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—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .
Laboring at his desk in the midst of a Philadelphia heat wave in June 1776, Thomas Jefferson hastened to complete a pressing assignment. A Congressional committee, recognizing his “happy talent for composition,” had given the 33-yearold Jefferson responsibility for drafting a declaration of independence, a document that Congress needed almost immediately. Jefferson, one of Virginia’s seven delegates to the Second Continental Congress, worked in his two-room apartment on the second floor of a tradesman’s house at Market and Seventh streets, a heavily trafficked corner. He rose before sunrise to write and, after the day’s long Congressional session, he returned to his lodging to take up his pen again at night. Toward the end of his life, Jefferson would say that his purpose had been to “place before mankind the common sense of the subject.” Congress, he recalled, required an “expression of the American mind.”
Jefferson well knew that America was at a defining moment in its history. Independence would sever ties with a long colonial past and propel the 13 states—and the new American nation to which they would belong—into an extremely uncertain future. Jefferson also knew that Congress wanted the declaration completed by July 1, less than three weeks after he was given the assignment.
No one appreciated better than he the irony in the sudden desire for haste. Jefferson had been prepared to declare independence perhaps as much as a year earlier, from the moment that war against the mother country erupted on April 19, 1775. Yet Congress had refused. In the 14 months since American blood had been shed at Lexington and Concord, American soldiers had also died at Bunker Hill, in the siege of Boston, and during an ill-fated invasion of Canada. In addition, the Royal Navy had bombarded and burned American towns, and the colonists’ commerce had been nearly shut down by a British blockade. Still, Congress had not declared independence.
But not even Jefferson, passionate advocate of independence that he was, fully grasped the importance of the document he was preparing. Nor did his colleague, John Adams of Massachusetts, who had masterminded the arduous struggle within Congress to declare independence. Focused singlemindedly on that contentious undertaking, Adams regarded the actual statement itself as a mere formality—he would call it “a theatrical show”—a necessary instrument of propaganda. Jefferson, for his part, said little about his accomplishment. Not long after his work was completed, he would depart Philadelphia to return to his responsibilities in the Virginia legislature. Still, he was more than mildly vexed that Congress had made revisions—or “mutilations,” as he put it—to the language of his original draft. Historians now agree that Congress’ alterations and excisions enhanced the Declaration’s power. Jefferson’s magisterial opening passage, and indeed, much of his original language, actually survived intact.
Today, the passage of time has dulled our memory of the extent to which many Americans, including a majority in the Continental Congress, were, for a very long period, reluctant to break ties completely and irrevocably with Britain. The creation of the document we have come to regard as the seminal expression of revolutionary ardor was by no means in- evitable. More than two-and-a-quarter centuries after the Declaration was signed, this eloquent assertion of individual rights, reinstalled last September in a state-of-the-art glass encasement at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., can be assessed in all of its complexity—as the product of the protracted political debate that preceded its formulation.
By the summer of 1776, the patience of many congressmen had been sorely tried by bitter wrangling over the question of whether or not to declare independence. Many of the legislators thought it nonsensical to fight a war for any purpose other than independence, yet others disagreed. For month after bloody month Congress had sat on its hands, prompting John Adams to exclaim early in 1776 that America was caught “between Hawk and Buzzard,” fighting a war it could not win unless it declared independence from Britain, thereby prompting England’s enemies, most prominently France, to aid in the struggle.
America’s war with the mother country had commenced when a British army of nearly 900 men, acting on orders from London, had marched from Boston to Concord, intending to destroy a colonial arsenal and, if possible, capture ringleaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The Second Continental Congress, which assembled in Philadelphia just three weeks later, had barely been gaveled to order when John Rutledge of South Carolina, a 35-year-old lawyer from Charleston, raised the critical question: “Do We aim at independancy? or do We only ask for a Restoration of Rights & putting of Us on Our old footing [as subjects of the crown]?” It would take Congress 14 months to answer that question.
Congress quickly divided into two factions. One felt that the British actions at Lexington and Concord in April required nothing less than a clean break from the motherland; they believed colonists would always be second-class citizens in the British Empire. This faction would have declared independence in May or June 1775. But a second faction, which comprised a substantial majority in Congress, yearned to be reconciled with Britain. These delegates believed in waging war only to compel London to accept America’s terms—Rutledge’s “old footing”—to return to the way things were before Parliament tried to tax Americans and claim unlimited jurisdiction over them.
Opposition to Parliament had been growing since it enacted the first American tax, the Stamp Act of 1765. At the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in September 1774, some delegates wanted to force repeal of Parliament’s repressive measures through a trade embargo. Amore conservative faction had pushed for a compromise to provide American representation in Parliament. In the end, Congress adopted the trade boycott, and war had come. “Nothing,” wrote John Adams, “but Fortitude, Vigour, and Perseverance can save Us.”