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John Hancock Signs the Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776

This text comes from our book, The American Venture.

It took some time to convince people in the English colonies to seek independence from their king and Parliament. Even as late as the end of 1775, General Washington and his officers were drinking toasts to King George III. But by the spring of 1776, attitudes were changing—and one of the things that helped them change was a small book by a relatively new English immigrant to America. A man named Thomas Paine.

Paine’s book, Common Sense, is an eloquent summary of Liberal social contract theory. Governments, says Common Sense, are necessary only to protect individual freedom and security. But while other Liberal thinkers argued for aristocracies and monarchies, such governments for Paine were nothing but tyrannies. The only just form of government, he said, is a republican government of officials elected by the people. As for the king of Great Britain—he, said Paine, only used the colonies for his own benefit. Moreover, America had come of age and thus no longer needed to be ruled by the “Royal Brute of Great Britain.” In America, said Paine, not George III, but the law should be king.

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine

Though Common Sense convinced many colonists, including George Washington, of the necessity of independence, many others, including some members of the Continental Congress, remained opposed. But despite the opposition, between mid-May and early June 1776, all the southern and New England colonies endorsed independence. In Congress, a resolution was proposed, that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states”; but a vote on it was delayed until July 1. In the meantime, a committee made up of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston of New York, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Thomas Jefferson was working to write up a formal declaration of independence. It was Thomas Jefferson who was appointed to write the draft of the declaration.

When at last, on July 2, 1776, Congress voted on independence, delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies approved it. Next, the delegates voted to adopt (after some changes) the text of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. On July 4, John Hancock, president of the Congress, signed the document. It was sent then to the various colonial legislatures for their approval. At last, on August 2, 1776, the members of Congress signed the declaration, and the United Colonies declared themselves free and independent states.

Now, they had to secure their independence.

The Declaration of Independence

Though it was originally written only to proclaim the independence of the “united States” from Great Britain, the Declaration of Independence has become a kind of creed for the United States of America—for it expounds the political and social ideals that are the basis for what people have called the “American experiment.” It is thus, perhaps, the most important political document in U.S. history.

Thomas Jefferson was a happy choice to draft the text, for he had a certain mastery of English prose and could turn out elegant phrases. But Jefferson was more than a gifted scribbler; he was one of the most learned men in the colonies. Moreover, he was a disciple of European Liberal thought, particularly of the political and social thought of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence

It is perhaps for this reason that when the Declaration of Independence lays out the reasons justifying the revolution and independence, it makes no reference to the traditional rights of Englishmen or the colonial charters. Instead, it justifies revolution and independence by appealing to a Liberal idea of “natural law” and human rights.

Using language inspired by John Locke, the Declaration speaks of the “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal, and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is interesting that Jefferson’s language differs from Locke’s by substituting the phrase, “pursuit of Happiness,” for Locke’s “property.” Jefferson may have taken this language from the Virginia Bill of Rights, which says:

. . . all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

The Declaration uses the language of the social contract to justify political revolution. Governments, it says, exist to secure the people’s rights. They derive their “just powers from the consent of the governed.” When a “form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” This should not be done for any reason, but only “when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [a people] under absolute Despotism.” When this occurs, the Declaration says it is the people’s “right,” “it is their duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The Declaration then lists the alleged “injuries and usurpations” of the king of Great Britain against the colonies.

In its final lines, the declaration lives up to its name and proclaims the independence of the former colonies from Great Britain:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by 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. 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.

Under this banner, the English colonies, now proclaimed states, fought to purchase their independence.

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