Brief History of the Declaration of Independence

"...that all men are created equal, ..."

Independence Hall in Philadelphia
Independence Hall National Park. Rdsmith4

Since April 1775, loosely organized groups of American colonists had been fighting British soldiers in an attempt to secure their rights as loyal British subjects. By the summer of 1776, however, a majority of Americans were pushing – and fighting for -- full independence from Britain. In reality, the Revolutionary War had already begun with the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Siege of Boston in 1775. 

Even after the opening battles of the Revolutionary War broke out, most colonists opposed seeking total independence from Great Britain. Those who supported independence, like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, were considered dangerous radicals. Over the next year, however, Britain deployed nearly all of its great army in an attempt to crush the American rebels.

Addressing Parliament in October 1775, King George III, after ranting against the rebellious colonies, ordered a massive enlargement of the royal army and navy to be dedicated totally to putting down the rebellion. When news of the King’s words and actions reached the American colonies in January 1776, support for the radicals’ cause gained support, as many leading colonial British loyalists gave up their hopes of reconciliation with the Crown. 

Later the same month, recent British immigrant and political activist Thomas Paine published his pamphlet “Common Sense,” in which he argued that independence was a “natural right” and the only logical course for the colonies. “It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies; yet our present numbers are sufficient to repel the force of all the world,” he wrote, adding, “Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavored to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us.” In its first month in circulation, the pamphlet sold more than 150,000 copies.

The American Continental Congress turned a five-man committee including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to pen a formal statement of the colonists’ expectation and demands to be sent to King George III.

In Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence.

"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." -- The Declaration of Independence.

Until the 1790s, most Americans were unaware that Thomas Jefferson had been the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Before that, the document was considered to have been conceived and written collectively by all of the delegates attending the Continental Congress.

The following is a brief chronicle of events leading up to the official adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

May 1775

The Second Continental Congress convenes in Philadelphia. John Hanson is elected "President of the United States in Congress assembled.” A "petition for redress of grievances," sent to King George III of England by the First Continental Congress in 1774, remains unanswered.

June - July 1775

Congress establishes the Continental Army, a first national monetary currency and a post office to serve the "United Colonies."

August 1775

King George declares his American subjects to be "engaged in open and avowed rebellion" against the Crown. The English Parliament passes the American Prohibitory Act, declaring all American sea-going vessels and their cargo the property of England.

January 1776

Colonists by the thousands buy copies of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," stating the cause of American independence.

March 1776

Congress passes the Privateering (piracy) Resolution, allowing colonists to arm vessels in order to "cruize [sic] on the enemies of these United Colonies."

April 6, 1776

American seaports were opened to trade and cargo from other nations for the first time.

May 1776

Germany, through a treaty negotiated with King George, agrees to hire mercenary soldiers to help put down any potential uprising by American colonists.

May 10, 1776

Congress passes the "Resolution for the Formation of Local Governments," allowing colonists to establish their own local governments. Eight colonies agreed to support American independence.

May 15, 1776

The Virginia Convention passes a resolution that "the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states."

June 7, 1776

Richard Henry Lee, Virginia's delegate to the Continental Congress, presents the Lee Resolution reading in part: "Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

June 11, 1776

Congress postpones consideration of the Lee Resolution and appoints the "Committee of Five" to draft a final statement declaring the case for America's independence. The Committee of Five is composed of: John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.

July 2, 1776

By the votes of 12 of the 13 colonies, with New York not voting, Congress adopts the Lee Resolutions and begins consideration of the Declaration of Independence, written by the Committee of Five.

July 4, 1776

Late in the afternoon, church bells ring out over Philadelphia heralding the final adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

August 2, 1776

The delegates of the Continental Congress sign the clearly printed or "engrossed" version of the Declaration.


Faded but still legible, the Declaration of Independence, along with the Constitution and Bill of Rights, is enshrined for public display in the rotunda of the National Archives and Records Building in Washington, D.C. The priceless documents are stored in an underground vault at night and are constantly monitored for any degradation in their condition. 

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Your Citation
Longley, Robert. "Brief History of the Declaration of Independence." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, September 3). Brief History of the Declaration of Independence. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Brief History of the Declaration of Independence." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).

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