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The Declaration of Independence can seem like a simple document: It proclaimed the thirteen colonies' independence from the British Empire. However, its significance goes beyond this. The Declaration was thoughtfully drafted for a variety of audiences and it contained messages that went far beyond simply announcing America’s separation from Britain. It needed to both encourage foreign powers to take the risk of supporting the Revolutionaries and to encourage Americans with many differences between them to be willing to work together in challenging times. The document's success on both counts was crucial — the Revolutionary cause depended on it.

13 colonies, 13 peoples

Independence may have been an easier task had the people in the colonies all been in agreement, but this was far from the case. Each colony had its own customs and culture despite all being part of the same Empire on the same continent. The identity of British colonists had historically been most related to the colony to which they belonged and to their status as British subjects. Independence created unique challenges for Revolutionaries as they tried to trade their British identity for a new American one.

Creating a common identity across the 13 colonies proved to be difficult due, in part, to their shared history. Colonists often distrusted or disliked people from other colonies. Sometimes this was because of old disputes between the colonies over land and territory, but it was also sometimes due to stereotypes about their character. George Washington, a Virginian, once referred to New Englanders as “an exceeding[ly] dirty and nasty people.” Thomas Jefferson disliked the merchant class in the Northern colonies. He preferred farmers that worked the land over tradesmen in the North. On the other hand, John Adams from Massachusetts disliked what he considered to be elitist or self-important personalities in Southerners that he met.

In some cases, the distrust between colonies was connected to their founding and overall structure. Each colony was founded on a charter under the authority of the British Empire, but each charter was different from the others and had developed separately from the other colonies. New England colonies often had strong puritanical roots, with townships centered around the local church. The ability to read the Bible was valued, and led to higher literacy rates and more widespread educational opportunities for free colonists. New Englanders could be less welcoming to outsiders, but they could cooperate well together, such as when many different militias reacted to the events of Lexington and Concord.

The Middle colonies were diverse and their economy reflected this. They harvested large quantities of grain, in addition to lumber and iron ore. The Middle colonies generally had a reputation for greater tolerance toward immigrants and a variety of religions, with states like Pennsylvania having fewer rules and regulations that favored one group over another. The Quakers that founded the colony had a religious belief in tolerance that generally made it a more welcoming place for diverse people to settle. However, despite the tradition of tolerance in the Middle colonies, they still permitted the ownership of enslaved people.

Southern colonies had a strong agricultural economy centered around rural plantations that produced rice, indigo, or tobacco. These plantations were often controlled by an elite aristocracy with a larger, poor class of workers and many enslaved people working on them. Formal education was less common across these classes of people, unlike in the North. In terms of religion, Southern colonies were more likely to have high numbers of Anglicans.

Uniting the Cause

Regional differences between the colonies were evident even when the colonies were all supposed to be working towards a common goal. During the siege of Boston in 1775, George Washington led a group of Southern reinforcements to support the New England militias that had cornered the British redcoats in the city. Imagine yourself as one of these soldiers from the South that accompanied him. How would you have reacted when you saw a group of dirty, exhausted New Englanders whose manners and customs you found unusual or obscene? What would you have thought or felt when you saw armed people of African descent serving with other militia members? As a free person of African descent, what would you have thought of Virginians? What if you were a New Englander and saw Southern soldiers dressed in clothing that you associated with American Indians? Soldiers representing different colonies faced these questions when they met for the first time.

By 1776, the drafters of the Declaration knew that one of their key responsibilities was to increase support for the Revolutionary cause and to help Revolutionaries across the colonies feel united with one another. One step towards this was by listing a series of grievances — 27 in total — that many of the Americans would recognize from their relationship with the British over the past decade. Each of these grievances represented different events or policies that colonists had suffered from over the years. When colonists read them, it helped them see how all the colonies had been impacted by Great Britain. It also showed them that colonists elsewhere had gone through similar experiences. Revolutionaries, and possibly even some undecided colonists, found common ground when they read the grievances and understood how British policy had affected all of them. These grievances also specifically blamed the King for many of the events that had been damaging to colonists. Most of the discussion prior to this had blamed Parliament but focusing on the King as well helped ensure that the colonists were united against a common enemy.

Law and Precedent

Much of the protest and discussion around the colonial crisis focused on the idea of power, and whether the British King and Parliament were exercising too much of it, infringing upon the liberties of American colonists. British liberties guaranteed certain freedoms that the government was supposed to preserve for its subjects. Denying a British subject their liberties was a serious matter. The origins of many British liberties could be traced back to two different documents in Britain’s history, each resulting in a guarantee of rights to subjects in the Empire.

  • The Magna Carta was drafted in 1215. In it, the English King John agreed to relinquish some of his power to satisfy English nobles who had accused him of injustices. The Magna Carta stated that no one, not even the King, was above the law. It guaranteed several human rights, including the right to a fair and speedy trial, the right to own property, and the right to be protected from excessive taxation.
  • The Declaration of Rights was drafted centuries later in 1689. King James II was Catholic and favored other Catholics in government when he came into power. He eventually disbanded Parliament so he could reform it with more of his supporters. His actions resulted in the Dutch leader, William of Orange, invading England to take the throne. James II fled instead of fighting and Parliament argued that his absence meant he was no longer King. They arranged for his daughter Mary to marry William and for them to take his place on the throne. In exchange, Mary and William agreed to sign a Declaration of Rights further limiting the power of the Monarchy. It listed many of the grievances that Parliament had with James II and reserved law-making powers for Parliament while also guaranteeing free elections and freedom of speech for Parliament.

Together with the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Rights became an important part of England’s Constitution. Both documents, and the laws and legal decisions that were based upon them, influenced the drafters of the Declaration of Independence when they chose how to make a case for separation from Britain. For instance, the Declaration of Independence’s list of grievances mirrors a similar list in the Declaration of Rights. The inclusion of the term “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” resembles how Magna Carta stated the human rights to which free British subjects were entitled. Both of these documents were part of the cultural memory of many colonial subjects. The Chief Justice of South Carolina, William Henry Drayton, even referenced the documents and events surrounding them when he opened an important court session in April of 1776. Like the drafters of the Declaration of Independence, he saw many similarities between King George III’s behavior and that of other Kings who had been challenged by British subjects in the past.

A Unanimous Declaration

Despite the support that the idea of independence had gained over the last few months, the drafters of the Declaration knew that many Americans still disagreed with the idea. As late as June 7, 1776, delegates from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware still did not have permission to vote in favor of independence. This made it risky to move forward with a vote on the matter. The delegates understood that passing the vote with only a majority would not be sufficient. Possible foreign allies would be nervous about supporting the colonies in war if some colonies were against independence.

Britain’s army was professional, and it had a powerful navy. Despite some early victories, many Americans were still concerned that the Continental Army would struggle to defeat British Regulars. They also lacked vital supplies, such as gunpowder. With only one gunpowder mill of their own, Americans needed aid from foreign powers to keep their army fighting. A war with Britain would be costly in both money and lives, so foreign leaders wanted to know that victory was a real possibility if they allied with the American colonies. If any of the colonies voted against independence, possible allies would have second thoughts about joining them to fight Britain.

While the need for a unanimous vote was clear, ensuring it proved tricky. As late as June 1776, several delegates had argued that the Congress should only move for independence once “the voice of the people drove us into it". In response, several Massachusetts Congressmen attempted to push the people to call for independence. They asked townships to debate if they would “solemnly engage with their lives and fortunes” to support Congress in declaring Independence. These words had a special meaning for colonists since death and the loss of property was the penalty for treason against the crown. When asked to fully approve independence and acknowledge the consequences of their choice, over 50 towns in Massachusetts chose to support separation from Britain.

Massachusetts Congressmen were able to change their instructions to authorize voting for independence. They hoped that Massachusetts’s enthusiasm for independence would encourage other towns to show their support, causing more colonies to then instruct their delegates to vote for independence. Pennsylvania, one of the holdouts, instructed its delegates to vote for independence on June 8, 1776. Connecticut did the same on June 14, with New Hampshire and Delaware following suit on June 15. New Jersey did so on June 22 and Maryland, another colony that had been in question, authorized independence on June 28. Only a few other colonies held town debates like those in Massachusetts, but the movement helped lend some momentum toward independence. Virginia Delegate Richard Henry Lee then took the crucial step of finally proposing independence before Congress on May 15, 1776. The delegates would soon have to vote on the matter.

Many delegates thought that independence now seemed likely, so a Committee of Five was appointed to draft a formal Declaration of Independence. This document would need to rally Americans around a common cause, despite their many social, economic, and political differences. It would also need to convince foreign powers — many of whom were monarchies — that Americans were justified in seeking independence from their King. The Committee's words needed to be carefully chosen.

Thomas Jefferson was selected by the Committee to write the first draft of the Declaration, which he completed over the course of seventeen days. Congress made a total of 86 changes to his draft before voting on its final language. Perhaps the most impactful of these changes was when they removed a condemnation of slavery that Jefferson had written into the Declaration, in which he blamed the King for starting the trade in the colonies. While Jefferson strongly believed it should remain, leaving it in would have likely lost the support of several Southern colonies that relied heavily on slave labor. What do you think enslaved people would have thought about the removal of the Declaration’s slavery clause? Do you think there was another solution?

Spreading the word

When the vote for independence passed on July 2 and the Declaration was approved on July 4, the Continental Congress then had the task of sharing it with the rest of the world. They entrusted the task of printing copies of it to John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer. Dunlap printed 200 original broadsides of the Declaration for distribution. These broadsides were large posters that were well-suited for display. They were posted outside state houses and in other public places for Americans to see. Copies were immediately sent out by horseback to every provincial government in the colonies.

Everywhere the Declaration traveled, it was re-printed in newspapers or with additional print runs of broadsides. It was printed in English and in other languages to reach the diverse people living throughout the colonies. Because it was meant for an international audience as well, it was sent to all the courts of Europe. The first copy to be sent to Europe was shipped to France aboard a Continental Navy ship on July 8, but it was lost in transport. People in Britain first read the words of the Declaration in August, though their first news of it came from a letter written by British General William Howe on July 7: “I am informed that the Continental Congress have declared the United Colonies free and independent States.” The Declaration was printed in newspapers in Spain, the Netherlands, and Austria by the end of August as well.

Besides printing the Declaration so it could be read, the Declaration was also made to be read aloud. Jefferson created a version of the document that included notes for emphasis to help the reader read it in dramatic fashion. The Declaration was first officially read aloud to Philadelphia residents on July 8, outside of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall). One day later, General Washington had it read aloud to his troops in New York City to boost their morale. The Declaration was read all throughout the new United States at official ceremonies as well as in more humble places like churches and taverns. Within two months, the Declaration of Independence had spread throughout much of the world.

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Did You Know?

The original printing of the Declaration of Independence was not signed and only John Hancock, the President of Congress, Charles Thomson, the Secretary of Congress, and John Dunlap, the printer of the document, were named. An engrossed copy of the Declaration was later created and signed by most members of the Continental Congress on August 2, 1776.

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