At a meeting of the Second Continental Congress in the summer of 1776, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, proposed that the American colonies should declare their independence from Britain. Delegates debated this proposal heavily for a few weeks, and many returned to their home states to discuss the idea in state conventions.
By this point—after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and George III’s rejection of the Olive Branch Petition—the thought of independence appealed to a majority of colonists. By July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress, with the support of twelve states (New York did not vote), decided to declare independence.
Congress then selected a few of its most gifted delegates, including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, to draft a written proclamation of independence. Jefferson was chosen to be the committee’s scribe and principal author, so the resulting Declaration of Independence was a product primarily of his efforts.
Jefferson kept the Declaration relatively short and to the point: he wanted its meaning to be direct, clear, and forceful. In the brief document, he managed to express clearly the ideals of the American cause, level weighty accusations against George III, offer arguments to give the colonies’ actions international legitimacy, and encapsulate the American spirit of freedom and unity. In his first draft, Jefferson also wrote against slavery, signifying that people were fundamentally equal regardless of race as well—but this portion was stricken from the final document. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s words gave hope to blacks as well as landless whites, laborers, and women, then and for generations to come.
The Declaration’s second paragraph begins the body of the text with the famous line, “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.” With these protections, any American, regardless of class, religion, gender, and eventually race, could always strive—and even sometimes succeed—at improving himself via wealth, education, or labor. With those seven final words, Jefferson succinctly codified the American Dream.
Jefferson argued that governments derived their power from the people—a line of reasoning that sprang from the writings of contemporary philosophers including Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine. Both had argued that people enter into a social contract with the body that governs them and that when the government violates that contract, the people have the right to establish a new government. These notions of a contract and accountability were radical for their time, because most Europeans believed that their monarchs’ power was granted by God. The Declaration of Independence thus established a new precedent for holding monarchies accountable for their actions.
In the Declaration, Jefferson also detailed the tyrannical “abuses and usurpations” that George III committed against the American colonies. Jefferson claimed that the king had wrongly shut down representative colonial legislatures, refused to allow the colonies to legislate themselves, and convened legislatures at inconvenient locations. He also accused the king of illegally assuming judicial powers and manipulating judges and the court system. Finally, Jefferson claimed that George III had conspired with others (other nations and Native Americans) against the colonists, restricted trade, imposed unjust taxes, forced American sailors to work on British ships, and taken military actions against Americans. Jefferson noted that the colonists had repeatedly petitioned the king to try to restore friendly relations but that he had consistently ignored them. Americans had also appealed to the British people for help on several occasions, again to no avail.
Jefferson concluded that, in light of these facts, the colonists had no choice but to declare independence from Britain and establish a new government to protect their rights. He stated that in order to achieve this goal, the independent states would come together to become the United States of America.
Jefferson’s bold document was revised in the drafting committee and then presented to the Congress on July 4, 1776. The Congress’s members felt that Jefferson’s case was strong enough that it would convince other nations that America was justified in its rebellion. The thirteen states unanimously approved of the Declaration of Independence, and the United States was born.