Texas A&M University-Kingsville

MOMENT WITH AN EXPERT: Five Facts You May Not Know About the Declaration of Independence

KINGSVILLE - July 03, 2014

Contact: Adriana Garza-Flores
adriana.garza@tamuk.edu or 361-593-4979

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Dr. Roger Tuller is an Associate Professor of History in the Department of History, Political Science & Philosophy. Dr. Tuller’s areas of specialization include the U.S. Constitution and the American West. Here he shares some not-so-commonly known facts about the Declaration of Independence.  

1. The Second Continental Congress actually voted for independence on July 2, 1776.

Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced the resolution “that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states” on June 7. After two days of discussion, Congress tabled the resolution pending the drafting of a formal declaration by a committee of five members—Thomas Jefferson (also from Virginia, who wrote most of the first draft), John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Roger Sherman (CT), and Robert Livingston (NY). The committee presented its draft declaration on June 28.  After two more days of debate, on July 2, Congress adopted Lee’s original resolution for independence.  The remainder of July 2 and much of July 3 were devoted to editing the original draft into the document that we recognize today; Congress cut nearly 25 percent of Jefferson’s text. Our “Independence Day,” July 4, is the date that Congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence.

2. The “official” Declaration of Independence was not the first.

Over 50 towns, counties, grand juries, militia units, and colonial legislatures throughout the 13 Colonies (or were they now “states”?) declared themselves independent from the British Empire in the months before July 4, 1776. These “grassroots” efforts increased pressure on Congress to take action on behalf of its constituents. Independence resulted as much from upward pressure by “the people” on their representatives as it did from the leadership of the “Founding Fathers” in Congress.

3. Most Americans in 1776 did not yet support independence.

Despite all the pressure on Congress from Americans who wanted independence, a majority did not. According to John Adams, who served with Jefferson on the drafting committee, only about 1/3 of the population supported the Declaration when it was issued. Another third preferred to remain part of the British Empire, and the remaining third remained undecided. We should not really be surprised by these divisions: Colonies uniting to overthrow the rule of one of the most powerful empires in the world was a genuinely revolutionary act, and the war was going badly for the rebels in the summer of 1776.

4. The ideas in the Declaration of Independence were not original.

Even Jefferson himself, who could be quite vain about his writing—the public editing of his draft was excruciating for him—later acknowledged that the Declaration “was intended to be an expression of the American mind . . . neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiments.” In reality, he had little time for originality: after serving in Congress ten hours a day, six days a week, Jefferson returned to a rented room to work on his draft declaration. He borrowed words and ideas freely from natural rights philosophers, his own previous writings, and those of fellow anti-Crown agitators. Even that most memorable phrase, “the pursuit of happiness,” was not Jefferson’s. It came from his fellow Virginian George Mason’s preamble to their state’s new constitution.  

5. The Declaration of Independence did not free the United States from British rule.

Actual independence required over seven more years of warfare (in which George Washington’s Continental Army lost more battles than it won), financial support from the Netherlands, France, and Spain, as well as direct military intervention by the French. Only when the British finally relinquished all claims on their 13 former colonies under the Treaty of Paris in September, 1783, did the United States truly become “free and independent states.”  


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