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Transcript
The Declaration of
Independence: Text, Signers and
Legacy
On July 4, 1776, the Second
Continental Congress sent off a
letter that told King George III
that since he refused to respect
their rights as British citizens,
they were going to disown him.
Today, we know this letter as the
Declaration of Independence.
But before we talk about the document,
its context, and its legacy, let's clear up a
few common misconceptions. The
Declaration of Independence didn't start
the Revolutionary War, it didn't
establish the government in the United
States, and it isn't exactly a legally
binding document. But it refocused the
Americans' goal in the war, it identified
the purpose of American government,
and it altered the course of history.
Deciding to Declare Independence
Tensions had been escalating
between the colonies and the British
government since the end of the
French and Indian War in 1763.
Sustained warfare broke out 12
years later, in 1775. At the beginning
of the war, very few people on either
side of the Atlantic thought this was
a war for independence.
The colonists' original goal had been to fight
for the rights to which they felt they were
entitled. Public opinion shifted in favor of
independence following the publication of
Common Sense in January 1776. And it was
the King's reaction to the colonists' Olive
Branch Petition and continued military action
by the British that finally convinced the
colonial leaders that the best course of action
was to break completely with Great Britain
and try to make it in the world on their own.
In May 1776, the Congress endorsed
overthrowing existing royal
governments. Every colony that did
not yet have a Patriot government
established one, and they began
calling themselves states. In June, a
committee of five congressmen led
by THOMAS JEFFERSON met to
draft the Declaration of
Independence.
Approval
On July 2, 1776, the Continental
Congress voted in favor of independence,
though not unanimously. Benjamin
Franklin famously encouraged all of the
delegates to vote in favor of
independence by saying 'We must all
hang together, or assuredly we shall all
hang separately.' But there were some
disagreements about the wording of the
document.
In particular, many delegates were
disturbed by the declaration's
mentioning of slavery. Jefferson himself
owned hundreds of slaves, but still, the
first draft of the Declaration of
Independence blamed the King for
'maintaining a market where men are
bought and sold.' Since South Carolina
and Georgia refused to accept it as it
stood, the declaration was amended to
ignore slavery before being signed by
Congress.
So on the fourth of July,
Congress approved the wording
of the formal declaration, and
John Hancock, president of the
Congress, signed it.
The Text
The Declaration of Independence
has three main sections: a
preamble, a list of grievances,
and the actual declaration of
independence.
The preamble serves as an
introduction and acknowledges
that the world probably wants to
know why the colonies would
separate themselves. It also states
the purpose of government as
viewed by the Founding Fathers:
'We hold these Truths to be selfevident, 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…'
The grievances give examples of the
King's tyranny and then list ways
the colonists had tried to
compromise. It's relevant to note
that several of these grievances are
addressed in our Bill of Rights. At
the end, the document explicitly
declares that the colonies were no
longer part of Britain but a
completely new and independent
nation.
Most members of Congress
signed a copy of the Declaration
of Independence a month after it
was accepted. Though the text
was widely reprinted by the press
and read aloud throughout the
States, it didn't arrive in England
until mid-August.
The Legacy
Americans today don't always
recognize how radical the
Declaration was. Throughout the
history of the world, people had
either submitted to their rulers
because of their actual power or
they accepted the monarch's
authority as divine right.
Sure, kings were overthrown, and
some people moved to other places to
escape rulers with whom they
disagreed, but most people had
never considered the possibility that
they could simply reject their leader.
Then came the Enlightenment, with
John Locke's theory of the consent
of the governed.
This outrageous concept basically
means common people have to
allow their rulers to have any
authority over them.
The Declaration of Independence,
founded on the principle of the
consent of the governed, was an
unthinkable insult, a feisty and
defiant disrespect of established
authority. The founders told the king
to shove it and had the audacity to
say that God was on their side.
The Declaration of Independence inspired and
united the colonists, who fought the war with
a new purpose. It incensed the British, who
were determined to make an example of the
rebellious American colonies. And it initiated
an era of revolution in which people around
the world dared to decide for themselves how
to be ruled and by whom.
The Declaration of Independence inspired
other people around the world to start
revolutions