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Spotlight: The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is one of the founding documents of the United States, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In the fall of 1774, the relationship between Great Britain and its thirteen American colonies was deteriorating. The First Continental Congress approved a Petition of Grievances which was sent to King George III. In April 1775, British soldiers marched on Concord, Massachusetts to seize weapons stored there by the colonists. After being alerted by Paul Revere and William Dawes, the colonial militiamen were able to force the British back to Boston, winning the first battle of the Revolutionary War. At the outset of the war, most colonists were in favor of reaching a compromise with Britain. However, in August 1775, King George declared his American subjects to be engaged in open rebellion. By the spring of 1776, many colonists were convinced that reconciliation with Britain was impossible and independence was the only way forward.

In early June 1776, the delegates from Virginia introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress, proposing that Congress declare the Colonies to be free and independent of British rule. On June 11, 1776, consideration of the resolution was postponed by a vote of seven to five, with New York abstaining. Congress recessed for three weeks, but before it did, it appointed a committee of five men, tasked with drafting a document setting out the rationale for American independence. The Committee of Five consisted of John Adams and Roger Sherman from New England, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Livingston from the middle colonies, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. At the age of 33, Jefferson already enjoyed a reputation as an eloquent writer, and he became the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.

Congress reconvened in Philadelphia on July 1, 1776. On July 2nd, twelve colonies adopted the resolution for independence, with New York abstaining from voting. Congress then turned its attention to Jefferson’s draft declaration, which would be used to announce the decision and the reasons behind it to the world. Congress’s consideration and revision of the document continued all day on July 3rd and into the late morning of July 4th. The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 and was first read to the public on July 8, 1776.

The Declaration of Independence embraces individual rights, “[w]e 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,” and sets the course for self-government, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The principles outlined in the document have become both a model and an inspiration to many.

After long and distinguished service to the newly created United States of America, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the same day, July 4, 1826. Before his death, Jefferson left strict instructions regarding the inscription he wanted placed on his tombstone - “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.” Jefferson explained these were the things for which he most wished to be remembered. Noticeably absent is any reference to his service as the second Vice-President and third President of the United States. 


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