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Even a year after the first shots of the revolution, Congress was still debating between independence or reconciliation with Great Britain. When the delegates of the Second Continental Congress agreed on independence, the Congress constituted Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston as a “Committee of Five” responsible for drafting the declaration. Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the declaration and after several changes and edits from other delegates, Congress finally issued the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
The text of the Declaration began stating that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” It stated that governments are established among men to secure the unalienable rights and that whenever a government violates these rights, it is the right and duty of the people to alter or abolish it. The Declaration proclaimed the King of Great Britain a tyrant and goes on to list the “abuses and usurpations” made by the King and the British Government. The final section of the Declaration of Independence declared the colonies to be free, independent states, and absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown.
Historians have examined the circumstances in which the Declaration of Independence was written under as well as the people, events, and other documents that influenced it. To begin with, historian Carl Becker and many other historians have argued that John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government had influenced Jefferson’s idea of a government. Locke’s political philosophy asserted that governments were essentially a compact between individuals based on the principle of human nature and that if there were no government or laws, humans would have complete freedom within the bounds of the “laws of nature”. But because some individuals violate the “laws of nature”, people have always agreed to create governments that will keep order in human society. Jefferson’s colleague, Richard Henry Lee, commented that in writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had “copied from Locke’s treatise on government”. Historian Garry Wills, argued that the writings of Francis Hutcheson and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were even more important to Jefferson than Locke’s writing.
Biographer Joseph Ellis stated that Virginia’s new constitution had also influenced the Declaration of Independence. Couriers had brought news to Jefferson about the Virginia convention adopting a preamble written by George Mason to its state constitution. Mason wrote that “All men are created equally free and independent and have certain inherent and natural rights, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”. Jefferson had received these words a little more than week before he wrote the Declaration.
Historian Pauline Maier noted that the Continental Congress was not the only body to issue a declaration of independence. At least ninety other resolutions were issued by town meetings, gatherings of militia and workers, and grand juries or county conventions. And like the Congress’s Declaration, the local and state resolutions had also made a list of grievances. But unlike the Congress’s “long train of abuses”, it focused on the events such as the king ignoring petitions and the casualties at Lexington and Concord.
The topic of slavery also had an impact the Declaration of Independence. In Jefferson’s rough draft, he admits that slavery was a violation of the sacred human rights of life and liberty and was aware that it was contradictory to the proclamation that “all men are created equal”. However, in the rough draft, Jefferson blames the king for slavery because he had disallowed tariffs that restricted the importation of slaves. Jefferson also accused the king of freeing slaves because the Governor of Virginia promised freedom to any slave who deserts their master to fight for the king. Jefferson’s passage on slavery did not make it onto the final draft but the accusation that the king has “excited domestic insurrections” did go onto the final draft.
The Declaration of Independence was written with influences from people, events, and documents. The works of philosophers such as John Locke and Francis Hutcheson had influenced Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a government and the unalienable rights that all men have. Slavery and events that led to the issue of local and state resolutions had an influence on the Declaration of Independence’s list of “abuses and usurpations”.
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