The Declaration of Independence, read aloud above, was the document used to announce the American colonies’ secession from Britain during the American Revolution. Signed by all 56 delegates to the Continental Congress, the dated declaration gave way to American independence and the Independence Day celebrations held every year on July 4.
Here’s what you need to know about the document that gave birth to America:
1. Secession Was First Proposed in June 1776
According to the National Archives, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia was the first delegate to propose the idea of secession when he read a resolution that said, “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
After King George III had declared American colonists were “engaged in open and avowed rebellion,” in August 1775, the colonies had begun withdrawing from British rule by taking control of their ports and establishing formal guidelines for creating local governments.
2.’Common Sense’ by Thomas Paine Convinced Colonists Separation Was Inevitable
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right. Thomas Paine pic.twitter.com/vebJyDwL1g
— Green Tea (@GreenTea1776) June 24, 2014
“Common Sense,” a pamphlet by Thomas Paine, was written at the reading level of the average colonist in order for Paine’s ideas to reach a greater audience. Several of Paine’s ideas convinced the average colonist separation was necessary, including America’s multicultural population and how Britain was exploiting the colonies by ruling them for its own benefit. Paine also said the idea of an island ruling a continent was illogical. He wrote:
Small islands, not capable of protecting themselves, are the proper objects for kingdoms to take under their care; but there is something absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island.
3. Five People Wrote the Declaration
The “Committee of Five,” comprised of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston were appointed by the Continental Congress to write the declaration. The committee was formed on June 5, 1776 and returned to Congress with the completed decoration on July 4. The committee was disbanded when the declaration was made public on July 5. Official records of the drafting process are not documented, but it is known that Jefferson was selected to draft the declaration. Jefferson likely had to write the draft quickly with Congress being in session.
The official title of the declaration is, “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.”
4. John Hancock Was the First to Sign the Declaration
As President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock was the first member to sign the declaration. Hancock’s signature is the most recognizable on the declaration, which is explained by urban legend as a way to ensure King George III saw his signature first and without reading glasses. Had the United States lost the Revolutionary War, all 56 signers of the declaration could have been tried for treason, according to MyHeritage. After the declaration was signed and distributed, crowds in cities across the colonies destroyed signs and statutes that represented royal authority. A statue of a horseback King George III was torn down in New York City and used to create musket balls for the Continental Army. George Washington read the declaration to his troops in order to inspire soldiers and encourage other colonists to join the army.
5. Little Attention Was Paid to the Declaration After Its Adoption
Early Independence Day celebrations largely ignored the declaration after, citing that the act of separating from Britain was more important than the formal text that declared the separation. An early revival of the declaration occurred in the 1790s when political parties formed. Several countries have modeled their own declarations of independence after the American document, including El Salvador, New Zealand and Hungary. The National Parks Service holds an annual reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8 to commemorate the first public reading of the document.