On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the 13 British colonies in North America issues a document addressing their grievances with the British Crown and stated to the world why they considered themselves to be a free and independent country.
That document and its legacy have had a much bigger impact than its signatories could have ever imagined almost 250 years ago.
Learn more about the Declaration of Independence, how it came about and its legacy, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Hostilities between the American colonists and their British overlords had been developing for years. Things finally boiled over on April 19, 1775, when “The Shot Heard Round the World” was fired in Concord, Massachusetts.
From this point on, the disagreement moved into the realm of violence and warfare.
The Americans had a great start to the war with convincing victories at the Siege of Boston and the Battle of Fort Ticonderoga.
The initial sentiment amongst the colonists wasn’t necessarily to become independent. All of the colonists, no matter how long their families had been there, grew up and considered themselves to be English. Their whole lives they were subjects of the crown.
What they really wanted was their grievances addressed. Had George III actually done this, or had they offered seats in parliament to the Americans, none of this probably would ever have happened.
I should note that in 1776, the population of the 13 colonies would have been approximately ? to ½ that of England itself. It wasn’t as if this was a small number of people.
In January of 1776, Thomas Paine published his book titled “Common Sense”, which made the case for independence.
Paine’s book made public what many people already thought, and convinced many more of the merits of independence.
When Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act which cut off trade between England and the colonies, and especially when the King hired Prussian mercenaries to fight, it was the final straw for many Americans.
As the war had been waged for over a year by the summer of 1776, independence became the big question and the one which hung over the heads of the delegates of the Continental Congress.
Most of the delegates to the Continental Congress personally believed in the cause of independence, but they were all appointed by the individual colonies in totally different ways, with totally different levels of authorization of what they could approve.
So beginning in April of 1776, there began a campaign in the 13 colonies to authorize their representatives to vote for independence.
Over the next few months, there were many local and state resolutions of independence.
Rhode Island renounced its allegiance to the King on May 4th, the first colony to do so.
Approval was swift in both the south and New England. It had the most resistance in the mid-Atlantic colonies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware.
On May 15, the Continental Congress passed a preamble that outlined many of the grievances against Britain. It was considered radical and four of the mid-Atlantic colonies voted against it, with Maryland walking out in protest.
It wasn’t quite a formal statement of independence but was the next closest thing to it.
It set the stage for the next resolution to be brought before the Continental Congress which was made by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. Known as the Lee Resolution, or the Resolution of Independence, it explicitly and formally dissolved all political ties between the colonies, now states, and Britain.
Voting did not take place right away. There was still work to be done in the individual states which were reluctant to declare independence. By the end of June, all of the state legislatures supported independence except for New York.
The New York Assembly had to evacuate New York City due to British troops advancing, they were unable to provide approval until they convened on July 9.
While all of the political arm twisting was going on, on June 11 a committee of five was created by Congress to begin work on a public declaration that would announce independence to the world. The five men were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman.
After discussing what the document would generally say, the committee agreed to let Thomas Jefferson write the first draft. He had just written the Virginia Declaration of Rights just a few weeks earlier, which had been passed on June 12 by the Virginia Assembly.
The Declaration of Independence borrowed heavily from the Virginia Declaration of Rights. As it was freshly written and adopted, and everyone agreed with the sentiments in it, it was a natural starting point.
The Declaration of Independence was a statement of political philosophy and the nature of human rights, as well as a list of political grievances.
The draft of the document was presented to Congress on June 28th. There were edits and changes made to the document
On July 2, the Continental Congress took the big leap and voted on the Lee Resolution for independence. It was actually quite short, so I’ll read it in its entirety here:
Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.
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.
The vote was 12 in favor, none against, and one abstaining. New York. When the New York Assembly reconvened one week later, they approved independence.
This was a huge step, not only in the history of the United States but in world history. Never before had a colony done this. The members of the Continental Congress had openly declared treason against the King, and if caught would be subject to execution.
Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it more eloquently, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
John Adams and everyone else thought that July 2, the day the vote was taken, would be the day everyone remembered. That was not to be the case.
Final work on the declaration explaining why they did what they did continue on July 3rd and was completed by the end of the day.
Congress approved the Declaration of Independence in the late morning of July 4, 1776.
Here I should note that the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document. It is not a law. It is simply a statement of principles and an argument for independence.
To put it in modern terms, the Declaration of Independence is basically a press release to justify the vote taken by the Continental Congress.
Soon after it was passed, it was in the hands of printers in Philadelphia. One printer, in particular, John Dunlap, had 200 copies made that night. It was a rush job and there were a few minor printing errors, but it was now in circulation.
The Dunlop broadside, as it is known, is not the version that most people are familiar with. This isn’t the copy with all of the signatures at the bottom. That would come a bit later. In fact, at this point, no one had signed anything nor was there any need to do so as the vote was the only thing necessary.
The Dunlap broadside, was actually pasted into the minutes of the congress. There are 26 copies of the Dunlap broadside currently in existence.
On July 19th, Congress passed a resolution that a formal copy of the Declaration of Independence be created. The resolution stated:
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,” and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.
The “unanimous declaration” was not in the original which was passed on July 4 as New York hadn’t voted for it by that time. However, by July 19th, New York had approved independence, so the language was added.
The official version was to be written on parchment. Parchment is made from animal skin and it is far more sturdy and used for formal documents.
This copy was penned by Timothy Matlack, who was the clerk of congress, and evidently had good penmanship.
This official version was signed by members of the Continental Congress on August 2. Unlike the scene imagined in later paintings, this probably was a very informal affair with everyone taking turns signing it at a desk.
The journal entry for Congress on that date simply says
The declaration of Independence being engrossed & compared at the table was signed by the Members.
56 men ultimately signed the document, although not all of them were there for the vote, and not all of them signed on August 2.
This physical parchment copy, now known as the Matlack Declaration, was kept with congress over the next several years, even as they had to move to avoid the British. After the passage of the constitution, the copy was given to the State Department.
Over time, the Matlack Declaration began to deteriorate, so in 1820, President John Quincy Adams ordered an engraving, identical to the Matlack Declaration to be made. Almost all subsequent copies were made off of this engraving.
From 1841 to 1876 the Declaration hung on a wall in the Patent Office where it was exposed to sunlight, which further caused the document to fade.
In 1892, a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair for the document was canceled due to its deteriorated state. It was then placed between two glass planes and seldom was shown over the next several decades.
In 1921, custody of the document was given to the Library of Congress and more money and efforts were made towards preservation. During World War II, it and other historic documents were moved for safekeeping to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where the United States gold bullion was kept.
In 1952, custody was once again changed as control was given to National Archive, where it remains today. It is now encased in bulletproof glass filled with inert argon. It is on display in the National Archives Building in the Charters of Freedom exhibit along with the original copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
All of the Charter of Freedom documents can descend into an armored vault at the push of a button, and they are also stored in the vault at night, just in case, anyone wants to try and reenact National Treasure.
The political impact of the document was immediate. It was read in public by George Washington to his troops in New York City on July 9th, and the crowd tore down a statue of King George.
Spanish authorities in the Americans banned it, but it spread anyhow. Translated copies appeared in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador by the end of the year.
The Tories in Britain pointed out, correctly, the hypocrisy of declaring the rights of man, while at the same time allowing slavery. The English Abolitionist Thomas Day wrote in 1776,
“If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”
It was a contradiction that would fester in the United States for 90 years. Abraham Lincoln used the Declaration of Independence as a lens to interpret the Constitution and to support his efforts for ending slavery.
In France, revolutionaries were inspired by the document and wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
The Declaration of Independence was the spark that set off a series of revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Other countries used the Declaration of Independence as the basis or inspiration for their own declarations over the next two centuries. Venezuela, Haiti, Liberia, Vietnam, Chile, Hungary, New Zealand, and many other countries created similar documents.
The American Declaration of Independence, being the first such declaration of any colony of a European country, not only brought about independence for the United States, it had ramifications over the next 250 years that the signers of the document could never have imagined.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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