The Declaration of Independence

Historical Background

The Second Continental Congress met for the first time on May 10, 1775.  While the colonial patriots had already fought the British Army at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, many of the representatives to the congress were not ready to break away from Great Britain.

Most Americans still felt loyal to Britain and to King George III.  It would take another year before The Declaration of Independence would be written.

In January of 1776 Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet titled Common Sense.  In this pamphlet, Paine argued that the colonists did not owe loyalty to King George III and that the idea of monarchs was wrong.  He encouraged the colonists to declare independence from England.  Common Sense convinced many American colonists that it was alright to separate from England.

In June of 1776 a member of the Second Continental Congress by the name of Richard Henry Lee presented a resolution that said:

"That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states . . . and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

The members of the Second Continental Congress now had to make a tough decision - should they declare independence not?  If they did declare independence, and if they were caught, they would be traitors and would be hanged.

Congress created a committee to write a Declaration of Independence.  John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston were on this committee.  Thomas Jefferson was responsible for actually writing the Declaration of Independence.

On July 2, 1776 the Second Continental Congress voted on Richard Henry Lee's call for independence from Great Britain.  On the 4th of July they accepted the Declaration of Independence.

Format of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence can be broken down into four sections:
  • The Preamble - This is the introduction to the Declaration of Independence.
  • Declaration of Rights - This section outlines the idea of natural rights, or the rights that belong to all people and the idea of the consent of the governed.
  • British Wrongs - This section lists all of the wrongs that Britain committed against the American Colonists.
  • Independence - The last section is the actual declaration of independence from Great Britain.

Ideas in the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson included some very important ideas in the Declaration of Independence that are still influencing the world today.  Here are some of those important ideas:
  • Natural Rights - The first part of the Declaration of Independence presents the idea of natural rights.  Thomas Jefferson was influenced by the writings of the English philosopher John Locke.  According to the Declaration of independence, natural rights are the rights all humans are born with and these rights come from God.  Your natural rights are: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • Consent of the Governed - Another important idea found in the Declaration of Independence is the idea of the consent of the governed.  This is the idea that governments exist for the purpose of protecting the rights of the people.