Following the outbreak of conflict in response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 and what were perceived as further injustices, a congress was raised by delegates representing each of the 13 states in order to discuss the question of independence from Great Britain for America.
Initially, following the outbreak of war in April 1775, the aim was for the re-establishment of their rights as British subjects, however as the conflict carried on, the Americans received word that their hopes of reconciliation at the instigation of their Sovereign, George III, were in vain when he addressed Parliament in October of 1775 denouncing the hopes of the Americans as rebels, and urging for the enlargement of both the Navy and the Army in anticipation of taking their might to the Colonies and crushing the rebellion. When word reached the colonies of the speech in January of 1776, it infuriated many and led those who had entertained hopes of remaining within the embrace of the Mother-land, to change their stance.
Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant to America from England, published a pamphlet at this time, entitled ‘Common Sense’. Although it arguably did not encourage the leaders of the revolution further, it did serve to reach the common ear and 150,000 copies were read over the next weeks. The result being that many pro-Royalists now abandoned their feelings of nationalism to the metropole and rose patriotically on the side of independence.
By March, North Carolina became the first state to declare for independence, seven other colonies quickly followed suit by May. On June 7th, Congress met in Philadelphia, where Richard Henry Lee proposed a motion for independence for the colonies. Congress put the proposal on hold until it reconvened. In the interim, they raised a committee of five; Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman and Robert R Livingstone and charged them with drafting a statement of intent, to be known as their declaration. This draft was to formally outline the justification with the break from England.
Following his publication of ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America’ in 1774, Jefferson had earned the reputation for eloquence of speech, therefore he was tasked with putting together the draft. When this draft was finished, Jefferson presented it to both Franklin and Adams, who made their own edits to the document, and then it was presented to the committee where it was again edited and left to sit for a while to give the committee time to ponder over the final contents.
A passage concerning British enslavement of their American colonists was re-drafted, by reason of not wishing to further distance themselves from remaining supporters in England. The statement was divided into five sections, the introduction, the preamble, the statement, the indictment and the conclusion. The preamble, or context for the statement contains the now immortal words “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
On July 1st 1776, Congress reconvened. The following day 12 out of 13 of the states voted for independence for the American Colonies. From that day forward they were to be recognised as an independent nation, able to raise laws and govern themselves, trade freely and set up their own alliances. Only one state abstained from the vote, New York, who had not yet gained the necessary release to vote for independence. This was received a week later and the vote was unanimous.
The Declaration of Independence as it came to be known (although that phrase was never actually included in the first prints of the statement) was printed that night, by John Dunlop and 200 copies circulated. The Declaration itself was read publically on July 4th. Copies made their way to other countries, notably in South America. A further copy, to contain the signatures of the 56 members of the congress who eventually unanimously voted in favour of independence to carry the motion, was produced on August 2nd. Although initially it was expected that July 2nd would become a national holiday to commemorate America’s Independence, the date finally decided upon was the 4th as this was the day when the carried vote and the declaration were made public. The declaration would later be used as the basis for the American Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Gettysberg Address by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. 26 copies of the original broadside version of the print exist today. Fragments of the original draft in several forms as written by Jefferson and edited by Adams, also remain.
One quirky fact to finish on. Out of the 56 signatories on the original declaration, post-script August 1776, voted July 1776, 2 of those signatories went on to become American Presidents. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who were charged with drafting the original. On the 50th Anniversary, July 4th 1826, only three of them including Jefferson and Adams remained alive. They both died that day leaving sole Catholic signature Charles Carroll as the last man standing.