Summary of the Declaration of Independence

 

In June of 1776, Congress appointed a Committee of Five to draft a statement to the world presenting the colonies' case for independence. The committee consisted of John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson was a thirty-three-year-old attorney and plantation owner from Virginia, whose pamphlet “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774) had qualified him as an outstanding writer and radical thinker. The committee assigned Jefferson the task of writing the original document. After minor alterations were subsequently made by Franklin and Adams, the document was submitted to Congress.

 

Two passages in Jefferson's draft were rejected by the Congress--- an intemperate reference to the English people and a scathing condemnation of the slave trade. Otherwise, the Declaration was adopted without significant change.....and through it all, Jefferson was its primary author. The Declaration of Independence made Jefferson internationally famous.


Summary

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and adopted by the Second Continental Congress, states the reasons the British colonies of North America sought independence in July of 1776. The declaration opens with a preamble describing the document's necessity in explaining why the colonies have overthrown their ruler and chosen to take their place as a separate nation in the world.

 

We hold these Truths to be self-evident , that all men are created equal and there are certain unalienable rights that governments should never violate. These rights include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When a government fails to protect those rights, it is not only the right, but also the duty of the people to overthrow that government.

 

In its place, the people should establish a government that is designed to protect those rights. Governments are rarely overthrown, and should not be overthrown for trivial reasons. In this case, a long history of abuses has led the colonists to overthrow a tyrannical government.

 

The King of Great Britain, George III, is guilty of 27 specific abuses. The King interfered with the colonists' right to self-government and for a fair judicial system. Acting with Parliament, the King also instituted legislation that affected the colonies without their consent. This legislation levied taxes on the colonists. It also required them to quarter British soldiers, removed their right to trial by jury, and prevented them from trading freely. Additionally, the King and Parliament are guilty of outright destruction of American life and property by their refusal to protect the colonies' borders, their confiscation of American ships at sea, and their intent to hire foreign mercenaries to fight against the colonists.

 

The colonial governments tried to reach a peaceful reconciliation of these differences with Great Britain, but were continually ignored. Colonists who appealed to British citizens were similarly ignored, despite their shared common heritage and their just cause. After many peaceful attempts, the colonists have no choice but to declare independence from Great Britain.

 

The new nation will be called the United States of America and will have no further connections with Great Britain. The new government will reserve the right to levy war, make peace, make alliances with foreign nations, conduct trade, and do anything else that nations do.

What is so special about the Declaration of Independence?

Most countries do not begin with a statement of why they are beginning. Most cannot produce a document that says why the country is being built, and for what it will stand. Of those that do begin in this way, they state a powerful defense of human freedom.

 

The United States of America has a birthday. It celebrates the adoption, by an elected assembly, of a certain resolution. It celebrates the "Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America." This is the Declaration of Independence. It was adopted on July 4, 1776. It created a nation by a purposeful act, upon a specific day.

 

The Declaration remains the most noble, famous, and powerful statement of the basis of government ever written. It is unique. It has shaped a people and a nation, and it has helped to shape the world.


Signers of the Declaration of Independence

 

Signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was not a trivial act on the part of the men who pledged the lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. These men were not natural rebels, or crazies looking for a fight. Eleven were merchants, nine were farmers and large plantation owners. Twenty-four were lawyers. All were men of means, well educated. But they signed the Declaration of Independence knowing full well that the penalty would be death if they were captured.

 

Of the 56 men who signed the document, five were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost their sons in the revolutionary army, while another had two sons captured. Nine of the 56 fought and died from wounds or hardships incurred in the revolutionary war.

 

Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships swept from the seas by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts, and died in rags.

 

Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

 

Vandals or soldiers, looted the properties of Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton.

 

At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson Jr., noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. The owner quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.

 

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months.

 

John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his grist mill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning home to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart.

 

Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.

 

Such were the stories and sacrifices of the America Revolution. These were not wild eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued Liberty more. Standing tall, straight, and unwavering, they pledged: “for the support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

 

American history books have been particularly derelict in describing what happened in the American Revolutionary War. This was not a case of simply fighting the foreign British. Those who joined the American Revolution were British subjects at that time and they fought their own government! They committed treason. But they did so for reasons that people today might think of as very noble.

 

Our founding fathers had a hatred for standing armies -- which is why they provided The Second Amendment, allowing citizens to be armed.

 

They created for posterity, a Republic. But as Benjamin Franklin observed, “Whether or not future generations keep the Republic is the issue.”

Notes:
A curious aspect is that we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. As a country, however, the Articles of Confederation (ratified March 1, 1781) and its replacement, the Constitution (which took effect March 4, 1789), is more appropriately the day of celebration for a United States.