After approving Richard Henry Lee's resolution declaring independence on 2 July 1776, the delegates of the Continental Congress began discussing the text of the document expressing the reasons why the British colonists felt compelled to take this course of action.
When Lee introduced his resolution a couple of months earlier, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration. The most prominent members included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. The committee in turn delegated the task to Jefferson.
Jefferson submitted his draft to the committee, which made some revisions. The committee then submitted the completed document to the Continental Congress. The delegates devoted much of their 3 July agenda completing additional revisions of the document, including the ending professing their "reliance on the protection of Divine Providence."
On 4 July 1776 the Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence.
If you have not read it through since high school, the still stirring words can be read here.
And Jefferson's words still still hearts today. Because the Declaration of Independence is so intertwined with the creation and definition of a new people, it has assumed a quasi-religious standing not unlike the Ten Commandments to the ancient Hebrews. In fact, some observers have referred to the Declaration as the American testament or American scripture. And the power of Jefferson's rhetoric has elevated in prestige this man of words to the level of the Father of our country George Washington, the stoic and aloof man of action.
But the ideas contained in the Declaration did not originate from Jefferson. They consisted of a synthesis from many sources. As Jefferson himself explained in a letter written in 1825, shortly before the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration:
"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c."
The next few posts will look at those sentiments.