Declaration of Independence: First Newport printing by Solomon Southwick, July 4, 1776
American independence was far from inevitable in the summer of 1776. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a resolution for independence to the Second Continental Congress. The resolution was composed as a reaction to the years of British imposition on the American colonies; in recent years, numerous laws had limited colonists' ability to influence their own government. Resistance to many of these acts led King George III to declare his North American subjects to be in a state of rebellion. Many delegates still hoped for reconciliation with Britain, however, and the vote on Lee's resolution was postponed for three weeks.
On June 11, Congress recessed and asked the Committee of Five (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman) to draft a statement that would be considered when the delegates reconvened. Jefferson wrote this draft, and Adams and Franklin edited it. On July 1, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was presented to Congress. By July 2, the Lee Resolution was passed, bolstered by the powerful message contained in Jefferson's writing. On July 4, the Declaration itself was adopted. Copies were sent to every colonial assembly, the Continental Army, King George III, and other countries throughout the world. The Declaration of Independence soon appeared in cities as distant as Warsaw and Florence.
The first printing of the Declaration of Independence took place in Philadelphia on July 4 by John Dunlop, the official printer for the Continental Congress (The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds Dunlop's original printer's proof). On July 6, a copy was sent to the Governor of Rhode Island. Using this copy, Solomon Southwick printed and distributed the first Newport edition of the Declaration. Only six original copies still exist, one of which was acquired by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and is presented in this exhibit.
The Declaration was an explanation for why American colonists believed independence from Britain was justified and a political maneuver to gain an advantage in the war against England. By most definitions, the Revolutionary War was just a rebellion, a civil war among British subjects. The founders knew that other countries would not get involved in a civil war, so they redefined the conflict as one between two sovereign nations. Americans also hoped they would be able to ally with England's enemies, such as France and Spain.
Although the Declaration promoted a sense of American patriotism among many colonists, this reaction was not universal. Tories, colonists who remained loyal to Britain, pointed out the inconsistencies between the language of the Declaration and the reality of the nation they were creating—a nation that would still have slavery. England had made slavery illegal in 1772. Many Tories believed the British had more advanced moral principles and saw no reason to separate from them.
Regardless of its inconsistencies, the ideas expressed in the Declaration were highly influential on progressive movements throughout history. Among numerous examples, the French Revolution of 1789, the Flanders movement for independence in 1790, Francisco de Miranda's revolution in Venezuela in 1810, and the Liberian independence movement of 1847 all drew inspiration from the Declaration of Independence. The 1859 "Declaration of Liberty" condemning the United States for continuing the institution of slavery meticulously echoes the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, South Carolina borrowed language from the Declaration to inspire other states to secede from the Union in 1860.
It is important to remember that the principles and ideas expressed by Jefferson were not as self-evident in 1776 as they appear today. The idea that all human beings are born with the same potential was relatively novel. America was a new nation where the founders could test these revolutionary interpretations of freedom. The United States was, in a sense, a great experiment, and the Declaration its hypothesis. We are still living in that experiment today. Among debates over civil rights, economics, and America's role in the world, the conclusion of that experiment has yet to be reached.
David Armitage, "The Declaration of Independence in World Context," OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 3, The Atlantic World (April 2004): 61-66.
"The Declaration of Independence: A History," from The Charters of Freedom, a National Archives (NARA) online exhibit, accessed September 2012, www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_history.html.
Founding.com: A Project of the Claremont Institute, accessed September 2012, www.founding.com.
"The History of the 'First Newport Edition' of the Declaration of Independence," Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Ab-1776-36a.
William Pencak, "The Declaration of Independence: Changing Interpretations and a New Hypothesis," Pennsylvania History 57 (1990): 225-235.
Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1991).