The main purpose of America’s Declaration of Independence was to explain to foreign nations why the colonies had chosen to become independent from Great Britain. The Revolutionary War had already begun, and several major battles had already taken place. The American colonies had already cut most major ties to England, and had established their own congress, currency, army, and post office. On June 7, 1776, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Richard Henry Lee voiced a resolution that the United States ought to be completely free of England’s influence, and that all political ties between the two countries should be dissolved. Congress agreed and began plans to publish a formal declaration of independence and appointed a committee of five members to draft the declaration.
Thomas Jefferson was chosen to draft the document. He did it in one day. Four other members, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman helped Jefferson. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson explained that if a government becomes oppressive (controlling and unfair) then people have a right to change governments. He further explained that governments fail when they no longer have the consent of the governed. Since Parliament clearly lacked the consent of the American colonists to govern them, it was no longer legitimate.
The Declaration was presented to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was approved with a few minor changes. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock, of Massachusetts was the first and then secretary, Charles Thompson, immediately printed there names to the handwritten draft, which was then dispatched to nearby printers with only their names on it.
In 1796, signer Thomas McKean disputed that the Declaration had been signed on July 4, pointing out that some signers were not present, including several who were not even elected to Congress until after that date. “0 person signed it on that day nor for many days after”, he wrote. His claim gained support when the Secret Journals of Congress were published in 1821.The Secret Journals contained two previously unpublished entries about the Declaration.
On July 15, New York’s delegates heard that they’d gotten permission from their convention to agree to the declaration. The Secret Journal’s entry for July 19 reads: Resolved That the Declaration passed on the 4th be fairly engrossed on parchment with the title and stile of “The unanimous declaration of the thirteen united states of America” & that the same when engrossed be signed by every member of Congress.
The entry for August 2 states: The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members. Eight delegates never signed the Declaration, out of the approximately 50 who are thought to have been present in Congress during the voting on independence in early July 1776: John Alsop, George Clinton, John Dickinson, Charles Humphreys, Robert R. Livingston, John Rogers, Thomas Willing, and Henry Wisner. Clinton, Livingston, and Wisner were attending to duties away from Congress when the signing took place. Willing and Humphreys voted against the resolution of independence and were replaced in the Pennsylvania delegation before an August 2 signing. Rogers had voted for the resolution of independence but was no longer a delegate on August 2. Alsop favored reconciliation with Great Britain and so resigned rather than add his name to the document. Dickinson refused to sign, believing the Declaration premature, but he remained in Congress. George Read had voted against the resolution of independence, and Robert Morris of New York had abstained—yet they both signed the Declaration. Congress Secretary Charles Thomson did not sign the engrossed copy of the Declaration.
The most famous signature on the engrossed copy is that of John Hancock, who presumably signed first as President of Congress. Hancock’s large, flamboyant signature became iconic, and John Hancock emerged in the United States as an informal synonym for “signature”. Future presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were among the signatories. Edward Rutledge (age 26) was the youngest signer and Benjamin Franklin (age 70) the oldest.
The Declaration of Independence – July 4, 1776
Reading of the Declaration of Independence – YouTube
Burnett, Edward Cody. The Continental Congress. New York: Norton, 1941.
Hazelton, John H. The Declaration of Independence: Its History. Originally published 1906. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Journals of the Continental Congress,1774–1789, Vol. 5 ( Library of Congress, 1904–1937).
Norton, Mary Beth, A People and a Nation, Boston, Wadsworth, 2010.
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