Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE America’s Noble Mission Statement

Excellence is never an accident.  It is always the result
of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent
execution; it represents the wise choice of
many alternatives – choice, not chance,
determines your destiny.  

Aristotle, Greek Philosopher                (384 BCE – 322 BCE) 

Books were rare in the early years of the colonies.  The English settlers who crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard cramped merchant ships brought the barest of necessities and precious few books. 

Over the next 150 years, there was a concerted effort by many colonists to assemble personal libraries.  Fortunately, most families had Bibles, which not only provided communities with a moral compass and historical backgrounds regarding laws and ethics but also served as family genealogical records, some of which have survived to the present day.  As trade with Europe expanded, colonists increasingly imported books by classic-era authors such as Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, and Plutarch, as well as contemporary European authors such as John Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, and Shakespeare.

The Founders were lifelong students of history and had personal libraries consisting of hundreds if not thousands of books.  In 1731, using books from his and associates’ personal libraries, Benjamin Franklin established the first public library in the North American Colonies, which was located in Philadelphia.

As the Second Continental Congress reconvened in Philadelphia in May of 1775, its members -- some from the First Continental Congress and some newly appointed delegates -- were among the most brilliant minds of the 17th century.    

Most of the delegates traveled to Philadelphia on horseback, and depending on varying distances and weather conditions, their journeys could take several days or even several weeks.  During the months spent in Congress, all expenses incurred by the delegates were entirely self-funded.

Ideas about living in a self-governing society permeated the Second Continental Congress as it reconvened in Philadelphia in May of 1775.  Having personally committed themselves to the study of the great statesmen of history allowed the delegates to have meaningful deliberations on how to proceed in their quest to create a government that would fairly represent its citizens.

The delegates had just begun to work on addressing Parliament’s continued refusal to grant legal standing to the colonies when they learned that on May 17th, an armed conflict had taken place on Bunker Hill in Massachusetts between the colonial militias and the British army.  These alarming reports brought a call to action to their proceedings.  In order to combat future British attacks, John Adams nominated General George Washington as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.  Washington immediately began the formidable task of garnering provisions for a standing army while preparing his march to Boston, where he would have to train individual colonial militias under the watchful eyes of the British generals.

The Congress also appointed a five-member committee to prepare a list of grievances outlining the unlawful and tyrannical treatment the colonies received under King George and the British Parliament.  The committee members included Benjamin Franklin from Philadelphia, age 70; John Adams from Massachusetts, age 41; Thomas Jefferson from Virginia, age 33; Robert Livingston from New York, age 30; and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, age 55.    

Robert Livingston was an attorney and a diplomat.  In 1787, he administered the Oath of Office to George Washington for his first term as President.  In 1803, during President Jefferson’s administration, Livingston, serving as a U.S. diplomat under  Secretary of State James Madison, successfully negotiated with Napoleon’s French Government over the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.  Roger Sherman, a self-educated man, passed the bar exam at age 33 and served as a judge and mayor of New Haven, Connecticut.  He signed all 4 of the great state documents -- the Continental Association, the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.

Committee members’ names more familiar to today’s readers included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.  Their contributions to the development of America are too extensive to mention here but have been written about throughout this essay series.          

The 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, known for his eloquent and scholarly writing style, was chosen to write the committee’s first draft of colonial grievances.  Known to be quiet and reserved during congress sessions, Jefferson’s 1774 opinion piece, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, demonstrated his clarity on the subject of colonial abuses by the British government.  Jefferson recounted that Parliament had created “a series of oppressions” such as interfering with colonial trade in world markets and suspending the rights of colonial legislatures.  In his essay, Jefferson convincingly made the case that “the British parliament has no right to exercise authority over us.”  

However, sitting at a small desk in his rented boardinghouse room Thomas Jefferson began to write his rough draft.  Like other Founding Fathers, he had been studying the principles of liberty.  After just 17 days, Jefferson managed to create a framework that represented a people longing to be free.     

After review and some editing from the committee, Jefferson’s final draft became the model for the Declaration of Independence which was signed into law by Congress on July 4, 1776.  By August 2nd, the remaining Congress members, not present in Philadelphia on the 4th, also added their signatures. The Declaration has four central themes: 

The Preamble explained that the Continental Congress had decided to declare independence from England and felt compelled to outline their reasons, noting that they were entitled to an equal station among the nations of the earth by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.

The Declaration of National Rights begins with Jefferson’s immortal words: “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.”  With several references to God, the Founders made clear that while it is the role of government to secure rights, it is God who grants them.

The List of Grievances included the well-known complaint: “No taxation without representation.”  The total list of 27 grievances against the monarchy reflected both the depth of the abuses that had been imposed on the colonists as well as their determination to live as free and independent citizens.

The Resolution concluded the document with the Continental Congress declaring independence from the English government with these inspiring words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” 

On July 4, 1776, Congress approved the wording of the Declaration, and the document was boldly signed by John Hancock, the President of the Congress, as well as the other members present on the 4th.  By August 2nd, the remaining Congress members had all affixed their signatures to the Declaration, each knowing that they would be identified as traitors to England.     

Note: Jefferson’s first draft, which included a powerful denouncement of King George III for his promotion of the slave trade in the colonies, did not appear in the final Declaration of Independence.  Having grown up in Virginia, where slavery was an integral part of the culture and industry of the South, Jefferson believed that this oppressive practice should be eliminated.  The full text of Jefferson’s original transcript is available at monticello.org/thomas-jefferson-original-transcript-of-the-declaration.

…he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its    most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people    who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in    another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation    thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the    warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain.  determined to keep    open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted    his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or    to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of     horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting    those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that    liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people    upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes    committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which    he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Many of the delegates were abolitionists, but it was known that some of the southern members would not approve of this passage.  Due to their bold and perilous stance for freedom from the powerful British government, it was essential that all 13 colonies provide a united front, consequently, Jefferson’s passage against slavery had to be eliminated.