Wikijunior:United States Charters of Freedom/Declaration of Independence

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The United States Declaration of Independence

Before the United States of America became its own country, it was made up of thirteen colonies (later to become the first thirteen U.S. states) that were part of the British Empire. On July 4, 1776, a group of people representing the interests of the various colonies (known as the Continental Congress) agreed to a joint statement known as the Declaration of Independence in which they declared the colonies to be free and independent states and explained their justifications for doing so. The anniversary of this declaration is now celebrated as Independence Day in the United States.

A handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence signed by the members of the Continental Congress is on display in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It was the first of the three main Charters of Freedom, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence.


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During the 1750s and 1760s, relations between Great Britain and thirteen British colonies along the eastern shore of North America became increasingly strained. Fighting broke out in 1775 at Lexington and Concord, marking the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. On January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine published (anonymously) a pamphlet titled Common Sense in which he outlined major problems with the British form of government (a constitutional monarchy) and several reasons the American colonies should separate themselves from Great Britain. Paine's pamphlet both reflected and influenced the growing anti-British sentiment in the colonies.

A painting depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull

Draft and adoption

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On June 11, 1776, a committee consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut (known as the "Committee of Five"), was formed to draft a formal resolution declaring the colonists' intent. The committee decided that Jefferson — its youngest member and the youngest signer of the final Declaration — would write the first draft of the resolution. After Franklin and Adams made several minor corrections, Jefferson produced another copy. The committee presented this version to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776.

Independence from Great Britain was declared on July 2, 1776. The full Declaration was rewritten somewhat in general session prior to its adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, at the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall). Word of the Declaration reached London the following month, on August 10.

A Dunlap broadside

Distribution and copies

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After its adoption by Congress on July 4, 1776, a handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence was signed by the President of Congress, John Hancock, and the secretary to Congress, Charles Thomson. It was sent a few blocks away to the printing shop of John Dunlap, who worked through the night to print 150 to 200 copies, now known as Dunlap broadsides. One of these was sent to George Washington on July 6, who had it read to his troops in New York on July 9. The 25 Dunlap broadsides still known to exist are the oldest surviving copies of the document.

On July 19, 1776, Congress ordered a copy be handwritten for the delegates to sign. This engrossed copy of the Declaration was produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Most of the delegates signed it on August 2, 1776, in geographic order of their colonies from north to south, though some delegates were not present and had to sign later. Two delegates never signed at all. As new delegates joined the congress, they were also allowed to sign. A total of 56 delegates eventually signed.

The first and most famous signature on the engrossed copy was that of John Hancock of Massachusetts, President of the Continental Congress. Two future presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, were among the signatories. Edward Rutledge (age 26), was the youngest signer, and Benjamin Franklin (age 70) was the oldest signer.

In January 1777, Congress decided the Declaration should be more widely distributed. Printer Mary Katherine Goddard was commissioned to print a version containing the text and names of the signatories. Today, these copies are known as the "Goddard broadsides". Nine copies are known to still exist today.

In 1823, printer William J. Stone was commissioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to create an engraving of the document essentially identical to the original. Stone's copy was made using a wet-ink transfer process, where the surface of the document was moistened, and some of the original ink transferred to the surface of a copper plate which was then etched so that copies could be run off the plate on a press. Because of poor conservation of the 1776 document through the 19th century, Stone's engraving, rather than the original which has largely faded, has become the basis of most modern reproductions.

The room in Independence Hall, Pennsylvania where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed

Text and analysis

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The text of the Declaration of Independence can be divided into five sections: the introduction, the preamble, the indictment of George III, the denunciation of the British people, and the conclusion. (Note that these five headings are not part of the text of the document.)


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In CONGRESS, July 4 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
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 and 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.

In this section, the signers declare their independence from the British and prepare to state why they feel compelled to do so.


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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.
That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence indeed, will dictate, that Governments long established, should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
King George III, the British king who was ruling over the 13 colonies when they declared independence.

This section is presented as a syllogism, with one proposition leading to another proposition. From the first proposition (that all men are created equal), a chain of logic is produced that leads to the right and responsibility of revolution when a government becomes destructive of the people's rights.


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Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the Present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let the Facts be submitted to a candid World.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People; unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.
He has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.
He has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and Amount and Payment of their Salaries.
He has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance.
He has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislature.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislaton:
For quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:
For imposing taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond the Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule in these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Powers to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.
He is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic Insurrections among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

In this section, the signers then list 27 grievances against the British Crown. The grievances are directed personally at the King (as in "He has refused his Assent to Laws..."), although many of them refer to actions taken by the British Parliament or the Royal Governors. Many of the grievances are examples of violations of fundamental English law, such as "imposing taxes on us without our Consent", and "depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury". Many historians maintain that some of the grievances are exaggerated propaganda (such as the "Swarms of Officers" in truth referring to about fifty men ordered to prevent smuggling).


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Nor have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed with the Syng inkstand, which is on display at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

This section is a message to King George III that the 13 colonies are no longer a part of the British Empire and that they do not want to have anything to do with the British.


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We, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, 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; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of the divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
John Hancock's signature is the first, largest and most famous signature on the Declaration of Independence
[New Hampshire:] Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
[Massachusetts:] Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
[Rhode Island:] Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
[Connecticut:] Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
[New York:] William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
[New Jersey:] Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark
[Pennsylvania:] Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
[Delaware:] Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean
[Maryland:] Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
[Virginia:] George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton
[North Carolina:] William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
[South Carolina:] Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton
[Georgia:] Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

In this section, the signers assert that (since conditions exist under which people must change their government, and the British have produced such conditions) the colonies must necessarily throw off political ties with the British Crown and become independent states. The conclusion contains, at its core, the Lee Resolution that had been passed on July 2. The signatures have been listed here labeled with the states each group of delegates came from; this is not seen on the original Declaration.

Text on the back of the document

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If you have watched the movie National Treasure, you may think a treasure map was written on the back of the Declaration of Independence. However, that is not true. Although there is something written on the back of the document, it is not a treasure map. Written on the back of the Declaration of Independence were the words "Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776". The text appears on the bottom of the document, upside down. While no one knows for certain who wrote it, it is known that early in its life, the large parchment document (it measures 29¾ inches by 24½ inches) was rolled up for storage. So, it is likely that the notation was added simply as a label.

A facsimile of the original draft with images of the signers around the border

Differences between draft and final versions

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The Declaration went through three stages from conception to final adoption:

  1. Jefferson's original draft.
  2. Jefferson's draft with revisions from Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.
  3. The final version, which included changes made by the full Congress.

Jefferson's original draft included a denunciation of the slave trade ("He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."), which was later edited out by Congress, as was a lengthy criticism of the British people and parliament. According to Jefferson:

  • "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 offense."


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Several myths surround the document:

  • Because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people believe it was signed on that date—it was signed August 2 by most of the delegates.
  • An unfounded legend states that John Hancock signed his name so large that King George III would be able to read it without his spectacles. In point of fact, other examples of his signature indicate that he typically signed his name in this way.
  • Much like the previous, another myth states that John Hancock had bad eyesight himself and was therefore forced to sign his name large. This is, of course, not verified.
  • The famous painting by John Trumbull, which hangs in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States, is usually incorrectly described as the signing of the Declaration, when what it actually shows is the five-man drafting committee presenting their work. Trumbull depicts most of the eventual signers as being present on this occasion, but this gathering never took place. An image of the painting can be seen in an earlier section of this article.
  • The Liberty Bell was not rung to celebrate independence, but to call the local inhabitants to hear the reading of the document on July 8, and it certainly did not acquire its crack on so doing; that story comes from a children's book of fiction, Legends of the American Revolution, by George Lippard. The Liberty Bell was actually named in the early nineteenth century when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement .


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Here are some questions to answer. If you are stumped, and need the answer, just click and drag your mouse over the space next to the question. The answer will show up. The answers to all the questions are located in this article.

  1. What led to the creation of this document? The American Revolutionary War
  2. On what day was independence declared? July, 2, 1776
  3. What was the name given to the first 150-200 copies of the Declaration of Independence? Dunlap broadsides
  4. How many Dunlap broadsides are still known to exist? 25
  5. On what day did most of the delegates sign the Declaration of Independence? August 2, 1776
  6. How many delegates signed the Declaration of Independence? 56
  7. How do we know how the Declaration of Independence looks like even though it faded heavily? A printer named William J. Stone was commissioned to create an engraving of the document
  8. Which British king who was ruling over the 13 colonies when they declared independence? King George III
  9. Whose signature was the largest on the document? John Hancock's
  10. What was written on the back of the Declaration of Independence? Original Declaration of Independence dated 4th July 1776
  11. How many grievances against the British Crown were listed in the Indictment? 27
  12. Where does the painting by John Trumbull depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence hang? The Rotunda of the Capitol


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Basically a junior version of the Wikipedia article.