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Digital History ID 3217

 

On June 7, 1776--14 months after the battles of Lexington and Concord--Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution to the Second Continental Congress "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States...." After several days of debate, Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence. The committee asked Thomas Jefferson to write the first draft, which he completed in just two days.

On July 2, Congress unanimously approved Lee's resolution. The delegates then went over Jefferson's draft line-by-line, refining the wording and eliminating a clause that blamed King George III for encouraging the slave trade. On July 4, Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, explaining "to a candid world" why the United States had declared their freedom from Britain.

As the delegates signed the Declaration, they feared for their lives. "I shall have a great advantage over you when we are all hung for what we are doing," said Benjamin Harrison of Virginia to Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. "From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air for an hour or two before you are dead."

Why is the Declaration significant?

Between April and early July 1776, there were 90 declarations of independence by provincial congresses in nine colonies, as well as by Maryland counties, Massachusetts town meetings, New York and Philadelphia artisans and militia members, South Carolina grand jurors, and Virginia county leaders.

It might seem, then, that the Declaration of Independence was unnecessary. But in fact, the Declaration is of crucial importance. It is the defining statement of the fundamental principles of American democracy. One tenet is that governments exist to protect the rights of the people and that they have a right to overthrow an unjust or tyrannical government. A second tenet is that all people are equal in their right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

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