The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Declaration of Independence

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DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, United States. The steps by which the extra-legal de facto governments of the colonies during the early Revolution — the Committees of Correspondence and Safety — were turned into formal legislative bodies, are detailed under Constitutions, State; and Congress, Continental.

The first Congress, of 1774, assumed neither executive nor legislative authority. The second, early in its existence (6 July 1775), formally disclaimed any purpose of separation. The first half-unconscious step was the appointment, November 1775, of five commissioners to maintain communications with friends of the colonies in “Great Britain, Ireland, or elsewhere”: only independent countries send ministers. Thomas Paine's ‘Common Sense,’ urging independence as inevitable, and the sooner the better, appeared 9 Jan. 1776; it had wide influence and unlocked many tongues. So general was the concurrence with Paine's views that, in fear of them, three of the middle colonies — New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland — instructed their delegates to vote against any such measure; the other two, New York and Delaware, were bitterly divided and their delegates took no part in forwarding the independent movement; South Carolina was also hostile, contrary to its usual habit of eager initiative — probably from fear of England stirring up the great Indian confederations against the South, as was afterward done. But events pushed them on. British naval captures led Congress, 23 March, to declare all British vessels lawful prize; and on 6 April it opened all United States ports to all vessels other than British. This was an act of absolute sovereignty, acknowledged or not. The colonies, under instructions from Congress, were steadily forming State governments (see Constitutions, State); and Congress 10 and 15 May recommended all the remaining ones to take the same step, which of course involved making their common Union independent also. John Adams was the foremost agent in all this work. The North Carolina convention 22 April resolved to “concur with those in the other colonies in declaring independence.” On 17 May Virginia instructed her delegates in Congress to move a “Declaration of Independence”; and on 7 June Richard Henry Lee made a motion to that effect in Congress, which was seconded by John Adams. On the 8th and 10th this was debated in Committee of the Whole; but action was postponed to 1 July, as some delegations were averse and others were waiting instructions.

On the 10th a committee of five was appointed to draw up the Declaration: Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston of New York. Its composition was assigned to Jefferson by the committee; the latter and Congress made many changes, but mostly by omission rather than alteration of wording, so that the language is practically all Jefferson's. The chief cancellations were five; (1) and (2) The last two counts of his indictment of the king. (1) That he had “incited treasonable insurrections of our fellow-citizens” by promising them confiscated property. The charge was probably felt to be too weak to maintain, as well as likely to weaken the general case. (2) That he had carried on the slave-trade, and refused to allow American legislatures to suppress it. South Carolina and Georgia, which were actively carrying it on themselves, would not permit this; and too much Northern wealth had been earned by it not to make the North very willing to suppress the passage, which would impress foreign nations unpleasantly as to their sincerity. (3) Superfluous rhetoric about the incredulity of “future ages” as to the daring tyranny of the king. (4) Review of American history, denying that Great Britain had assisted in our establishment, and alleging that “submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution.” It was thought best to go as little into the remote origins as possible, fixing the attention upon recent oppressions and natural rights; and above all, to ignore the existence of Parliament altogether. That body is not alluded to, except inferentially as the “others” with whom the king has “combined” to subject the colonies to an alien and illegal jurisdiction. This was in pursuance of the steady contention of the colonies. (5) Attacks on the English people for re-electing “the disturbers of our harmony,” and allowing their chief magistrate to perpetrate these enormities. This was struck out to avoid giving offense to the friends of the colonies in England, who in fact, by upholding Liberal leaders and even generals, saved us at last.

The Declaration was reported 28 June. On 1 July as fixed, debate was begun afresh on Lee's resolution. New Jersey and Maryland had reversed their instructions meantime. In Committee of the Whole that evening, nine States voted for it; Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against it (but the latter delegates, possibly after hearing from the South, offered without instructions to vote yes if it would make a unanimous vote), Delaware was divided, and New York refused to vote. The "yea" Delaware delegate, McKean, sent an urgent message to the third, Cæsar Rodney, then on a political trip in southern Delaware, to come on at once; Rodney traveled 80 miles the next day, arrived in the evening, and reversed his State's vote. Pennsylvania reversed hers also; and this leaving only the abstaining New York delegates out of the voting, the South Carolina members voted yes. This carried the motion 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,” by 12 yeas and no negative vote. On the 3d the Declaration was taken up, and as amended was passed on the evening of the 4th. The anniversary of the fact of independence is therefore the 2d; that of the adoption of the specific document in which it was proclaimed to the world is the 4th, as celebrated. The usual statement that it was “signed” by the members at this time, however, is incorrect; it was signed by the president and secretary, whose signatures only were borne by the printed copies sent out. The journals of Congress did not enter the Declaration, but left a blank for it, which was afterward filled in and the signatures taken from the engrossed copy. On the 9th the New York convention ratified it, and the delegates gave in their formal adherence on the 15th; it was then, as entitled, “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” Six additional Pennsylvania members also recorded a formal vote on the 20th. On 19 July Congress passed a resolution that it should be engrossed on parchment, and on 2 August it was signed by 53 members present; Gerry of Massachusetts, McKean of Delaware and Thornton of New Hampshire were empowered by their legislatures to sign later, Thornton not signing till 4 November. For an analysis of the Declaration and bibliography see United StatesThe Declaration of Independence.

The parchment with the original signatures was deposited with the Department of State when the government was organized in 1789. In 1823 John Quincy Adams had a copper-plate facsimile made, to give copies to the signers and their heirs; but unfortunately it ruined the original. The wet sheet pressed on its face drew out the ink so that the signatures have become illegible and almost invisible, and the text partially so; and after being shown for many years only on special occasions, in 1894 it was definitely sealed up in a steel case to keep it from light and air. From 1841 to 1877 it was in the Patent Office.

The signers represented the States as follows:

New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton.

Massachusetts: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, 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: Cæsar Rodney, George Reed, 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, Jun., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton.

North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn.

South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jun., Thomas Lynch, Jun., Arthur Middleton.

Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton.

It may be noted that several of these were not members of Congress when the Declaration was passed.

Declaration of Independence (1819), by John Trumbull.jpg
From the Painting by Trumbull

The Declaration, as agreed to, follows:



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.

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 to abolish it, and to institute a 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 shown, 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. 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 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 meantime, exposed to all the danger of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose, obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration 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 the 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 legislatures.

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 legislation:

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 seas to be tried for pretended offenses;

For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring 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 into these colonies;

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering, fundamentally, the powers of our governments;

For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power 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 endeavored 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.

Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them, from time to time, of attempts made 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 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.

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 Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

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