel Adams to elect a pro-independence slate. Historian William Hogeland noted that "In April, Pennsylvania's assembly explicitly reaffirmed instructions to its delegates to oppose any tendency in the Congress toward independence." Hard as the pro-independence forces worked in Philadelphia, the anti-independence forces worked harder. Hogeland wrote that the Pennsylvania legislative election was a critical event in the lead-up to independence. He noted that Pennsylvania voters "returned to the Pennsylvania assembly a majority of establishment lawmakers whose purpose was to ensure that Pennsylvania's delegates in the Continental Congress blocked any move for American independence."48 Enough pro-independence soldiers were absent in the Continental Army to shift the balance narrowly against independence in Philadelphia, noted Thomas Paine.49
Independence advocates in Philadelphia had to find other ways to change Pennsylvania's votes. Britain helped. British forces were threatening to occupy Philadelphia. In early May, British ships entered the Delaware River. There was also word that Britain was recruiting mercenaries for the army. The British government demoralized and undermined anti-independence forces by rejecting Congress's petitions. No commissioners arrived to negotiate with the Americans. "Where the plague are these commissioners," asked Pennsylvania's Robert Morris, and "what is it that detains them."50 Historian Pauline Maier wrote: "By June 1776, however, it had become clear that in announcing their separate nationhood, Americans had to do more than demonstrate that the British Crown had forced them to the measure. They needed to overcome fear and the sense of loss, to link their cause with a purpose beyond survival alone, to raise the vision of a better future so compelling that in its name men would sacrifice even life itself."51
While anti-independence forces were being undermined, pro-independence forces were on the offensive, impatiently so. Historian William M. Hogeland noted that pro-independence forces held a rally in Philadelphia on May 20. Several thousand supporters attended in the rain.52 The Adamses of Massachusetts used sentiment in Virginia to push the Pennsylvania legislature toward independence. They manipulated the Philadelphia Committee of Privates and the Board of Officers of Associators to put pressure on the Pennsylvania colonial legislature. The groups and a new state convention were struggling with the leadership of the Pennsylvania legislature, which was determined to prevent a positive vote on independence. Dickinson, Morris and their allies were losing control. "The timid and trimming politics of some men of large property here have almost done their business for them," wrote John Adams. "They have lost their influence and grown obnoxious."53 Historian John Ferling wrote: "Thwarted at the ballot box, the leaders of the pro-independence faction in Pennsylvania turned for help to John Adams, leader of the pro-independence faction in Congress. He was more than willing to do something....First, Adams sought to have Congress pass a resolution discouraging all colonies from instructing their delegates. Congress rejected that ideas as the antithesis of representative government."54 As historian Edward Cody Burnett later observed, Adams was impatient to move to the next stage of America's evolution. "Little things were designedly thrown in the way of great ones," Adams later complained, "so that we could only now and then snatch a transient glimpse of the promised land."55
Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote:"Everyone in the eighteenth century knew that the English had justified their Glorious Revolution by a violation of the assumed contract by James II. And by 1776 Americans had in a like way come to describe their Revolution as resulting from a similar break in 'the original contract between king and people.'" Wood noted: "The movement of thought in the Revolutionary era was not linear and the emergence of new and original ideas was often uneven and disconnected, not so much the result of borrowed thoughts as the consequences of varied political and social realities pushing and pulling commonly held ideas into new shapes and forms. Hence radical and mature positions anticipated by some groups as early as 1776 were not reached by others until the 1780's."56
The British were inadvertently continuing to support pressure for independence. Hogeland noted: "British maneuvers, as always, confirmed the independents' position. News came on June 9 that a fleet of 132 British ships had left Halifax. The fleet was sure to arrive in New York in about ten days. British strategy would be to occupy New York City and command the Hudson River, New York Bay, and Long Island Sound. That would cut New England off from the other colonies."57 As Britain was continuing to escalate the conflict, it undermined the credibility of moderates like Morris and Dickinson who sought reconciliation and negotiation.
Throughout the colonies, a grassroots independence movement helped influence state legislatures and state delegations to the Continental Congress. According to historian Pauline Maier, "The timing of the effort to mobilize popular support was, in any case, more important than who promoted it. A similar attempt six months earlier would have failed since the 'ripening' of opinion on Independence was, in the spring of 1776, a recent occurrence." The will of the people needed to be communicated to congressional delegates by their state legislatures. The delegates in Philadelphia were not independent actors. They needed instructions from their states about how to handle independence. Much of the spring was spent trying to create the necessary sets of instructions and assure that Virginia took the lead. John and Sam Adams realized that the position of Virginia was critical to the independence movement.
When he arrived that spring in Philadelphia, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson rented two second-floor rooms far enough from the city's center that a breeze would provide relief from the urban heat. The heat was also rising for independence. "Great Britain has at last driven America to the last step, a complete separation from her, a total absolute independence not only of her Parliament but of her crown, wrote John Adams wrote his wife.58 Historian John Ferling wrote: "A great leader must know when to act. In mid-May 1776, Adams knew the time for action had arrived."59 Jefferson was the pen but Adams was the engine of independence - relentlessly driving the debate forward in the spring of 1776. Patrick Henry declared himself inspired by Adams, writing: "I own myself a democrat on the plan of our admired friend, J. Adams, whose pamphlet I read with great pleasure."60
"The American Revolution was not a common event," John Adams recalled in 1818. "The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. While the king, and all in authority under him, were believed to govern in justice and mercy, according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature and transmitted to them by their ancestors, they thought themselves bound to pray for the king and queen and all the royal family, and all in authority under them, as ministers ordained of God for their good; but when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority, and bent upon the destruction of all the securities of their lives, liberties, and properties, they thought it their duty to pray for the continental congress and all the thirteen State congresses, &c."61 At the time, Adams admitted his impatience, writing James Warren on June 6, 1776, that "tomorrow a Motion will be made, and a Question I hope decided, the most important that was ever agitated in America. I have no doubt but it will be decided to your satisfaction. This being done, Things will go on in the right channel and our Country will be saved."62
Historian Robert Middlekaupf noted that events moved even "'old man moderation,' as Edmund Pendleton was called (behind his back)," into action in Virginia.63 Pendleton was president of both the Virginia Committee of Safety and the Virginia Convention, working on both a new state constitution and a resolution to the Continental Congress favoring separation from England. Colleagues Patrick Henry and Edmund Randolph needed no instructions and moved the Virginia Convention to pass its resolution on May 15 instructing its delegations "to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from allegiance to, or dependence upon the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain."64 The Virginia delegation reported this resolution to the Continental Congress on May 27. According to Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall, "While North Carolina had already instructed its delegates to vote for independence if the majority favored it, Virginia boldly became the first to instruct its delegates to lead the way and propose a break with England."65 On June 3, John Adams wrote Virginia's Patrick Henry with uncharacteristic optimism: "The dons, the bashaws, the grandees, the patricians, the sachems, the nabobs, call them by what names you please, sigh and groan and fret, and sometimes stamp and foam and curse, but all in vain. The decree is gone forth, and it cannot be recalled, that a more equal liberty than has prevailed in other parts of the earth must be established in America."66
Pro-independence advocates in the Congress were proceeding cautiously, noted Robert Middlekaupf.67 Samuel Adams was maneuvering to have Virgini take the lead through his friend Richard Henry Lee.68 The 45-year-old Lee penned a resolution that Virginia's delegation in Philadelphia should "exert their ability in procuring an immediate and full declaration of independence."69 The elitist and somewhat contrarian Lee, wrote Pauline Maier, was an unlikely revolutionary, but he pushed independence as heartily as his friend Sam Adams.70 On June 7, Lee introduced the Virginia resolution in Philadelphia - launching the Continental Congress on the road to independence: "Resolved: That these colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved of 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. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation."71 John Adams seconded the resolution. The debate on proposals began the next day. Earlier, the Pennsylvania legislature, meeting upstairs from the Continental Congress, passed a resolution instructing the state's delegation "to concur with the other delegates in Congress" to adopt "measures as shall be judged necessary for promoting the liberty, safety and interests of America."72 That night, South Carolina's Edward Rutledge wrote New York's John Jay: "The Congress sat till 7' o'clock this evening in consequence of a motion of R. H. Lee's rendering ourselves free & independant State. The sensible part of the House opposed the Motion - they had no objection to forming a Scheme of a Treaty which they would send to France by proper Persons & uniting this Continent by a Confederacy; they saw no Wisdom in a Declaration of Independence, nor any other Purpose to be enforced by it, but placing ourselves in the Power of those with whom we mean to treat, giving our Enemy Notice of our Intentions before we had taken any steps to execute them." As Thomas Jefferson recorded the arguments of Rutledge and his allies that day:
That tho' they were friends to the measures themselves, and saw the impossibility that we should ever again be united with Gr. Britain, yet they were against adopting them at this time:
That the conduct we had formerly observed was wise & proper now, of deferring to take any capital step till the voice of the people drove us into it:
That they were our power, & without them our declarations could not be carried into effect;
That the people of the middle colonies (Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylva, the Jerseys & N. York) were not yet ripe for bidding adieu to British connection, but that they were fast ripening & in a short time would join in the general voice of America:
That the resolution entered into by this house on the 15th of May for suppressing the exercise of all powers derived from the crown, had shown, by the ferment into which it had thrown these middle colonies, that they had not yet accommodated their minds to a separation from the mother country:
That some of them had expressly forbidden their delegates to consent to such a declaration, and others had given no instructions, & consequently no powers to give such consent:
That if the delegates of any particular colony had no power to declare such colony independant, certain they were the others could not declare it for them; the colonies being as yet perfectly independant of each other:
That the assembly of Pennsylvania was now sitting above stairs, their convention would sit within a few days, the convention of New York was now sitting, & those of the Jerseys & Delaware counties would meet on the Monday following, & it was probable these bodies would take up the question of Independance & would declare to their delegates the voice of their state:
That if such a declaration should now be agreed to, these delegates must retire & possibly their colonies might secede from the Union:
That such a secession would weaken us more than could be compensated by any foreign alliance:
That in the event of such a division, foreign powers would either refuse to join themselves to our fortunes, or, having us so much in their power as that desperate declaration would place us, they would insist on terms proportionably more hard and prejudicial:
That we had little reason to expect an alliance with those to whom alone as yet we had cast our eyes:
That France & Spain had reason to be jealous of that rising power which would one day certainly strip them of all their American possessions:
That it was more likely they should form a connection with the British court, who, if they should find themselves unable otherwise to extricate themselves from their difficulties, would agree to a partition of our territories, restoring Canada to France, & the Floridas to Spain, to accomplish for themselves a recovery of these colonies:
That it would not be long before we should receive certain information of the disposition of the French court, from the agent whom we had sent to Paris for that purpose:
That if this disposition should be favorable, by waiting the event of the present campaign, which we all hoped would be successful, we should have reason to expect an alliance on better terms:
That this would in fact work no delay of any effectual aid from such ally, as, from the advance of the season & distance of our situation, it was impossible we could receive any assistance during this campaign:
That it was prudent to fix among ourselves the terms on which we should form alliance, before we declared we would form one at all events:
And that if these were agreed on, & our Declaration of Independance ready by the time our Ambassador should be prepared to sail, it would be as well as to go into that Declaration at this day.73
Confrontation over independence was heating up in Congress. Jefferson biographer Claude Bowers wrote "When Lee offered his resolutions, six of the colonies were under instructions against a declaration of independence - Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina. And Dickinson, keyed to the highest pitch of grim determination, stepped forward to lead the opposition. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston, of New York, and Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, supported him. And bearing the brunt of the battle for the resolutions were three giants of debate - John Adams, Richard Henry Lee, and George Wythe.74 South Carolina's Rutledge "argued that independence might prevent rather than encourage alliances with other countries, and he argued for putting off the ultimate question indefinitely," wrote William M. Hogeland. "His real concern was that in declaring independence, Congress would become a creature of the North and begin to interfere with southern planters like him." Hogeland wrote: "On Monday, June 10, things grew dire....John Adams, Lee, and others argued hotly, openly now, that the people were for independence, that only congressmen and representatives in home governments were against it. They called America already independent, the only question being whether the Congress would publicly admit it. They mocked as naive young Rutledge's idea that the Congress could seek foreign alliances without first resolving for independence. They attacked Pennsylvania's and Maryland's governments directly."75 Robert Middlekapuf wrote: "Both sides spoke intelligently, though it is likely that each erred in its estimate of popular attitudes."76 Debate on independence was then delayed so a draft committee could be appointed and set to work while reluctant state delegations were brought into line. Meanwhile, Richard Henry Lee departed to Virginia and was absent for the vote on independence.
The pressure on Pennsylvania's anti-independence leaders continued. "In Pennsylvania a revolution was already under way. On June 8 new instructions to the delegates in Congress had been adopted, not indeed authorizing them point black to vote for independence, but removing the former restrictions and authorizing them to concur with the other delegates in Congress in forming further compacts between the colonies," wrote historian Edward Cody Burnett.77 "Without days after the congressional debate on 10 June, independence received widespread support. In Philadelphia nearly 2000 men in four battalions of the military associators met and voted. Two battalions were unanimous for independence....When the Pennsylvania provincial conference met on 18 June, the delegates were unanimous for independence."78 John Adams recognized that timing was important. On June 22, he wrote: "The only Question is, concerning the proper Time for making an explicit Declaration in Words. Some People must have Time to look around them, before, behind, on the right hand, and on the left, then to think, and after all this to resolve. Others see, at one intuitive Glance into the past and the future, and judge with Precision at once. But remember you cant make thirteen Clocks, Strike precisely alike, at the Same Second."79
Two other initiatives were underway in the Continental Congress - one, to establish the form of a national government and a second, to establish relations with foreign governments. Garry Wills wrote that the part of Lee's resolution calling on the formation of foreign alliances was more important. "Not only were the other two motions just as important as the first; they were, in fact the real goals to which declaring independence was directed. Independence had to be declared to get foreign aid; and a league had to be formed to negotiate that aid." As Wills described the "motive for declaring independence," it "was a necessary step for the securing of foreign aid in the ongoing war effort."80
Drafting the Declaration
Thomas Jefferson recalled: "It appearing in the course of … debates, that the colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem, but that they were fast advancing to that state, it was thought most prudent to wait a while for them, and to postpone the final decision to July 1st; but, that this might occasion as little delay as possible, a committee was appointed to prepare a Declaration of Independence. The committee were John Adams, Dr. Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and myself. Committees were also appointed, at the same time, to prepare a plan of confederation for the colonies, and to state the terms proper to be proposed for foreign alliance. The committee for drawing the Declaration of Independence, desired me to do it. It was accordingly done, and being approved by them, I reported it to the House on Friday, the 28th of June, when it was read, and ordered to lie on the table."81
To write out the Declaration of Independence, Congress appointed a five-member committee - Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, John Adams of Massachusetts, Robert R. Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Adams was the logical person to assume the writing responsibilities for the document but his confrontational nature had alienated many colleagues. Neither his personality nor his pen was congenial to the task of composing the Declaration of Independence. Sherman was steady and forthright but no skilled writer. Sherman was known to be "cunning as the Devil" and a skilled legislator.82 Livingston was not a conspicuous advocate of independence and at 30 was the youngest member of the committee. Franklin was old, tired, sick, and not necessarily very energetic. Jefferson was the logical choice on several fronts. One was that Massachusetts firebrands generally liked Virginia to take public leadership.
Jefferson was not a good orator like Adams. Nor was he a congenial colleague like Franklin. His primary asset was his pen and his unquestioned support for independence. Moreover, Jefferson seemed to have intellectually synergized the importance elements of American thinking about independence. "From his voracious reading, from his extensive knowledge of law, from his acute attention to the views of his teachers and of his colleagues in politics, and from his instinctive understanding of independence as he had personally experienced it on his borderland plantations, he had developed a comprehensive view of politics, freedom, and America's unique role in world history which would shape all of his thought and much of his actions thereafter," wrote historian Bernard Bailyn.83
Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote that John Adams contributed little to the document because he was otherwise engaged: "It was not a declaration of independence that Adams wanted so much as the fact of independence, and he concentrated on maneuvering the Congress to prepare for the actual independence that he was sure they would come to in the end."84 Adams wisely yielded the pen to his Virginia colleague, Thomas Jefferson. "Adams was a better polemicist than most. Jefferson was even better," wrote historian John Ferling.85 Adams and Jefferson later differed on how Jefferson was chosen to write the declaration's initial text. Adams's recollection may have been influenced by his short-sighted failure to appreciate at the time the long-term significance of the task assigned to Jefferson and the glory that would be attached to his work. Adams maintained that he insisted Jefferson write the draft:
Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught I said, "l will not." "You should do it." "Oh! no." "Why will you not? You ought do it." "I will not." "Why?" "Reasons enough." "What can be your reasons?" "Reason first - You are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second - I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are much otherwise. Reason third - You can write ten times better than I can." "Well," said Jefferson, "if you are decided, I will do as well as I can." "Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting."86
Nearly four decades later during a period when a controversy over the origins of the Declaration was heating up, Adams wrote to Massachusetts Federalist Timothy Pickering: "You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of the Committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence, I answer; It was the Frankfort advice, to place a Virginian at the head of every thing. Mr. Richard Henry Lee, might be gone to Virginia, to his sick family, for aught I know, but that was not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's appointment. There were three committees appointed at the same time. One for the Declaration of Independence, another for preparing articles of Confederation, and a other for preparing a treaty to be proposed to France. Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Confederation, and it was not thought convenient that the same person should be upon both." Thomas Jefferson was a logical alternative for the committee to draft the declaration, wrote Adams: "Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation, not even Samuel Adams was more so, that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draught, I suppose because we were the two first on the list."87 Regardless of the reasoning, there was a grace and rhythm to 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson's language that his colleagues could not duplicate.
Although himself an accomplished writer, Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin had been in Canada for most of the spring. For much of June, he was sick with gout. He was effectively out of touch with even congressional sentiment. Franklin wrote General Washington that he had been missing from congressional sessions because of illness "so that I know little of what has passed except that a declaration of independence is preparing."88 The aging revolutionary was also probably upset that his Tory son William had been arrested in New Jersey and imprisoned in Litchfield, Connecticut. Franklin's dedication to American union predated even his commitment to independence. Two decades earlier in 1754, Franklin had tried unsuccessfully to get the colonies to unify at a conference in Albany. Franklin had labored as a colonial delegate in London to bring about reconciliation between the mother country and her rebellious offspring. As he was to write to Lord Richard Howe, "Long did I endeavour, with unfeigned and unwearied zeal, to preserve from breaking that fine and noble china vase, the British Empire for I knew that, being once broken, the separate parts could not retain even their shares of the strength or value that existed in the whole, and that a perfect reunion of those parts could scarce ever be hoped for. Your lordship may possibly remember the tears of joy that wet my cheek when, at your good sister's in London, you once gave me expectations that a reconciliation might soon take place. I had the misfortune to find those expectations disappointed, and to be treated as the cause of the mischief I was labouring to prevent." Reconciliation, however, wrote Franklin was not "impossible on any terms given you to propose."89
Connecticut's Roger Sherman was a energetic and forceful attorney, but not known for the felicity of his pen. Sherman was an active member of the Continental Congress and later worked on the Constitutional Convention, helping create the Great Compromise. Historian John Ferling wrote that Sherman's selection for the committee may have been because "his comrades regarded him as industrious and reliable - they repeatedly named him to committees - and because he was a veteran congressman with seniority over many of his colleagues."90 The final member of the committee, attorney Robert Livingston, was just 30 and had only recently joined Congress so he was the least experienced of the five-member committee. However, he represented the key and undecided state of New York.
Adams took a much more prominent role in serving on the treaty committee that Congress established - and writing the treaty. Garry Wills wrote that Adams' memory failed him in his memories of 1776: "If his story about the Declaration were true, he would have far greater reason to turn down the treaty assignment. But, of course, it was not true. The Declaration, a minor matter in 1775, had become a great if vague national symbol since then, and Adams's self-pity made him remember giving up the chance to secure glory because of his noble resignation to the common good."91 The virtue of humility explained his lack of national recognition. (The third big item on Congress's agenda was the preparation of a draft constitution for the new nation. Independence foe John Dickinson drafted that report.)
Jefferson went to work after the declaration committee was selected on June 11. "Faced with a deadline, Jefferson drafted the initial version of the Declaration of Independence in just two or three days," wrote John Ferling. "He was ordinarily a rapid writer, and in this instance he had in his possession, and used as templates, both the draft preamble for Virginia's first state constitution and its Declaration of Rights. In addition, having taken copious notes during the debate on Lee's resolution on independence, he was well aware of the arguments that recently had been offered on behalf of an immediate break with Great Britain."92 The phraseology of the Declaration was not new - nor was it intended to be. John Adams wrote in 1822 that "there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the Declaration of Rights and the Violations of those Rights in the Journals of Congress, in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams."93
The Declaration was not an original work of political science. It drew on other documents previously written by Thomas Jefferson and public documents authorized by other colonial bodies. According to historian Pauline Maier, Jefferson "was no Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from the hand of God, but a man who had to prepare a written text with little time to waste, and who, like others in similar circumstances, drew on earlier documents of his own and other people's creation, acting within the rhetorical and ethical standards of his time, and producing a draft that revealed both splendid artistry and signs of haste."94 Maier wrote: "When Jefferson began writing the preamble of his constitution for Virginia - the part the Virginia Convention used - he turned to the opening section of the English Declaration of Rights....It provided an entirely appropriate model of how to proclaim the end of an old regime."95 Historian Daniel J. Boorstin noted: "Jefferson said the purpose of the document was not to find out new principles or new arguments never before thought of, not merely to say things that had never been said before, but as Jefferson said, 'to place before mankind the common sense of the subject.'"96
The Founders did not worry about intellectual property rights. They borrowed freely from themselves and others. Adams biographer Zoltan Haraszti wrote that in writing A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, Adams effectively plagiarized three-quarters of the first volume, nine-tenths of the second and half of volume III.97 Indeed, the draft Declaration of Independence was a deliberate synthesis of Jefferson's own writings and the writings of others. Jefferson himself recalled five decades later: "With respect to our rights and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American Whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles or new arguments never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before, 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 are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc..98 The goal was simplicity and synthesis, not to develop material that was unseasoned and untested. Jefferson biographer Alf J. Mapp, Jr. wrote: "The Declaration was not a strikingly original document, nor was it intended to be. Indeed, a paper bristling with fresh turns of thought and glittering neologisms would not have served nearly so well. The author's purpose was to produce 'an expression of the American mind.' This he did in an esthetic and moving blend of the political currency of the time as known to the representatives of the American states in Congress assembled. The thoughts and some of the phrases recall the words of John Locke, Francis Hutcheson, James Wilson, and George Mason.99
Historian Walter A. McDougall observed that "the original passages in Jefferson's draft declaration were not good, while the good ones were not very original. The text's lofty philosophical introduction, bill of particulars against King George, and syllogistic conclusion calling for independence were a pastiche of phrases lifted from Paine, the 'little declarations' issued by colonies, and above all Virginia's magnificent Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and published in Philadelphia on June 12."100 Jefferson biographer Willard Sterne Randall noted that Jefferson used "the final draft of his precious constitution for Virginia: from it he would copy the long list of grievances against the king. Jefferson was not expected to create something original: quite the opposite. Yet he was free to glean his words from a hundred writers from the time of ancient Greece to the day-before-yesterday's charged rhetoric of Tom Paine."101 Biographer James Truslow Adams wrote that Jefferson "took phrases and ideas from the wide reading he had noted in his Commonplace Book, and from Locke and others who had become almost as familiar to members of Congress as the Bible, but also from current documents which were even then passing from hand to hand."102 He synthesized American grievances and American philosophy. Timothy Pickering, a political opponent of Jefferson would follow him as secretary of state under George Washington, would later echo Adams that much of Jefferson's work came from James Otis's 1764 pamphlet "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved."103 John Adams himself thought Jefferson's work relied on Samuel Adams' 1722 pamphlet written for the Massachusetts Committees of Correspondence.104 Jefferson never claimed that his work was anything under than a work of synthesis.
Historian Pauline Maier concluded: "The sentiments Jefferson eloquently expressed were, in short, absolutely convention among Americans of his time."105 Maier wrote that in addition to his own draft preamble for his own state's constitution, Jefferson used George Mason's draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Maier wrote: "In the eighteenth century, however, educated people regarded with disdain the striving for novelty. Achievement lay instead in the creative adaptation of preexisting models to different circumstances, and the highest praise of all went to imitations whose excellence exceeded that of the examples that inspired them."106 Biographer Dumas Malone noted: "Jefferson could have drawn on George Mason for his own statement of fundamental human rights, and he would have thought this not amiss, but the ideas were in his mind already. They belonged to no single man but, in his opinion, were the property of mankind. Certainly they were the property of the American Patriots, whose mind he was trying to express, and it really made no difference where they came from."107
Jefferson later dismissed his reliance on other sources. He wrote nearly five decades after the drafting: "I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before. Had Mr. Adams been so restrained, Congress would have lost the benefit of his bold and impressive advocations of the rights of Revolution. For no man's confident and fervid addresses, more than Mr. Adams', encouraged and supported us through the difficulties surrounding us, which, like the ceaseless action of gravity, weighed on us by night and by day. Yet, on the same ground, we may ask what of these elevated thoughts was new, or can be affirmed never before to have entered the conceptions of man?"108
The delegates in Philadelphia had to decide where to place the blame for the actions their revolutionary actions. Historian Robert Middlekauff wrote that Jefferson originally included criticism of "our British brethren," but "Congress removed most of these denunciations of the British people and kept the king as the focus of rejection."109 Historian Walter A. McDougall complained about the "murky swamp of complaints that stick to a reader's boots even today. One that especially troubled Congress was Jefferson's diatribe against the British people, whom he accused of being 'deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity' despite 'our former love for them' and necessitating 'our everlasting Adieu!' Its false sentimentality aside, the passage shifted the focus of American ire away from the crown while gratuitously insulting the very people Congress hoped might pressure Parliament to change course."110 As finally approved the Declaration demonized the King of England rather than the Parliament of England. Historian Pauline Maier, wrote that " the Americans...for the first time formally attributed their repeated injuries to the 'present King of Great Britain.'" She noted: "The King was blamed, however, not because of any new discovery of his guilt - that had been first suspected and asserted after the failure of the London Remonstrances a half decade earlier. The reason lay rather in customary forms. By English revolutionary tradition, a people announced their acceptance of revolution by publicly attributing responsibility for unconstitutional acts to the King, who embodied the state's authority, rather than to his ministers."111
The Declaration listed causes, but it also listed principles. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote that "the Declaration, like Common Sense, was much more than a repudiation of George II. It put into words, even more effectively than Paine did, the principle which had been forming in the American mind, 'that all men are created equal.' The only immediate application was the assertion that Americans were entitled to 'a separate and equal station' among the nations of the earth, but the words were phrased in the form of a sacred creed and with an elemental eloquence that has been moving men ever since. The declaration that all men were created equal might mean for the moment that Americans should have the same independence as a nation that other peoples enjoyed. What else it might mean remained to be seen."112 Historian Roger G. Kennedy wrote: "The Declaration of Independence conveys two kinds of information. Upon its surface, Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues state their grievances and their aspirations - information by inclusion. Below the surface...there lies information by omission: the passages Jefferson sought to include but failed, and further material that others on the committee of draftsmen, such as Benjamin Franklin, might have sought to have included but was left out. The legislative history of the Declaration is rich in discourse about why their suggestions were omitted, stimulating us to imagine what was left unrecorded, or even unspoken."113
The basis of the Declaration is a laundry list of complaints against England's King George III. The charges were deliberately general and vague - the better to avoid contradiction. According to Pauline Maier, "To examine them more closely confirms the adage that there are two sides to every story, and the colonists weren't always clearly on the side of the angels."114 Maier wrote: "The grievances in the Declaration served...to justify revolution by proving that George III was a tyrant."115 It was the king who was the Americans' target, not Parliament, whose role in colonial grievances was completely ignored. Carl Becker wrote: "Although occupying a subordinate place in the logical structure, the list of grievances is of the highest importance in respect to the total effect which the Declaration aims to produce."116 While violating the normal writing canons against laundry lists, Becker notes: "Of set purpose, throughout this part of the Declaration, he began each charge against the king with 'he has': 'he has refused his assent'; 'he has forbidden his governors'; 'he has refused to pass laws'; 'he has called together legislative bodies'; 'he has refused for a long time.' As if fearing that the reader might not after all notice this oft-repeated 'he has,' Jefferson made it still more conspicuous by beginning a new paragraph with each 'he has.' To perform thus is not to be 'literary' in a genteel sense; but for the particular purpose of drawing an indictment against the king it served very well indeed. Nothing could be more effective than these brief, crisp sentences, each one the bare affirmation of a malevolent act. Keep your mind on the king, Jefferson seems to say; he is the man: 'he has refused'; he has forbidden'; 'he has combined'; 'he has incited'; 'he has plundered'; 'he has abdicated.'"117
Just as important as the complaints was the Declaration's purpose. Robert Allen Rutland wrote: "The first resolution of the Declaration, an echo of John Locke, stated the basic propositions that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and property, and that they cannot be deprived of these rights without their consent. The nine following resolves elaborated these two themes and applied them practically to the crisis which had arisen."118 Carl Becker wrote: "The purpose of the Declaration is set forth in the first paragraph - a stirring sentence, in which simplicity of statement is somehow combined with an urbane solemnity of manner in such a way as to give that felicitous, haunting cadence which is the peculiar quality of Jefferson's best writing." Becker wrote: "Superficially, the Declaration seems chiefly concerned with the causes of the Revolution, with the specific grievances; but in reality it is chiefly, one might say solely, concerned with a theory of government - with a theory of government in general, and a theory of the British empire in particular." Becker wrote: "The Declaration was not primarily concerned with the causes of this rebellion; its primary purpose was to present those causes in such a way as to furnish a moral and legal justification for that rebellion."119 Historian Matthew Spalding wrote: "The structure of the Declaration of Independence is that of a common-law legal document; the stated purpose is to 'declare the causes' which impelled the Americans to separate from the British. The document's famous second paragraph is a powerful synthesis of American constitutional and republican government theories."120 Spalding wrote: "Certainly the Declaration's language stressing man's natural rights calls to mind the great influence of John Locke. But the idea of government created by the consent of the governed (known as the social compact theory of government) was well established in the colonies. So was the idea that the purpose of government is to secure the people's safety and happiness (the commonwealth theory). Jefferson intended the Declaration to be 'an expression of the American mind,' and wrote so as to 'place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent."121
"No doubt it was a promising text, one that would have been easily improved if the author could have put it aside for two weeks, then looked at it afresh," wrote Pauline Maier. "Jefferson didn't have two weeks. He had, however, the next best thing: an extraordinary editor."122 That would be Congress itself. Historian Carl L. Becker wrote: "Jefferson, as the original drafts of his papers show, revised and corrected his writings with care, seeking, yet without wearing his soul threadbare in the search, for the better word, the happier phrase, the smoother transition." Becker argued: "Having something to say, he says it, with as much art as may be, yet not solely for the art's sake, aiming rather at ease." Becker noted that "the Declaration is filled with these felicities of phrase which bear the stamp of Jefferson's mind and temperament: a decent respect to the opinions of mankind; more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed; for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures; sent hither swarms of officers to harrass our people and eat out their substance; hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends."123
Decades later, Adams and Jefferson wrote differing versions of how the declaration was composed. As Jefferson recalled his draft: "I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams, requesting their corrections, because they were the two members of whose judgments and amendments I wished most to have the benefit, before presenting it to the committee; and you have seen the original paper now in my hands, with the corrections of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams interlined in their own handwritings. Their alterations were two or three only, and merely verbal. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered, to Congress. This personal communication and consultation with Mr. Adams, he has misremembered into the actings of a sub-committee. Pickering's observations, and Mr. Adams' in addition, "that it contained no new ideas, that it is a commonplace compilation, its sentiments hackneyed in Congress for two years before, and its essence contained in Otis' pamphlet," may all be true. Of that I am not to be the judge. Richard Henry Lee charged it as copied from Locke's treatise on government. Otis' pamphlet I never saw, and whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know."124 Carl L. Becker wrote: "Having formulated a philosophy of government which made revolution right under certain conditions, they endeavored to show that these conditions prevailed in the colonies, not on account of anything, which the people of the colonies had done, or had left undone, but solely on account of the deliberate and malevolent purpose of their king to establish over them an 'absolute tyranny.' The people of the colonies must, accordingly (such is the implication), either throw off the yoke or submit to be slaves. As between these alternatives, there could be but one choice for men accustomed to freedom."125
The Americans had been accumulating and documenting their grievances for years. Historian David Armitage wrote: "Jefferson's recounting of this 'History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States,' was the culmination of a theory of conspiracy that had unfolded across Congress's state papers since 1774. The address 'To the Inhabitants of the Colonies' (October 1774) had enumerated all the legislative and other designs against the colonies since 'the conclusion of the late war' - that is, the Seven Years' War - in 1763. The evidence it presented proved to Congress's satisfaction 'that a resolution is formed and now is carrying into execution, to extinguish the freedom of these colonies, by subjecting them to a despotic government."126 The Declaration was based on the English notion of contract between the people and the governors. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote: "This contract between rulers and people was an impressive image, and the Whig theory of politics was built upon it, even though such a notion of a legal bargain borrowed from the mercantile world assumed a mutuality of interests and good will between the parties and the most radical Whigs doubted existed."127 This was to be a declaration by and for the American people. Historian Edmund S. Morgan wrote that Jefferson "made a point of distinguishing the nation from its government, a distinction that is implicit in the Declaration of Independence and that Jefferson stated explicitly at least as early as 1787."128 Jefferson biographer Christopher Hitchens noted that "the idea that government arose from the people and was not a gift to them or an imposition upon them, was perhaps the most radical element in the Declaration."129
This was both an American and a Jeffersonian document. Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote Jefferson's "spirit brooded over it, giving light to the whole."130 Jefferson documents editor Julian P. Boyd wrote of the Declaration: "The greatness of his achievement, aside from the fact that he created one of the outstanding literary documents of the world and of all time, was that he identified its sublime purpose with the roots of liberal traditions that spread back to England, to Scotland, to Geneva, to Holland, to Germany, to Rome, and to Athens. In the fundamental statement of national purpose for a people who were to embrace many races and many creeds, nothing could have been more appropriate than that the act renouncing the ties of consanguinity should at the same time have drawn its philosophical justification from traditions common to all."131 Biographer Dumas Malone wrote: "It is hard to see how Jefferson could have combined in such compass a larger number of important ideas or could have better imparted the tone of dignity, solemnity, respectful firmness, and injured virtue which the circumstances required. It was necessary to dissolve these old political bands. The American people were entitled to an independent station under the laws of God and Nature, but they had a decent respect to the opinion so mankind and were thus impelled to give reasons for their course."132 A year before his death, Jefferson wrote to Henry Lee that as the Declaration's author, he tried to "place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent,133
The second paragraph of the Declaration began: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." This was the heart of the Declaration's proclamation of the natural rights of men - a higher law than any civil law. "In different times this higher law has taken on different forms - the law of God revealed in Scripture, or in the inner light of conscience, or in nature; in nature conceived as subject to rational control, or in nature conceived as blind force subjecting men and things to its compulsion. The natural rights philosophy of the Declaration of Independence was one formulation of this idea of a higher law. It furnished at once a justification and a profound emotional inspiration for the revolutionary movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries," wrote Carl L. Becker. "For Jefferson and his contemporaries, happiness no doubt demanded safety or security, which would have been in keeping with the biblical phrase one colonist after another used to describe the good life - to be at peace under their vine and fig tree with none to make them afraid (Micah 4:4)," wrote Pauline Maier. "The inherent right to pursue happiness probably also included 'the means of acquiring and possessing property,' but not the ownership of specific things since property can be sold and is therefore alienable." She wrote that "his rewriting of Mason produced a more memorable statement of the same content. Less was more."134
Thomas Jefferson compiled and composed. Only Adams and Franklin, to whom Jefferson showed his draft, made changes to his draft. Adams and Franklin made more changes than Jefferson remembers. Adams recalled: "We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting as he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of it, as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if any thing in it was. I have long wondered that the original draught has not been published. I suppose the reason is, the vehement phillipic against negro slavery." Adams wrote: "A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over. I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted, if I had drawn it, particularly that which called the King a tyrant. I thought this too personal. I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration."135
In response, Jefferson observed: "The committee of five met; no such thing as a sub-committee was proposed, but they unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught. I consented; I drew it; hut before I reported it to the committee, I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams, requesting their corrections, because they were the two members of whose judgments and amendments I wished most to have the benefit, before presenting it to the committee; and you have seen the original paper now in my hands, with the corrections of Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams interlined in their own handwritings. Their alterations were two or three only, and merely verbal. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered, to Congress."136
In 1817 Jefferson wrote that "the rough draft was communicated to those two gentlemen, who each of them made two or three short and verbal alterations only, but even this is laying more stress on mere composition than it merits, for that alone was mine. The sentiments were of all America."137 Jefferson understated the contributions of his colleagues when he wrote: "Their alterations were two or three only, and merely verbal."138 Carl Becker claimed that there were 26 alterations and more consultations with Adams and Franklin than Jefferson recalled decades later.139 The product of this "committee work" was reported to the full Congress on June 28. Congress tabled discussion on it until a decision was made about independence itself. That was scheduled for July 1.
While Jefferson was concerned with his literary efforts on the Declaration, Adams was more concerned with foreign policy issues before Congress. Historian Garry Wills observed that the actions of John Adams, belied by his later recollections, confirm that "Adams, who did little on the declaration committee, worked very hard on the treaty operation, getting models of treaties from Benjamin Franklin. The Declaration was passed with few changes after two days of debate. The treaty was a more difficult business, and could not even be reported to the Congress until two weeks after the Declaration was passed. It was then another two months before Congress agreed to all its provisions. It was as important to make this document proper as it had been, in the first Congress, to draw up a sound Bill of Rights and Petition (the real aim of that meeting."140 The Declaration of Independence was necessary to get foreign assistance for the break from England just as the Emancipation Proclamation was necessary to prevent foreign assistance to the Southern secessionists. Historian Pauline Maier noted: "Until the colonists declared their Independence, no European power could negotiate with them, receive an ambassador, or even allow American ships to enter their ports."141 As Carl Becker observed, 'the primary purpose of the Declaration was not to declare independence, but to proclaim to the world the reasons for declaring independence. It was intended as a formal justification of an act already accomplished."142
During this period, lobbying inside Congress was intense. John Adams and his cousin Sam were the spears of independence. Adams worked particularly hard on Maryland's 35-year-old Samuel Chase who returned home to get new instructions from the state legislature, which it did on June 28. "Chase had gone to Maryland, corresponded constantly with John Adams, and worked on every Maryland politician he knew. The shift was sudden and extreme, as Adams had predicted it would be. Maryland's delegates went overnight from a strict prohibition against even debating resolutions related to independence to strict orders to vote for it."143 Jefferson was more removed from such politics. During June, he was highly concerned by the health of his wife. Historian Thomas Fleming wrote: "Post ride after post rider had arrived from Virginia with no letter from Martha....A letter finally arrived from Martha, begging him to come home as soon as possible. Whether she was seriously ill or simply though she was remains a mystery."144
While the writing and editing went on, the pressure for independence built. "It is now universally acknowledged that we are and must be independent," John Adams wrote on June 23. "But still, objections are made to a declaration of it. It is said that such a declaration will arouse and unite Great Britain. But are they not already aroused and united, as much as they will be?" Adams added: "The advantages which will result from such a declaration are, in my opinion, very numerous and very great."145 Jack Rakove noted: "Until the very end, moderates inside and outside Congress had continued to argue that popular support for independence would be more durable if Congress could only wait until the [British] commissioners had arrived...But most delegates agreed that congress had waited long enough, and that an early July separation would alienated few wavering souls."146
Passage of Independence
The president of the Continental Congress, 40-year-old John Hancock of Massachusetts, called 51 delegates to order at 9 AM on July 1. Congress took a half an hour to conduct its normal business, including some unsettling reports from General George Washington. Then, Congress turned its attention to independence. Pennsylvania's John Dickinson had fought valiantly against independence through June and in the debate on July 1. Dickinson was first to speak - for more than two hours, warning as always that the time was not yet ripe for independence. "The declaration will not strengthen us by one man, or by the least supply, while it may expose our soldiers to additional cruelties and outrages," said Dickinson.147
Beginning in early afternoon, John Adams then spoke for several more hours - forcefully and cogently for the pro-independence group. As Adams recalled the response to Dickinson: "No member rose to answer him, and after waiting some time in hopes that some one less obnoxious than myself, who had been all along for a year before, and still was, represented and believed to be the author of all the mischief, would move, I determined to speak."148 Historian Thomas Fleming wrote: "While thunder rumbled and lightning flashed, Adams refuted Dickinson's scare tactics and insisted a declaration of independence would be the salvation of America. It would force everyone to decide whether to defend American liberty or settle for the subordination and submission of British liberty."149 John Ferling wrote that Adams "summoned all the oratorical skills he had learned in sixteen years of addressing juries and in the course of two years service in Congress. His speech was eloquent and dramatic, and he impressed his listeners with his apparent guilelessness." While he spoke, a thunderstorm darkened the sky and lowered the temperature. Jefferson himself was quiet but later recalled that "all the powers of the soul had been distended with the magnitude of the object."150 Adams himself wrote of the discussions in Congress on July 1: "That Debate took up the most of the day, but it was an idle Mispence of Time for nothing was Said, but what had been repeated and hackneyed in that Room before an hundred Times for Six Months past."151 Decades later, Jefferson spoke warmly of Adams' role in obtaining passage of the Declaration. According to Daniel Webster, who talked with Jefferson in 1824, he said: "John Adams was our Colossus on the floor. He was not graceful, nor elegant, nor remarkably fluent; but he came out, occasionally, with a power of thought and expression that moved us from our seats."152 Jefferson wrote: "John Adams was the pillar of its [Declaration of Independence] support on the floor of Congress; its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered. For many excellent persons opposed it on doubts whether we were provided sufficiently with the means of supporting it, whether the minds of our constituents were yet prepared to receive it &c, who, after it was decided, united zealously in the measures it called for.153
In another letter, Jefferson wrote that Adams "supported the Declaration with zeal and ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it. No man's confident and fervent addresses, more than Mr. Adams's encouraged and supported us through the difficulties surrounding us, which, like the ceaseless action of gravity, weighed on us by night and by day."154 New Jersey delegate Richard Stockton wrote: "The man to whom the country is most indebted for the great measure of independence is Mr. John Adams....I call him the Atlas of American independence. He it was who sustained the debate, and by force of his reasoning demonstrated not only the justice, but the expedience of the measure."155 Garry Wills wrote that "Adams, remarking the difficulty with which the resolution of independence was passed, said it was like getting thirteen clocks to strike at the same instant."156 After Adams had concluded speaking, Dr. John Witherspoon and two other delegates arrived from New Jersey. Adams reprised his arguments for their benefit - and their approval. South Carolina's Edward Rutledge, an opponent of immediate independence, told Adams: "Nobody will speak but you upon this subject. You have all the topics so ready that you must satisfy the gentlemen from New Jersey." So Adams had to summarize the case both for and against independence.157 As Adams himself admitted, nothing much said was new. Jefferson recalled:
"The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason, those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.158
That day, two colonies were unable to vote - Delaware and New York. The Delaware delegation was split, 1-1. New York's delegation was waiting for instructions. Two delegations voted against - Pennsylvania as expected and South Carolina unexpectedly. One of South Carolina's delegates, Edward Rutledge, urged that a second vote be postponed until July 2. Obviously, he thought his state's vote might be changed. Jefferson wrote in his Autobiography: "It appearing in the course of these debates that the colonies of N. York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina were not yet matured for falling from the parent stem, but that they were fast advancing to that state, it was thought most prudent to wait a while for them, and to postpone the final decision to July 1. but that this might occasion as little delay as possible a committee was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence."159 Franklin biographer Esmond Wright note that the opposition of Pennsylvania's delegates "was not of ends but of means. They accepted by June that there could no longer be any form of unity with Britain, but they doubted, as conservatives always are apt to do, whether the time was ripe. The speech made in opposition to independence by Dickinson is as moving a statement, and as severe an indictment of Britain, as the ultimate Declaration itself."160 As Thomas Jefferson recalled these events:
On Monday, the 1st of July the house resolved itself into a commee of the whole & resumed the consideration of the original motion made by the delegates of Virginia, which being again debated through the day, was carried in the affirmative by the votes of N. Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, N. Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, N. Carolina, & Georgia. S. Carolina and Pennsylvania voted against it. Delaware having but two members present, they were divided. The delegates for New York declared they were for it themselves & were assured their constituents were for it, but that their instructions having been drawn near a twelvemonth before, when reconciliation was still the general object, they were enjoined by them to do nothing which should impede that object. They therefore thought themselves not justifiable in voting on either side, and asked leave to withdraw from the question, which was given them. The commee rose & reported their resolution to the house. Mr. Edward Rutledge of S. Carolina then requested the determination might be put off to the next day, as he believed his colleagues, tho' they disapproved of the resolution, would then join in it for the sake of unanimity. The ultimate question whether the house would agree to the resolution of the committee was accordingly postponed to the next day, when it was again moved and S. Carolina concurred in voting for it. In the meantime a third member had come post from the Delaware counties and turned the vote of that colony in favour of the resolution. Members of a different sentiment attending that morning from Pennsylvania also, their vote was changed, so that the whole 12 colonies who were authorized to vote at all, gave their voices for it; and within a few days, the convention of N. York approved of it and thus supplied the void occasioned by the withdrawing of her delegates from the vote."161
It rained throughout July 2 when the final vote for independence was taken. The vote for independence was facilitated by news from General George Washington that the British navy had arrived off New York. Four delegations remained questionable. Pennsylvania switched to independence when two key opponents - Robert Morris and John Dickinson - decided to stay home. Morris apparently thought that time would bring reconciliation with England but he did not want to alienate his fellow delegates.162 Without their participation and with the switch of James Wilson from opposition to support, Pennsylvania's seven-member delegation narrowly favored independence by a 3-2 margin. The participation of Dickinson and Morris would have tipped the scales in the opposite direction. Robert G. Ferris and Richard E. Morris wrote that Dickinson and Morris, "though unwilling to make a personal commitment to independence, cooperated by purposely absenting themselves; the remaining Delegates voted three to two in favor."163 Attorney James Wilson, according to historian John Ferling, thought "his political career in jeopardy," and so made the switch to support independence.164
Delaware switched to independence when cancer-stricken delegate Caesar Rodney rode through the night to break his delegation's tie. After the arrival from Delaware of the gravely-ill Rodney, a favorable vote was taken on July 2 with only New York unable to support the resolution because of a delay in its instructions. On July 4, Rodney wrote his brother: "I arrived in Congress (tho detained by thunder and rain) time enough to give my voice in the matter of Independence. It is determined by the Thirteen United Colonies, without even one decenting [sic] Colony. We have now got through with the whole of the Declaration, and ordered it to be printed, so that you will soon have the pleasure of seeing it."165 South Carolina then yielded to the preponderant sentiment and voted for independence as well. Only New York, which was being besieged by British naval and army forces, was unable to vote without new instructions. Later that month, Samuel Adams wrote: "Was there ever a Revolution brought about, especially so important as this, without great internal tumults and violent convulsions?"166
The time the vote was 12-0 for independence. For John Adams, this vote for independence was key. In a letter to his wife on July 3, he wrote: "Yesterday, the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony 'that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War....'" Adams was worried, however, warning that "the new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings. The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great. - I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter. But I must submit all my Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable as the Faith may be, I firmly believe."167 Nevertheless, argued Adams, the Declaration inaugurated "the most memorable epoch 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. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations, from one End of this Continent to the other, from this Time forward, forevermore. You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Ye through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not."168 Historian Edmund Morgan wrote of Adams: "It was not a declaration of independence that he wanted so much as the fact of independence, and he concentrated on maneuvering the Congress to prepare for the actual independence that he was sure they would come to in the end."169 The record of the time substantiates Adams' belief that it was the vote rather than document that participants believed would be remembered. "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. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfire and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."170
Debating and Editing the Declaration
Having voted for independence, Congress turned on July 2 or July 3 to the declaration proclaiming independence. The Congress collectively edited the Declaration of Independence - word by word. Historian John Ferling wrote: "It was probably shortly before noon on July 2 when Congress declared American independence. As two thirds of Congress's normal working day remained, it formed itself into a committee of the whole and took up the draft. After presumably spending the remainder of the day editing the document - neither the Journal nor any other existing document makes clear precisely what transpired as Congress labored over Jefferson's draft - the delegates must have realized that the process was going to take longer than they had imagined."171 Indeed it would take until July 4 to complete their collective edit.
Congress took a scalpel to Jefferson's work and cut dextrously, reducing the text by about one fifth. Jefferson did not think his colleagues improved his work. He was much chagrined by the changes on his draft made by his fellow delegates. He never stopped believing that his version was superior to the one passed by Congress.172 Others then and since have disagreed. Jefferson biographer Christopher Hitchens wrote: "There is no other example in history, apart from the composition of the King James version of the bible, in which great words and concepts have been fused into poetic prose by the banal processes of a committee."173 Although the changes were salutary, they pained Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin tried to comfort him by telling a story about how a new shop-owner's prospective sign was reduced by editing from John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money to "John Thompson" with the image of a hat. Jefferson recalled: "During the debate I was sitting by Doctor Franklin, and he observed that I was writhing a little under the acrimonious criticisms on some of its parts; and it was on that occasion, that by way of comfort, he told me the story of John Thompson, the hatter, and his new sign."174 The gist of the "hatter" story was how a complicated sign was reduced to its essential elements. Jefferson wrote:
The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.175
"Jefferson maintained his text was 'mangled' and went into a funk that lasted all summer," historian Walter A. McDougall said.176 Richard Henry Lee tried to comfort Jefferson by mail; Lee himself had not been around for the debate or the vote, having returned to Virginia where his wife was sick and a state constitution was being finalized. Lee wrote: "I wish sincerely, as well for the honor of Congress, as for that of the States, that the Manuscript had not been mangled as it is. It is wonderful, and passing pitiful, that the rage of change should be so unhappily applied. However, the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palate of Freemen."177 Congress had generally tightened and strengthened Jefferson's language. Biographer Dumas Malone wrote: "Jefferson and some of his Virginia friends believed that Congress weakened the Declaration, but there can now be little doubt that the critics strengthened it. This they did primarily by deletion."178 Pauline Maier wrote that "what generations of Americans came to revere was not Jefferson's but Congress's Declaration, the work not of a single man, or even a committee, but of a larger body of men with the good sense to recognize a 'pretty good' draft when they saw it, and who were able to identify and eliminate Jefferson's more outlandish assertions and unnecessary words. So successful an exercise of group editing probably demanded a text that required cutting, not extensive rewriting. Congress's achievement was remarkable nonetheless. By exercising their intelligence, political good sense, and a discerning sense of language, the delegates managed to make the Declaration at once more accurate and more consonant with the convictions of their constituents, and to enhance both its power and its eloquence."179 Still, historian Robert Middlekauff argued: "Contrary to the long-standing judgments of historians, for many reasons the Jeffersonian draft is a much more powerful statement than the one finally approved by Congress. A rejection of one people by another once joined together by 'love' is a great and moving event. It is made more affecting by the recognition that soldiers of 'our common blood' had been dispatched across the ocean to kill Americans." He argued, however, that the congressional edit was a "safer document and a less imaginative one than Jefferson's."180 And noted Joseph J. Ellis, "The delegates made very few changes in the early section of the Declaration that preceded the litany of grievances against the king."181 The structure and thrust of the declaration remained intact. As approved, the Declaration began: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands 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." One phrase was added by the Congress - "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence." Carl Becker noted: "Apart from the peculiar felicities of phrasing, what strikes one particularly in reading the Declaration as a whole is the absence of declamation. Everything considered, the Declaration is brief, free of verbiage, a model of clear, concise, and simple statement."182
Contrary to Adams' contention that the document itself was "a theatrical side show," agreement on its contents was important. Historian Joseph Ellis argued: "The obvious interest the delegates demonstrated in the content and language of the Declaration seems to indicate that they regarded it as more than a mere afterthought."183 By spending two days on their edit, the delegates clearly showed they took their literary responsibilities as seriously as they did their political ones. Jefferson biographer Claude G. Bowers wrote: "Toward evening on the fourth of July the discussion petered out. Jefferson was always to think that the invasion of the horseflies through the open windows contributed somewhat to the termination of the debate, for Carpenter's Hall had been converted into a chamber of torture."184
Signing and Response
Garry Wills argued that the declaration's importance was critical to work on the Articles of Confederation and the draft treaty with France. Indeed, argues Wills, "the men who passed the Declaration had no idea it would become as important as it did."185 The actual document was not signed until more than a month after it was agreed to. John Hancock may have signed the Declaration on July 4 but he probably waited with other delegates to sign on August 2. First, the document needed to be engrossed in a finished form and New York's delegates need to receive permission to allow their endorsement. Under the document, the delegates pledged "to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor." When the document was finally signed on August 2, it was under a cloud of flies that launched a vicious attack on members of the Continental Congress. On signing the document, Congress President John Hancock said: "There! His Majesty can now read my name without glasses. And he can double the reward on my head!" Rhode Island delegate Stephen Hopkins added: "My hand trembles, but my heart does not."186 Because of absences, the signing process continued until November. Because of turnover in state delegations, some signers like Pennsylvania's Benjamin Rush had never been present for the debate and some of those present for the debate were not around to sign. It was a risky proposition; the lives and property the signers were truly at risk - especially the 17 who served in the Continental Army or state militias and the 11 who lost property or households to the British, and the five who were captured by the English army. Historian Woodrow Wilson wrote of the signatories: "To not a few it already began to seem a piece of mere bravado, to be repented of."187
"We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately," reportedly said Ben Franklin at the signing. Historian Fawn M. Brodie wrote: "The proclamation of the Declaration was a serious, hanging business. That seriousness was reflected in a statement made by the overweight delegate Benjamin Harrison of Virginia to the underweight Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: "I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.'"188 The delegates understood the personal danger that they were placing themselves in. As New Jersey's Abraham Clark wrote on July 2: "Let us prepare for the worst, we can Die but once."189
On July 6, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published news of the Declaration. At noon on July 8, 1776, Sheriff John Nixon read the Declaration of Independence to Philadelphians gathered near what became known as Independence Hall. "There were bonfires, ringing bells, and other great demonstrations of joy upon the unanimity of the Declaration," wrote Philadelphian Christopher Marshall in his diary.190 "You will see by this post, that the River is past and the Bridge is cut away," wrote John Adams in a letter at the time. "The Declaration was yesterday published and proclaimed from that awful Stage, in the Statehouse yard, by whom do you think? By the Committee of Safety!, The Committee of Inspection, and a great Crowd of People....The Bells run all Day, and almost all night. Even the Chimers, chimed away."191
The Declaration itself was widely reprinted. "The American Revolution was not a common event," wrote John Adams near four decades later. "The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. While the king, and all in authority under him, were believed to govern in justice and mercy, according to the laws and constitution derived to them from the God of nature and transmitted to them by their ancestors, they thought themselves bound to pray for the king and queen and all the royal family, and all in authority under them, as ministers ordained of God for their good; but when they saw those powers renouncing all the principles of authority, and bent upon the destruction of all the securities of their lives, liberties, and properties, they thought it their duty to pray for the continental congress and all the thirteen State congresses, &c." 192
In Boston on July 18, Abigail Adams attended a reading of the Declaration: "Last Thursday after hearing a very Good Sermon I went with the multitude into King's Street to hear the proclamation for independence read and proclaimed. Some Field pieces with the Train were brought there, the troops appeared under Arms and all the inhabitants assembled there (the small pox prevented many thousands from the country). When Col. Crafts read from the Belcona [balcony] of the State House the Proclamation, great attention was paid to every word."
As soon as he ended, the cry from the Belcona, was God Save our American States and then 3 cheers which rended the air, the Bells rang, the privateers fired, the forts and Batteries, the cannon were discharged, the platoons followed and every face appeard joyful. Mr Bowdoin then gave a Sentiment, Stability and perpetuity to American independence. After dinner the kings arms were taken down from the State House and every vestige of him from every place in which it appeard and burnt in King Street. Thus ends royall Authority in this State, and all the people shall say Amen.193
In addition to the Declaration's impact on general American public opinion, the declaration had an important effect on the morale of the Continental Army. Two days before the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence, General Washington issued Generals Orders which anticipated the Declaration: "We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die: Our Country's own Honor, all call upon us for vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions."194 According to Pauline Maier: "On July 9 [Washington] ordered officers of the several Continental Army brigades stationed in New York City to pick up copies of the Declaration at the Adjutant General's Office. Then, with the British 'constantly in view, upon and at Staten-Island,' as one participant recalled, the brigades were 'formed in hollow squares on their respective parades,' where they heard the Declaration read, as the General had specified, 'with an audible voice.'"195 According to Washington's General Orders: "The Continental Congress, impelled by the dictates of duty, policy and necessity, having been pleased to dissolve the Connection which subsisted between this Country, and Great Britain, and to declare the United Colonies of North America, free and independent States...."196 The troops were told: "The General hopes that this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his country depend, under knowing that now the peace and safety of his country depend, under God, solely on the success of our arms; and that he is now in the service of a state possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit, and to advance him to the highest honors of a free country."197
Historian David Hackett Fischer wrote: "Washington's aide Colonel Samuel Blachley Webb wrote in his diary, 'The Declaration was read at head of each brigade, and was received with three Huzzas by the Troops - every one seemed highly pleased that we were separated from a King who was endeavoring to enslave his once loyal subjects. God grant us success in this our new Character.'"198 Historian Ron Chernow wrote: "Reading of the document led to such uproarious enthusiasm that soldiers sprinted down Broadway afterward and committed an act of vandalism: they toppled the equestrian statue of George III at Bowling Green, decapitating it, then parading the head around town to the lilting beat of fifes and rums. The patriots made excellent use of the four thousand pounds of gilded lead in the statue, which were melted down to make 42,088 musket bullets."199
No one understood better than General Washington the implications of what had been done. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote: "To form a new Government requires infinite care and unbounded attention, George Washington wrote John Washington a month before the Declaration of Independence was approved, "for if the foundation is badly laid, the superstructure must be bad....A matter of such moment cannot be the Work of a day."200 Washington understood that declaring and winning independence were two different things. Toward the end of August, Washington wrote: "The hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding Country depend. Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are Freemen, fight for the blessings of Liberty - that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men."201 Indeed, the last half of 1776 would involve a series of bloody disasters for the Continental Army - reversed only by the brilliant victories at Trenton and Princeton.
John Adams was a realist about the struggles ahead of America - with or without a Declaration of Independence. As Congress debated independence, Adams wrote on July 1 that he did not expect "this declaration will ward off calamities from this country." Adams prophesied: "A bloody conflict we are destined to endure. This has been my opinion from the beginning. You will certainly remember my declared opinion was, at the first Congress, when we found that we could not agree upon an immediate non-exportation, that the contest would not be settled without bloodshed; and that if hostilities should once commence, they would terminate in an incurable animosity between the two countries. Every political event since the nineteenth of April, 1775, has confirmed me in this opinion. If you imagine that I flatter myself with happiness and halcyon days after a separation from Great Britain, you are mistaken again. I do not expect that our new government will be so quiet as I could wish, nor that happy harmony, confidence and affection between the colonies, that every good American ought to study, labor, and pray for, for a long time. But freedom is a counterbalance for poverty, discord and war and more."202
Reality was setting in. Historian John C. Miller wrote: "With the Declaration of Independence, Americans put an end to the anomaly of waging war against a sovereign to whom they professed allegiance and against a country they called 'mother.'"203 Nevertheless, the Declaration of Independence did not end the American debate on political philosophy. It was intensified in 1776 and 1777 as most states focused on writing constitutions - all but Massachusetts rewrote their documents by the end of 1777. During the debate over Independence, John Adams wrote his wife: "I am well aware of the toil, and blood, and treasure, that it will cost us to maintain this declaration, and support and defend these states. Yet, through all the gloom, I can see the rays of light and glory; I can see that the end is more than worth all the means, and that posterity will triumph."204 Historian Forrest McDonald wrote: "Sometimes in the course of human events, as the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed, it becomes necessary for people to dissolve political bands. Prudence had dictated that governments long established should not be abolished for light and transient causes; and all experience had shown that mankind is more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right itself by parting with accustomed forms. The experience of the American Revolution itself showed something more: that when a people parts with accustomed forms, its soul is awakened and a nation is born."205
The impact of the Declaration was felt in Europe. Historian David Armitage wrote: "The Declaration of Independence first appeared in London newspapers in the second week of August 1776."206 Historian Pauline Maier wrote: "A document that cited the right of revolution in justifying American Independence and formally marked the end of monarchical authority could hardly have been designed primarily to awaken enthusiasm among the political servants of King Louis XVI. Within the United States, however, the Declaration of Independence had many practical uses: it provided a vehicle for announcing Independence to the American people, and, if properly framed, might evoke a deeply felt and widespread commitment to the cause of nationhood and, above all, inspire the soldiers who would have to win the Independence that Congress proclaimed."207 It would be another seven years until Britain officially recognized American dependence. Meeting in Paris with their British counterparts in the second half of 1782, American negotiators Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay wisely demanded that Britain acknowledge American independence at the outset of the negotiations and before any substantive discussions could take place. Independence itself was not negotiable.
Historian David Armitage wrote: "In the early decades after 1776, the Declaration inspired more attention and commentary outside the United States than it did at home. Little of that attention was directed toward the Declaration's second paragraph; indeed, most of it either dealt with refuting the grievances against King George III or reflected more broadly on the implications of American independence for the emerging international order of late eighteenth-century world."208 The Declaration was explanatory as well as declaratory. Armitage wrote: "The primary intention behind the Declaration of Independence in 1776 had been to affirm before world opinion the rights of one people organized into thirteen states to enter the international arena on a footing equal to other, similar states. The authors of the Declaration had sought the admission of the United States of America to a pre-existing international order; accordingly, they had couched their appeal to the powers of the earth in terms that those powers would understand and, Congress hoped, also approve." Armitage wrote: "The Declaration of Independence has been call 'a document performed in the discourse of the jus gentium [the law of nations] rather than jus civile [the civil law].' Owing to its success in securing American independence, this fact has generally been overlooked. The document's opening and closing statements have been taken for granted because in retrospect that seemed to have enduringly confirmed that independence. Yet they are, after all, the most prominent sentences in the document, the statements of what the United States intended to become: 'to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them'; and of what they could do once they had achieved that goal: 'to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do.' The rest of the Declaration provided only a statement of the abstract principles upon which the assertion of such standing within the international order rested, and an accounting of the grievances that had compelled the United States to assume their independent station among 'the Powers of the Earth.'"209
John Ferling wrote that Thomas "Jefferson was proud of the Declaration of Independence but it took time for that pride to be shared with the public. While in Paris in the 1780s, he appears to have taken steps to let the world know that he had been the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, not a well-known fact at the time. After 1813, when he and Adams were the lone survivors of the committee that had drafted the Declaration, Jefferson took exceptional steps, as Pauline Maier has noted, to make the document 'the defining event of a "Heroic age.""210 Maier wrote "that the Declaration of Independence, which became a powerful statement of national identity, has also been at the center of some of the most intense conflicts in American history, including that over slavery which threatened the nation itself. In the course of those controversies, the document assumed a function altogether different from that of 1776: it became not a justification of revolution, but a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the nation could be judged." Maier contended: "No less than its original creation, the redefinition of the Declaration was a collective work by Americans who struggled over several generations to establish policies consistent with the revolutionary heritage as they came to understand it in the only way open to them - through politics." 211 Jefferson recalled:
"With respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects. When forced, therefore, to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; 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 are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c." 212
Over time, the Declaration became an excuse for public celebration. Historian Gordon S. Wood wrote that Jefferson's "Republicans made the Fourth of July, with its celebration of Jefferson's egalitarian Declaration of Independence, the paramount national holiday and used it to promote their party."213 In 1826, Jefferson wrote in response to a request to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration: "The kind invitation I receive from you, on the part of the citizens of the city of Washington, to be present with them at their celebration on the fiftieth anniversary of American Independence, as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering.…I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom, of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."214
The Declaration was a call to action as well as a statement of principles. Shortly before he died, Thomas Jefferson responded to an invitation to attend an Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C.. The bedridden Jefferson declined to join "the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are ground of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights and undiminished devotion to them."215
There was an important moral component to the Declaration. Historian Pauline Maier contended that "the Declaration of Independence itself was peculiarly unsuited for the role it came to play, essentially as a statement of basic principles for the guidance of an established society which, after all, and a Bill of Rights that was supposed to perform that function."216 Maier wrote: "By including human equality among the 'great principles' that the Declaration stated and describing it as 'the foundation of all political, of, of all human institutions,' Sergeant and Sprague contributed to a modern reading of the document that had begun to develop among Jeffersonian Republicans in the 1790s but became increasingly common after the 1820s, and gradually eclipsed altogether the document's assertion of the right of revolution. It is important to understand, however, that the issue of equality had a place in American life and politics long before it was associated with the Declaration of Independence. In the eighteenth century, the republican form of government was commonly considered best suited to egalitarian societies, and Americans, conscious that they lacked the extremes of wealth characteristic of their society and of the governments they were founding."217 Edmund S. Morgan wrote: "The declaration that all men were created equal might mean for the moment that Americans should have the same independence as a nation that other peoples enjoyed. What else it might mean remained to be seen."218
The Declaration stands as a living testament to the principle of human equality. Historian Matthew Spalding wrote: "The true significance of the Declaration lies in its trans-historical meaning. Its appeal was not to any conventional law or political contract but to the equal rights possessed by all men and 'the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and nature's God' entitled them. What is revolutionary about the Declaration of Independence is not that a particular group of Americans declared their independence under particular circumstances but that they did so by appealing to - and promising to base their particular government on - a universal standard of justice. It is in this sense that Abraham Lincoln praised "the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.'"219
Speaking on the Dred Scott Decision in June 1857, Abraham Lincoln said: "We have besides these men - descended by blood from our ancestors - among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe - German, Irish, French and Scandinavian - men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world."220 The Declaration for Lincoln was a leitmotif to which he returned again and again. In a speech at Chicago, Illinois, July 10, 1858, Abraham Lincoln said of justification for slavery that "whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold as to do it! [Voices---``me'' ``no one,'' &c.] If it is not true let us tear it out! [cries of ``no, no,''] let us stick to it then, [cheers] let us stand firmly by it then."221
Lincoln had carefully studied the history of the Independence debate. On July 7, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln responded to a serenade of Washingtonians celebrating Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg by saying: How long ago is it? - eighty odd years - since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ``all men are created equal.'' [Cheers.] That was the birthday of the United States of America. Since then the Fourth of July has had several peculiar recognitions. The two most distinguished men in the framing and support of the Declaration were Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - the one having penned it and the other sustained it the most forcibly in debate - the only two of the fifty-five who [signed] it being elected President of the United States." He added that "now, on this last Fourth of July just passed, when we have a gigantic Rebellion, at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow the principle that all men were created equal, we have the surrender of a most powerful position and army on that very day, [cheers] and not only so, but in a succession of battles in Pennsylvania, near to us, through three days, so rapidly fought that they might be called one great battle on the 1st, 2d and 3d of the month of July; and on the 4th the cohorts of those who opposed the declaration that all men are created equal, 'turned tail' and run."222 Historian Martin P. Johnson wrote: "Though the reference to the Declaration of Independence was unmistakable, Lincoln avoided confusion over dates by a deliberate ambiguity. He had a more pressing purpose: to recall to the nation the reasons and purposes behind the war, the issues at stake at Vicksburg and Gettysburg." Johnson said: "That night Lincoln spoke just fewer than 540 words according to the Washington Chronicle, yet in that brief span he repeated three times the phrase, 'all men are created equal.' These radical words, more controversial even in the race-conscious 1860s than in the 1770s, were the central axis of Lincoln's political life and the Declaration of creed."223
For Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence was what Pauline Meier called "American Scripture." It was a text to be read and revered. It was the foremost of the documents on which the nation was founded. A dying John Adams had prepared a simple two-word address for the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826: "Independence Forever!"224 One day and 26 years after Adams died, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass called the Declaration "the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation's destiny...The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost."225
Richard Behn is research director of the Lehrman Institute.
For Further Reference:
- Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, p. 69.
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, September 12, 1821).
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, January 1776.
- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, revised, February 1776.
- Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, p. 95.
- John Ferling, Setting the World: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, p. 130.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 91.
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, pp. 56-57.
- Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, p. 102.
- Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, p. 1.
- Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History,, 1585-1828, p. 222.
- Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution, p. 235.
- Robert Allen Rutland, The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791, p. 35.
- Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, pp. 57,66.
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, p. 14.
- Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 79.
- Jeffry H. Morrison, John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, p. 65.
- Scott Douglas Gerber, editor, The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact, p. 16 (Garrett Ward Sheldon, "The Political Theory of the Declaration of Independence").
- Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, p. 50.
- Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, p. 165.
- John Adams, "Rights of the Colonists," 1772.
- John Adams, Thoughts on Government in 1776, 1776.
- Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History,, 1585-1828, p. 229.
- Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, p. 27.
- Harry V. Jaffa, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, p. 6.
- Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, p. 243.
- (Joseph Warren, Boston Massacre Oration, March 6, 1775).
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 43.
- John Ferling, Setting the World Afire: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, p. 90.
- Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, p. 21.
- Lance Banning, Jefferson & Madison: Three Conversations from the Founding, p. 82.
- Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac, p. 171 (Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms, July 6, 1775).
- Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson, "Declaration of the Cause and Necessity of Taking up Arms," July 6, 1775.
- Mark Puls, Samuel Adams: Father of the American Revolution, p. 180.
- Pauline Maier, The Old Revolutionaries, p. 26 (Letter from Samuel Adams to John Pitts, July 17, 1776).
- Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress, p. 100.
- (Letter from Sam Adams to James Warren on April 16, 1776).
- Mark Puls, Samuel Adams, p. 182.
- Edmund Cody Burnett, The Continental Congress, pp. 158-159.
- Merrill Jensen, The Final Break, p. 684.
- (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 17, 1776).
- Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, editor, the Spirit of 'Seventy-six: the Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, p. 295 (Letter from John Adams to James Warren, May 20, 1776).
- Francis Jennings, Creation of America, p. 172.
- Merrill Jensen, Founding of a Nation, p. 682.
- John K. Alexander, Samuel Adams: The Life of an American Revolutionary, pp. 2-8
- Merrill Jensen, Founding of a Nation, p. 682.
- (Letter from John Adams to James Warren, March 21, 1776).
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 45, 10.
- John Ferling, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, p. 276.
- Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America, p. 98.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, pp. 95-96.
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 126.
- (Letter from John Adams to William Tudor, June 24, 1776).
- John Ferling, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, p. 276.
- Edward Cody Burnett, The Continental Congress, p. 162.
- Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, p. 270, 273.
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 10, 163.
- (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, May 17, 1776).
- John Ferling, Setting the World Afire: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, p. 131
- (Letter from Patrick Henry to Richard Henry Lee, May 20, 1776).
- (Letter from John Adams to H. Niles, February 13 1818).
- (Letter from John Adams to James Warren, June 6, 1776).
- Robert Middlekaupf, The Glorious Cause, p. 323.
- Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, p. 262
- Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, p. 263
- (Letter from John Adams to Patrick Henry, June 3, 1776).
- Robert Middlekaupf, The Glorious Cause, p. 325.
- Mark Puls, Samuel Adams, p. 183.
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 141.
- Pauline Maier, The Old Revolutionaries, pp. 178-185.
- (Richard Henry Lee, "Resolution in Congress," June 7, 1776).
- Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins, Volume I, p. 692.
- Thomas Jefferson, January 26, 1821.
- Claude G. Bowers, The Younger Jefferson, p. 141
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, pp. 152-153.
- Robert Middlekaupf, The Glorious Cause, p. 325.
- Edward Cody Burnett, The Continental Congress, p. 177.
- Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation: a History of the American Revolution, 1763-1776, p. 691.
- (Letter from John Adams to Benjamin Kent, June 22, 1776).
- Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, pp. 325-326.
- (Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, January 6, 1821).
- Bob Gingrich, Founding Fathers Vs. History Revisionists: In Their Own Words, Founding Fathers Set the Record Straight, p. 159
- Bernard Bailyn, To Begin the World Anew, p. 43.
- Edmund S. Morgan,. The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, p. 17.
- John Ferling, Setting the World Afire: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, p. 100.
- (Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, August 6, 1822).
- (Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, August 6, 1822).
- Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, p. 547 (Letter from Benjamin Franklin to George Washington, June 21, 1776).
- (Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Lord Richard Howe, July 20, 1776).
- John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, p. 170.
- Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, p. 350.
- John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, p. 171.
- (Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, August 6, 1822).
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 99.
- Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, p. 55.
- Daniel J. Boorstin, Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected, p. 174.
- James Grant, John Adams: Party of One, p. 331.
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825).
- Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim, p. 364.
- Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History,, 1585-1828, p. 244.
- Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, pp. 272-273.
- James Truslow Adams, The Living Jefferson, p. 94.
- Scott Douglas Gerber, editor, The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact, p. 13 (Gerard W. Gawalt, "Drafting the Declaration").
- Mark Puls, Samuel Adams, p. 185.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 135.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 104.
- Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, p. 221.
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, August 30, 1823).
- Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: the American Revolution, 1763-1789, p. 329.
- Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History,, 1585-1828, p. 245.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 269.
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, p. 76.
- Roger G. Kennedy, Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase, p. 87.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, pp. 110-111.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 115.
- Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 205.
- Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 206
- Robert Allen Rutland, The Birth of the Bill of Rights, 1776-1791, p. 27.
- Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 5, 18, 7
- Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac, p. 217.
- Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac, p. 231.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 143.
- Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 195-197.
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, August 30, 1823).
- Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 16.
- David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, p. 60.
- Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, p. 269.
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, p. 65.
- Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, p. 26
- Catherine Drinker Bowen, John Adams and the American Revolution, p. 602.
- Julian Boyd, editor, The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of its Text, p. 13.
- Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, pp. 223-224.
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825)
- Pauline Maier, American Scripture, p. 134.
- (Letter from John Adams to Timothy Pickering, August 6, 1822).
- (Letter to James Madison 30 Aug 1823)
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Delaplaine, April 12, 1817).
- Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 136
- Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p.151
- Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, p. 331.
- Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, p. 43.
- Carl L. Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, p. 5.
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 10, 165.
- Thomas Fleming, The Intimate Minds of the Founding Fathers, p. 280.
- (Letter from John Adams to John Winthrop, Jun 23, 1776).
- Jack Rakove, The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress, p. 100.
- Mark Puls, Samuel Adams, p. 186.
- John Adams, Autobiography, July 1, 1776.
- Thomas Fleming, Liberty! The American Revolution, p. 173.
- John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, p. 183.
- James Grant, John Adams: Party of One, p. 174.
- (Speech by Daniel Webster, August 2, 1826).
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William P. Gardner, February 19, 1813).
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, August 30, 1823).
- Stephen Hess, America's Political Dynasties, p. 22.
- Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, p. 94.
- John Adams, "Autobiography," July 1, 1776.
- Notes for an Autobiography Jan 6, 1821
- (Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography)
- Esmond Wright, Franklin of Philadelphia, p. 245.
- (Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography)
- John Ferling, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, p. 330.
- Robert G. Ferris and Richard E. Morris, The Signers of the Declaration, p. 182.
- John Ferling, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, p. 332.
- Henry Steele Commager and Richard B. Morris, editor, the Spirit of 'Seventy-six: the Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, p. 310 (Letter from Caesar Rodney to Thomas Rodney, July 4, 1776).
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 183.
- John Patrick Diggins, The Portable John Adams, pp. 156-157 (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776).
- (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776).
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Meaning of Independence, p. 18.
- (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776).
- John Ferling, Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free, p. 337.
- William M. Hogeland, Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776, p. 175.
- Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, p. 23
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, August 30, 1823).
- (Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography)
- Walter A. McDougall, Freedom Just Around the Corner: A New American History,, 1585-1828, p. 245.
- (Letter from Richard Henry Lee to Thomas Jefferson, July 21, 1776).
- Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian, p. 222.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 150.
- Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: the American Revolution, 1763-1789, pp. 329-330.
- Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation, p. 55.
- Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: a Study in the History of Political Ideas, P. 201.
- Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation, p. 55.
- Claude G. Bowers, The Younger Jefferson, p. 154.
- Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, p. 344.
- Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac: A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding, p. 147.
- Woodrow Wilson, A History of the American People, Volume II, p. 258.
- Fawn M. Brodie, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, p. 124.
- John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic, p. 174.
- David G. McCullough, John Adams, p. 137.
- (Letter from John Adams to Samuel Chase, July 9, 1776).
- (Letter from John Adams to H. Niles, February 13,1818).
- (Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, July 21, 1776).
- Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac: A Practical Guide to the Notable Events, Greatest Leaders & Most Eloquent Words of the American Founding, p. 145 (George Washington, General Orders, July 2, 1776).
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 156
- Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington (abridgment by Richard Harwell), p. 279.
- (George Washington, General Orders, July 9, 1776).
- David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing, p. 28.
- Ron Chernow, George Washington: A Life, p. 237.
- Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, pp. 132-133.
- Matthew Spalding, editor, The Founders' Almanac, p.177 (George Washington, General Orders, August 23, 1776).
- (Letter from John Adams to Samuel Chase, July 1, 1776).
- John C. Miller, Triumph of Freedom, p. 129.
- (Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776).
- Forrest McDonald, E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790, p. 370.
- David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, p. 70.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 131.
- David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, p. 63.
- David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, p. 64-66.
- John Ferling, Setting the World Afire: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution, p. 282.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, pp. 154-155
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825).
- Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, p. 307.
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826).
- (Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826).
- Pauline Maier, American Scripturve: Making the Declaration of Independence, p. xix.
- Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776, p. 191.
- Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, p. 76.
- Matthew Spalding, "Independence Forever: The 225th Anniversary of the Fourth of July," June 19, 2001 Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, p. 2.
- (Abraham Lincoln, speech on the Dred Scott Decision, June 26, 1857)
- (Speech at Chicago, Illinois, July 10, 1858).
- (Abraham Lincoln, Response to a Serenade, July 7, 1863).
- Martin P. Johnson., "Lincoln Greets the Turning Point of the Civil War," July 7, 1863, Lincoln Herald Fall 2004, p. 106.
- John Ferling, John Adams: A Life, p. 444.
- (Frederick Douglas, Speech, July 5, 1852)