DECLARING Independence

 E Pluribus Unum



The Declaration as Text and Artifact

Images and Text of The Declaration of Independence at the National Archives and Records Administration. You can find a different set of scans at NARA's "American Originals" Exhibit on Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, manuscript copy
From the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Massachusetts.

The Declaration of Independence at
Provides information on those who signed the Declaration and on the printers and others who prepared copies for dissemination.



Prelude to and Support for the Declaration

Declaration of Colonial Rights: Resolutions of the First Continental Congress, October 14, 1774

A number of colonies adopted their own "declarations" before the more well-known document was signed in Philadelphia in July of 1766. Also, gatherings were held in a number of colonies to write explicit instructions durectubg their representatives to the Continental Congress to compose and sign a formal declaration. The Virginia Declaration of Rights is one example.


Origins and Meanings of the Declaration

Account of a Declaration: From the Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson,
His Account of the Circumstances Leading to the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, July 27, 1821, Autobiography Draft Fragment, January 6 through July 27 (digitized image -- a transcription is also available) at American Memory

Another Excerpt from Jefferson's Autobiography on the Events Leading to the Signing

Account of Jefferson's role in drafting the Declaration of Independence from B.L. Rayner's Biography of Jefferson published eight years after Jefferson's death.

Discussion of the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, in his Autobiography Jefferson comments on the difference between the original and final drafts of the Declaration.

John Adams and the Declaration of Independence

Archiving Early America: The Declaration of Independence -- Offers comments by Adams and Jefferson in the early 19th century on the Declaration; aslo includes a graphic showing the Declaration as it appeared in a contemporary newspaper.

What Did the Declaration Declare? This website produced by Bedford/St. Martin's Press to promote and supplement historian Joseph Ellis's book of readings on the revoltuion offers a selection of intelligently focused questions and relevant quotations from scholars that attempt to answer the question, "What did the Declaration Declare?"


But Support for the Declaration Was Not Unanimous

Declaring Independence -- The Inside Story, a short essay by Matthew Brent Pandel in The Early American Review.

The Declaration as a Work of Rhetoric

Are the Ideas of the Declaration of Independence still valid today? at the Social Studies Help site provides a simple summary of the organization of the Declaration and a simple commentary on its audience and purpose.

The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence, by Stephen E. Lucas
Offers a useful analysis of the Declaration as a work of rhetoric (i.e. tool of persuasion).

Context Preview for Thomas Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" at Leah Ceccarelli's course site for American Public Address. This page provides a model for assessing the Declaration as a work of rhetoric.

John Adams and the Declaration

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Oratory -- A New York Times article explaining Jay Fliegelman's vsion of the Declaration as a text intended to be presented in manuscript, print, and speech in order to unite Americans.

An Excerpt from Sentimental Democracy, by Andrew Burnstein (to read an excerpt from the first chapter online, go the the page posted by his publishers, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux):

As Jay Fliegelman has effectively argued, the Declaration of Independence was intended to be read aloud as well as in its printed form. Print culture in 1776 was secure in its authority, yet Jefferson aimed to preserve the special character of the spoken voice in his composition of a vigorous and passionate, politically persuasive document. When one member of Parliament denounced the Declaration as a "wretched" instrument "drawn up with the view to captivate the people," John Wilkes, a defender of American rights, rose to laud Jefferson's composition: "The polished periods [sentences], the harmonious happy expressions, with all the grace, case and elegance of a beautiful diction, which we chiefly admire, captivate the people of America very little; but manly, nervous [vigorous] sense, they relish even in the most awkward and uncouth language. Whatever composition produces the effect you intend in the most forcible manner is, in my opinion, the best." Jefferson may not have seen his technique as Wilkes did, but he clearly aimed to mix style and sentiment in a way that affected listeners as well as readers. He was in effect announcing to the world a new oratorical ideal that combined masculine sentiment and a kind of theater. To "captivate," in the sense almost of ensnaring or bewitching (as the member of Parliament intended to convey), was not the effect of the Declaration; rather, Americans were responding to language that contained sensory power, that coursed through the nervous system and, in fact, made "sense."

Later Disagreement Between Jefferson and Adams Concerning the History of the Drafting

I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted, if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal; for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.

"We reported it to the committee of five. It was read, and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticised any thing. We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting, as he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of it, as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if anything in it was. I have long wondered that the original draught has not been published. I suppose the reason is, the vehement philippic against negro slavery."-- John Adams to Timothy Pickering, Aug. 22, 1822

To this Jefferson replied:
"You have doubtless seen Timothy Pickering's fourth of July observations on the Declaration of Independence. If his principles and prejudices, personal and political, gave us no reason to doubt whether he had truly quoted the information he alleges to have received from Mr. Adams, I should then say, that in some of the particulars, Mr. Adams' memory has led him into unquestionable error. At the age of eighty-eight, and forty-seven years after the transactions of Independence, this is not wonderful. Nor should I, at the age of eighty, on the small advantage of that difference only, venture to oppose my memory to his, were it not supported by written notes, taken by myself self at the moment and on the spot. He says 'the committee of five, to wit, Doctor Franklin, Sherman, Livingston and ourselves, met, discussed the subject, and then appointed him and myself to make the draught; that we, as a sub-committee, met, and after the urgencies of each on the other, I consented to undertake the task, that the draught being made, we, the sub-committee, met, and conned the paper over, and he does not remember that he made or suggested a single alteration.' Now these details are quite incorrect. The committee of five met; no such thing as a sub-committee was proposed, but they unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee, I communicated it separately to Doctor Franklin and Mr. Adams, requesting their corrections because they were the two members of whose judgments and amendments I wished most to have the benefit, before presenting it to the committee: and you have seen the original paper now in my hands, with the corrections of Doctor Franklin and Mr. Adams interlined in their own handwritings. Their alterations were two or three only, and merely verbal. I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them unaltered, to Congress. This personal communication and consultation with Mr. Adams, he has misremembered into the actings of a sub-committee. Pickering's observations, and Mr. Adams' in addition, 'that it contained no new ideas, that it is a common place compilation, its sentiments hacknied in Congress for two years before, and its essence contained in Otis' pamphlet,' may all be true. Of that I am not to be the judge. Richard Henry Lee charged it as copied from Locke's treatise on government. Otis' pamphlet I never saw, and whether I had gathered my ideas from reading or reflection I do not know. I know only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before."-- Letter to J. Madison, Aug. 30, 1823.]

--Excerpt from Notes on Jefferson Autobiography Draft Fragment in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. Federal Edition. Collected and Edited by Paul Leicester Ford, available online courtesy of American Memory.

The Ongoing Life and Uses of the Declaration

An Oration on the Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Noah Webster, New Haven, 1802

Frederick Douglass's "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" delivered July 5, 1852

The Inspiration of the Declaration, Calvin Coolidge, July 5, 1926: Speech at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on the One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence

Making Sense of the Fourth of July, by Pauline Maier This essay describe how the celebration of the fourth of July and the understanding of the Delcaration evolved over the course of American history.

See Also on this Site:

Slavery in Early America: What the Founders Wrote, Said, and Did



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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.