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The Declaration of Independence | Text, Signers & Legacy

John Reiss, Alexandra Lutz
  • Author
    John Reiss

    John Reiss has over 15 years of experience in developing educational programs. He has taught students of all ages at schools and colleges in the United States, Spain, Chile, Vietnam, and Malaysia. He has a Master of Arts in diplomacy from Norwich University, and a professional doctorate from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, with a certificate of specialization in Pacific-Asian Legal Studies

  • Instructor
    Alexandra Lutz

    Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

What does the Declaration of Independence say? Learn about the parts of the Declaration of Independence text, its signatories and its impact on history. Updated: 11/14/2021

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What Does the Declaration of Independence Say?

"We 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." These words from the Declaration of Independence, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, summarize its spirit and message. The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the United States. It established the country's status as an independent country, gave a list of reasons why independence was necessary, and set forth the basic values on which the United States would be.

The people of Great Britain's thirteen colonies on the east coast of North America felt mistreated by their rulers in London. They had suffered what they perceived to be unfair taxation, inadequate protection from enemies, and a lack or representation in the British parliament. Starting in 1775, a group of political leaders from each colony convened in Philadelphia. Calling themselves the Continental Congress, they began plans to help the colonies coalesce into the nation. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, establishing the United States of America as an independent country.

History of the Declaration of Independence

Beginning in 1607, English colonizers began to settle along the east coast of North America. Through exploration, wars, and treaties, a political structure of thirteen different colonies was set up, from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south. The Thirteen Colonies flourished economically, thanks in no small part to the use of African slave labor in some areas. The British government, recognizing that the rich colonies could be a source of revenue, began to impose a series of taxes on them.

The Stamp Act of 1765 was typical of the new taxes imposed on the American colonies. It required colonists to pay for and place revenue stamps on many different printed materials, including newspapers, magazines, and even decks of cards. Because the colonies were not represented in Parliament, colonists felt that it was unfair that they should have to pay such heavy taxes without having any say in them. Eventually, the colonists' grievances with the British government came to a head in 1775, when the American Revolutionary War began.

To coordinate the activities of the Thirteen Colonies during the war, elected representatives from each colony met in Philadelphia. The Continental Congress eventually determined that full independence from Great Britain was the best course of action. Thomas Jefferson, a landowner and lawyer who was elected to represent the colony of Virginia, began to draft a document detailing the reasons why independence was necessary. Later drafts of this document would become the Declaration of Independence. He included a list of grievances against the British Crown, detailing the unfair taxation and lack of representation in Parliament, as well as military occupation by British troops, unfair judicial practices, obstruction of commerce, and several other accusations. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence would include 27 grievances against the Crown.

Approval of the Declaration of Independence

The Continental Congress approves the Declaration of Independence.

The Continental Congress approves the Declaration of Independence

In January 1776, political activist Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense was published. It advocated direct independence from Great Britain and was widely read throughout the colonies as they entered into their second year of revolution. This pamphlet, along with news that Parliament had passed a law that said American ships would be considered enemy vessels, helped to popularize the idea of independence amongst Americans.

The Continental Congress began to debate independence. Some congressmen from the Middle Colonies, especially Pennsylvania, opposed independence and thought reconciliation was possible with King George III, although the king had already rejected a letter of reconciliation from the Continental Congress called the "Olive Branch Petition" the previous summer. Pennsylvania's John Dickinson, a pacifist influenced by his Quaker family, felt that the colonies should form foreign alliances first before rushing to declare independence. He would eventually withdraw from the Continental Congress before the Declaration of Independence was signed.

The strongest supporters of independence were John Adams of Massachusetts and Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. At the beginning of June, Lee proposed a resolution of independence. Congress established a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence. Its members included Adams as well as Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, Benjamin Franklin from Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman from Connecticut, and Robert Livingston from New York. Jefferson was the primary author. Early drafts included language that opposed slavery despite Jefferson and many other congressmen being slaveowners themselves.

On July 1, 1776, the Continental Congress began to debate the committee's Declaration of Independence. On July 2, the Declaration was approved by Congress. On July 4, after some revision, the final text was approved and made public. Because of this, July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day, although the declaration had been approved two days earlier. The United States of America was born.

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  • 0:05 The Letter
  • 1:34 Deciding to Declare…
  • 2:36 Approval
  • 3:28 The Text
  • 4:36 The Legacy
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Declaration of Independence Text

The original signed copy of the Declaration of Independence

The original signed copy of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence is not a very long document. The entire text was written on a single sheet of parchment. Its text is not divided into specific sections, but historians have come to agree that it has five distinct parts: the introduction, the preamble, the indictment, the denunciation, and the conclusion.

The introduction is a single long sentence that acknowledges that "decent respect" demands that when a country declares its independence from another one, that country should detail its reasons for doing so.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Declaration of Independence and what does it say?

The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the United States. It established independence, gave reasons for doing so, and explained the values that governments should protect for their people.

What are the 4 main points of the Declaration of Independence?

Besides the introduction, there are four main points of the Declaration of Independence. These are the preamble, which details the reasons for independence; the indictment, which presents grievances against the British Crown; the denunciation, which declares the separation of American people from British people; and the conclusion, which actually establishes the independence of the United States.

Where is original Declaration of Independence?

The original signed copy of the Declaration of Independence can be viewed at the National Archives in Washington, DC. It is on display alongside the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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