Sections: Creating the Declaration of Independence | Creating the United States Constitution | Creating the Bill of Rights 

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On April 19, 1775, Great Britain’s “Bloody Butchery” at Concord and Lexington opened an eight-year war for political independence and representative republican government in America. Despite facing Europe’s greatest military power, Americans found, in the words of George Washington, that “Perseverance and Spirit could work wonders” on the battlefield and in the diplomatic theater.

While creating national military forces and a confederated government, Americans won notable victories in battles at Boston, Saratoga, Trenton, Princeton, Cowpens, and Yorktown. Although both sides suffered the many horrific aspects of eighteenth-century warfare, America’s critical military victories and her determined diplomacy won her independence and a western empire in the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

“Perseverance & Spirit have done Wonders in all Ages.”

George Washington to Phillip Schuyler, August 20, 1775

Asserting American Rights

James Otis (1725–1783), a Massachusetts lawyer and Son of Liberty, was one of the most radical and articulate American pamphleteers. In his most famous pamphlet, The Rights of British Colonies Asserted, Otis claimed that American rights were based on the laws of nature and could not be erased by an oppressive monarch or a corrupt Parliament. Otis, whose sister Mercy Otis Warren was also an American propagandist, is credited with coining the phrase “No taxation without representation.”

James Otis. The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. Boston: Edes and Gill, 1764. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (006.00.04) [Digital ID# us0006_04, us0006_03, us0006_02, us0006, us0006_01]

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A Push Toward Rebellion

In this highly sensational depiction by Paul Revere (1735–1818), a leading member of the Sons of Liberty, British troops acting under the orders of a British officer fire on unarmed citizens and sailors who were taunting them in Boston on March 5, 1770. 

The five Americans, including Crispus Attucks—a runaway African-American slave turned sailor—died. The Boston Massacre became a symbol of British tyranny and an important stepping stone on the road to rebellion.

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Parody of British Efforts to Control Americans

This satire expresses a continental European view of the American Revolution by showing “Father Time” using a magic lantern to project the image of a teapot exploding among frightened British troops as American troops advance through the smoke. Figures representing world opinion look on—an Indian for America, a black woman representing Africa, a woman holding a lantern symbolizing Asia, and a woman bearing a shield for Europe.

Carl Gottlieb Guttenberg. The Tea Tax Tempest, or the Anglo-American Revolution. Germany, 1778. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (11.03.00) [Digital ID# cph.3g04601]

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Jefferson Argues to Free Slaves

Thomas Jefferson unsuccessfully argued that a black slave should be free because his grandmother had been a white woman and “under the law of nature, all men are born free.” Samuel Howell v. Netherland, April 20, 1770, was one of two legal suits for freedom by Virginia slaves of mixed race in which Jefferson acted as attorney for the plaintiffs in their freedom suits.

Reports of Cases Determined in the General Court of Virginia. . . . Charlottesville, Virginia: F. Carr, 1829. Law Library, Library of Congress (12) [Digital ID# us00012, us0012_1]

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Throwing British East India Company Tea into Boston Harbor

Boston's Sons of Liberty, masquerading as Indians, threw bales of tea exempted from import taxes imposed on American merchants from three British East Indian Company ships into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. Engineered by the fiery Samuel Adams, the “Boston Tea Party” rekindled the revolutionary fires in the American colonies and set in motion a chain of reprisals by British and American governments that led to outright war.

“Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea ships into the River, at Boston.” Engraving from W.D. Rev. Mr. Cooper. The History of North America. London: E. Newbery, 1789. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (12.01.00) [Digital ID# us0012_01]

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Massachusetts Patriots Threaten Builders of British Barracks

In this letter of 1774, Elizabeth Smith (1750–1815), younger sister of Abigail Adams, excitedly informs her brother-in-law John Adams, a delegate at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, that the previously passive local residents have threatened the carpenters who helped build barracks for the British troops in Boston and erected “two immense Liberty Poles.” In the aftermath of the Boston Tea party, Great Britain sent additional troops to occupy Boston and force the rebellious colony into compliance with British rule.

Letter from Elizabeth Smith to John Adams, October 14, 1774. Manuscript. Shaw Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (12.02.00) [Digital ID# us0012_02p1]

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Franklin on Slavery

Despite having taken two personal black slaves with him to England in 1757, Benjamin Franklin became an eager supporter and corresponded with Anthony Benezet (1713–1784), the Philadelphia Quaker abolitionist and educator of free black children. In this letter to Benezet, Franklin denounces, “The Hypocrisy of this Country which encourages such a detestable Commerce.”

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Anthony Benezet, August 22, 1772. Manuscript. Benjamin Franklin Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (13) [Digital ID# us0013]

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Sparking Anti-Slavery Sentiment in America

Anthony Benezet (1713–1784), a French immigrant in Philadelphia, sparked anti-slavery sentiments in America through his writings and by establishing the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. In 1770 he founded the Negro School at Philadelphia.

Anthony Benezet. Observations on the Inslaving, Importing and Purchasing of Negroes with Some Advice Thereon. . . . Germantown, Pennsylvania: Christopher Sower, 1759. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (13.01.01) [Digital ID# us0013_02p1, us0013_01]

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Call for the Abolition of Slavery

In 1773, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746–1813), a Philadelphia physician and revolutionary, wrote this pamphlet denouncing slavery and the slave trade. The next year, Rush was among the founders of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Benjamin Rush. Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlement in America upon Slave-keeping. Philadelphia: John Dunlap, 1773. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (14) [Digital ID# us0014]

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Fairfax County Resolves, 1774 Proclaim American Rights

Drafted by George Mason (1725–1792), the Fairfax County Resolves were adopted on July 18, 1774, by Fairfax County, Virginia, at a convention chaired by George Washington that was convened to protest Britain’s harsh treatment of Massachusetts after the Boston Tea Party. The resolves proclaimed that imposing British laws on Americans without their consent violated “the privileges of a free people, and the natural rights of mankind.”

George Mason [and George Washington?]. Fairfax County Resolves, July 18, 1774. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (014.01.03) [Digital ID# us0014_01p4, us0014_01p2, us0014_01p5, us0014_01p2, us0014_01p2]

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American Drama Promotes Revolutionary Cause

The American revolutionary cause was promoted by imaginative dramas written by Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), the most prominent American woman writer and playwright of the revolutionary era. The Adulateur was a three-act play depicting the struggle as a conflict between the villain Repatio (Massachusetts governor Thomas Hutchinson) and Brutus (Mercy’s brother and radical pamphleteer James Otis).

Mercy Otis Warren. The Adulateur. A Tragedy. . . . Boston: New Printing Office, 1773. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (15.00.04) [Digital ID# us0015p4, us0015p03, us0015p3, us0015, us0015_1]

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The Contradiction of Slavery in a Free Nation

At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, James Madison confronted the contradiction of slavery in a free nation when his slave Billey ran away in Philadelphia and refused to return to Virginia. Madison sold Billey into service for seven years, the maximum allowed in Pennsylvania, where upon he would be a free man.

Letter from James Madison to James Madison, Sr., September 8, 1783. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (16.01.00) [Digital ID# us0016_01]

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The Bostonians in Distress, 1774

British efforts to intimidate and control Americans in Boston, Massachusetts, are satirized and mocked in this British print. Bostonians are being held captive in a cage suspended from the “Liberty Tree,” while British sailors feed them fish in return for false promises. British troops and cannon hover in the background.

Attributed to Philip Dawe. The Bostonians in Distress. Mezzotint. London: R. Sayer and J. Bennett, 1774. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (16.03.00) [Digital ID# cph.3a13536]

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Contradiction between Liberty and Slavery

In this letter to French politician and author Jean Nicolas Démeunier (1751–1814), Thomas Jefferson expressed the central contradiction of the American Revolution’s claims of freedom and liberty: “What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is Man!” He will risk death for his own liberty yet “inflict on his fellow man a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.”

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Jean Nicolas Démeunier, January 24, 1786. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (16) [Digital ID# us0016]

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Virginia Declaration of Rights

A call for American independence from Britain, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted by George Mason in May 1776 and amended by Thomas Ludwell Lee (1730–1778) and the Virginia Convention. It was adopted by the Virginia Convention on June 12, 1776. Thomas Jefferson borrowed many ideas and phrases from the Virginia document when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration of Rights has also been heralded as a model for the first ten amendments to the federal Constitution, the amendments known as the “Bill of Rights.”

George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee. Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776. Manuscript. George Mason Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (33.00.00) [Digital ID#s us0033tt_1, us0033tt_2]

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Drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights

Originally drafted by George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee, the Virginia Declaration of Rights was amended by the state convention before its final adoption. Here James Madison, who proposed changes regarding religious freedom, shows the Virginia Declaration of Rights as it was submitted to the convention (on the left) and what was approved by the convention (on the right). Authors of both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights drew on this document for ideas and phrases.

James Madison. Notes of the Virginia Convention, May–June, 1776. Manuscript. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (33.02.00) [Digital ID# us0033_02, us0033_02p01]

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George Washington, Commander in Chief

George Washington (1732–1799), a Virginia planter and veteran of America's frontier wars, was revolutionary America's only commander of all military forces throughout the eight-year war for independence. His leadership during the Revolution led to his election as the first president of the United States (1789–1797). Here Washington is depicted in uniform by noted artist Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827).

Charles Willson Peale, painter and engraver. His Excel: G. Washington Esq. L.L.D., Late commander in chief of the armies of the U.S. of America and President of the Convention of 1787. Mezzotint engraving, 1787. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (021.01.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-17515]

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John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress

John Hancock (1737–1793), a wealthy Massachusetts merchant and revolutionary leader, played an instrumental role during the founding of the United States. He served as president of the Continental Congress between 1775 and 1777 and was later elected to two non-consecutive terms as governor of Massachusetts.

Hancock is best known for his large and flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence.

The Honble. John Hancock of Boston in New-England, President of the American Congress—done from an original picture painted by Littleford. London: C. Shepherd, 1775. Mezzotint from a portrait by R. Purcell, alias C. Corbutt, alias  Littleford. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (24) [Digital ID# ppmsca-17519]

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Jefferson Assured Declaration Has Not Been Spoiled

After Congress passed Thomas Jefferson’s edited Declaration of Independence, Jefferson sent copies to friends seeking assurances that the Declaration of Independence was excellent, even though his draft text had undergone major alterations at the hands of his fellow committee members and the Congress. Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794), a former delegate from Virginia, assured Jefferson that “mangled as it is” the Declaration was still unspoiled “for the palates of Freemen.”

Letter from Richard Henry Lee to Thomas Jefferson, July 21, 1776. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (24.01.00) [Digital ID# us0024_01]

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Declaration of Independence Rough Draft

The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and heavily amended by the Continental Congress, boldly asserted humanity’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as well as the American colonies’ right to revolt against an oppressive British government. Jefferson’s “original Rough draught” illustrates Jefferson’s literary flair and records key changes made by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and the Continental Congress before its July 4, 1776 adoption.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776. Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (34) [Digital ID#s us0034tt_1, us0034tt_2, us0034tt_3, us0034tt_4]

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Fragment of an Idea

This is the only surviving fragment of the earliest composition draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in mid-June 1776. This version was heavily edited before he prepared the “fair copy,” which we know now as “the original Rough draught.” None of the words deleted from this fragment appear in the Rough Draft, but each of the 148 words that were not edited are there. The writing below is Jefferson’s draft of a resolution on the resignation of General John Sullivan, July 26, 1776.

Thomas Jefferson. Fragment of Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June 1776. Manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (34.01.00) [Digital ID# frag1.jpg]

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First Printed Version of Declaration of Independence

Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and directed that it be printed by John Dunlap. This only surviving fragment of the Declaration broadside printed by Dunlap was sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. General Washington had this Declaration read to his assembled troops on July 9 in New York, where they awaited the combined British fleet and army.

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  • Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia: John Dunlap, July 4, 1776. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (36.01.00) [Digital ID# us0036_1]

  • Thomas Jefferson. Declaration of Independence. Philadelphia: John Dunlap, July 4, 1776. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (36) [Digital ID# us0036]

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Declaration of Independence Quickly Reprinted Throughout America

After Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, it was first printed by John Dunlap of Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. Printers throughout the new nation quickly printed their own versions as copies of Dunlap’s broadside printing were taken by land and water from Philadelphia. This printing from Kingston, New York, was one of the earliest imprints of the document.

Declaration of Independence. [Kingston, New York: Samuel Loudon, July 9, 1776] Printed broadside. Marian S. Carson Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (36.02.00) [Digital ID# us0036_02]

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Declaration of Independence Quickly Reprinted Throughout America

After Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and it was first printed by John Dunlap of Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, printers throughout the new nation quickly printed their own versions as copies of Dunlap’s broadside made their way by land and water from Philadelphia. One of the first newspaper printings of the Declaration was in Mary Katherine Goddard’s Baltimore newspaper, the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser.

Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser. Baltimore: Mary Katherine Goddard, July 10, 1776. Serial and Government Publications Division Library of Congress (038.01.00) [Digital ID# us0038_01]

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Washington Receives News of Independence

“Congress have judged it necessary to dissolve the connection between Great Britain and the American Colonies.” With these calm and deliberate words, John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, informed General George Washington that Congress had adopted the Declaration of Independence. Hancock enclosed a copy of the first printing of the Declaration with the request that Washington “will have it proclaimed at the Head of the Army.”

Letter from John Hancock to George Washington, July 6, 1776. Manuscript letter in the hand of Jacob Rush and signed by John Hancock. George Washington Papers, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (35.00.01) [Digital ID#s us0035 _1, also us0035]

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Americans Destroy a Statue of King George III

On July 9, 1776, after the Declaration of Independence was read to the American army in New York City and celebratory toasts were made, the soldiers rushed to the foot of Broadway at the Bowling Green.

As depicted in this engraving, they had the assistance of free blacks or slaves in pulling down the statue of King George III. The lead statue was later hauled to Connecticut, where it was transformed into bullets and guns.

La Destruction de la statue royale a Nouvelle Yorck, Die zerstorung der konglichen bild saule zu Neu Yorck. Hand-colored etching. Paris: Chez Basset, ca. 1776. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (37) [Digital ID# ppmsca-17521]

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New York Burns During Battle

On the night of September 21, 1776, New York was ablaze as British and American armies fought for its control. Both sides blamed the other's partisans for igniting the conflagration that consumed nearly one-third of the city. Nathan Hale (1755–1776) was among those arrested by the British in the fire's immediate aftermath. In this depiction, buildings burn while British Redcoats beat civilians and African-Americans loot the city.

André Basset. Representation du feu terrible a Nouvelle Yorck (Representation of the terrible fire of New York). Paris: Basset, ca. 1778. Hand-colored etching. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (37.02.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-19163]

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Americans Destroy Statue of King George III

On July 9, 1776, after the Declaration of Independence was read to the American army in New York City and celebratory toasts were made, soldiers rushed to the foot of Broadway at the Bowling Green. As depicted in this engraving, soldiers had the assistance of citizens in pulling down the statue of King George III. The lead statue was later hauled to Connecticut where it was transformed into bullets and guns.

John McRae. Pulling Down the Statue of George III by the “Sons of Freedom” at the Bowling Green, City of New York, July 1776. Engraving from the painting by Johannes A. Oertel. New York: Joseph Laing, [ca. 1875]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (37.03.00) [Digital ID# cph.3a06137]

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A Crucible for the Creation of the American Republic

Philadelphia, site of both Continental Congresses, was one of the most urban, advanced cities in America in the eighteenth century. Drawn by George Heap, a surveyor and city coroner of Philadelphia, and Nicolas Scull, Surveyor General of the Province of Pennsylvania and a friend to Benjamin Franklin, this map shows streams, roads, and names of the landowners in the vicinity of Philadelphia. The bottom of the map contains an illustration of the State-House or Independence Hall, home of the second Continental Congress and the Federal Convention of 1787.

Will Faden. Plan of the City and Environs of Philadelphia, Survey’d by Nicholas Scull and George Heap. Engraving. London: W. Faden, 1777. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (38.00.00) [Digital ID# ct000185]

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Washington as Commander in Chief

George Washington drew on his experience as a frontier Indian fighter and commander of a Virginia militia regiment when he took command of America’s armed forces in 1775. Washington, like countless insurrectionary leaders since, learned that although he could not defeat the British professional armies without foreign aid, he only had to preserve the American Army to ultimately achieve victory in America’s Revolutionary War.

Edward Savage. General George Washington, ca. 1790. Stipple engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (127.00.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca-19171]

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“Free from those Cursed Shackles”

The Declaration of Independence allowed the American states to move forward in creating a national government and to seek foreign alliances to help win the war. William Whipple (1730–1785), a delegate to the Continental Congress from New Hampshire, spoke for the American revolutionaries when he exulted that “We are now free from those cursed Shackles that has embaresed all our affairs ever since the Commensement of the war.”

Letter from William Whipple to Joshua Brackett, July 8, 1776. Manuscript. J.P. Morgan Signers of the Declaration of Independence Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (024.02.00) [Digital ID# us0024_02p00]

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“Perseverance and Spirit have done Wonders ”

Shortly after being appointed by Congress to command America’s armed forces on June 15, 1775, George Washington traveled to Massachusetts to take direct command of the troops besieging Boston. In this letter Washington sought to encourage and inspire General Philip Schuyler (1733–1804), who was gathering troops in northern New York for an invasion of Canada. After initial victories in Canada, the American army was forced into ignominious retreat.

Letter from George Washington to Philip Schuyler, August 20, 1775. Letter book copy. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (016.04.00) [Digital ID# us0016_04]

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African Americans Serve in American Army

In 1775, Washington’s generals recommended against enlisting African Americans, and on January 17, 1776, a congressional resolution passed, limiting their enlistment. In practice Washington and other American military leaders considered it fair and expedient to continue to enlist hundreds of freemen and slaves. On August 20, 1778, Washington ordered a roster count of African American troops. Adjutant General Alexander Scammel (1747–1781) listed 755 on the rolls of the main Continental Army.

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  • Letter from George Washington to John Hancock, December 31, 1775. Letter book. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (012.03.00) [Digital ID# us0012_03]

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  • Return of the Negroes in the Army, August 24, 1778. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (016.05.00) [Digital ID# us0016_05]

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Americans Claim Victory at Battle of Monmouth

General George Washington, commanding the main American Continental Army, claimed a major victory over the British Army on June 28, 1778, at the Battle of Monmouth Court House in New Jersey. This map by Captain Michel du Chesnoy (1746–1804), a French engineer who accompanied General Lafayette, records troop positions at the battle. Continental Congress President Henry Laurens (1724–1792) was quick to praise Washington for a victory over the British army during its withdrawal from Philadelphia to New York.

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Battlefield Success Boosts Congressional Confidence

When the American Army commanded by George Washington forced the British army to abandon Boston on March 17, 1776, the confidence of members of the Continental Congress received a strong boost. The news is recorded in this diary of Richard Smith (1735–1803), a member of the Continental Congress from New Jersey. The British retreat from Boston and repulse of the British forces at Charleston, South Carolina, encouraged supporters of a Declaration of Independence to press ahead.

Richard Smith. Diary, open to March 25, 1776. Manuscript diary. Richard Smith Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (039.00.00) [Digital ID# us0039]

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Benjamin Franklin Voices American Defiance

Just days after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by Congress, Benjamin Franklin wrote this stinging rebuke to the commander of the British naval forces in North America and peace commissioner, Lord Richard Howe (1726–1799), who had offered pardons to American political leaders. The offer was rejected. Franklin replied that “It is impossible we should think of Submission to a Government” that has inflicted “atrocious injuries” on Americans.

Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Lord Howe, July 20, 1776. Manuscript. Benjamin Franklin Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (029.01.00) [Digital ID# us0029_01]

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Celebrating American Liberty

During the Revolutionary Era one of the favorite American ways of demonstrating patriotism and showing opposition to the British government was by erecting a “Liberty Pole” on the town common or in the town square. In this engraving, created to honor the centennial of the American Revolution, villagers are celebrating by erecting a Liberty Pole while loyalists look disgruntled and several men remove a sign bearing the likeness of King George III.

John McRae. Raising the Liberty Pole. New York: 1875. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (037.04.00) [Digital ID# pga.02159]

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Declaration of Independence

After the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, a specially prepared manuscript copy was signed by fifty-six delegates to Congress beginning on August 2. The first official facsimile copy of the Declaration of Independence was carried out in 1823 by William J. Stone under the authority of John Quincy Adams, Secretary of State. This is one of the fewer than 3 dozen of the 201 vellum copies of the copper plate engraving that have survived.

William J. Stone, Declaration of Independence. Washington, D.C.: 1823. Facsimile on vellum. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (036.03.00) [Digital ID# us0036_03]

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Declaration of Independence Sent to State Governors and George Washington

Immediately after approving the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress ordered that the Declaration be printed and distributed to governmental authorities and military commanders throughout the country. John Hancock (1737–1793), president of the Continental Congress, made this extract from the journal of congress and sent it to George Washington with a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Washington had the Declaration read to the American Army at New York on July 9, 1776.

John Hancock. Extract from Journals of Congress, July 4–5, 1776. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (035.01.00) [Digital ID# us0035_01]

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First Newspaper Printing of Declaration

After Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and it was first printed by John Dunlap of Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, printers throughout the new nation quickly produced their own versions as copies of Dunlap’s broadside were taken by land and water from Philadelphia. The first newspaper printing of the Declaration was in Benjamin Towner’s Pennsylvania Evening Post on July 6, 1776.

Declaration of Independence, Pennsylvania Evening Post. Philadelphia: Benjamin Towner, July 6, 1776. Newspaper. Serial and Government Publications Division Library of Congress (038.02.00) [Digital ID# us0038_02, us0038_02p1]

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General Washington Leads Americans to Independence

General George Washington was the commander in chief of America’s armed forces, and he became a symbol of the American Revolution. In this French engraving, Washington stands outside a military camp tent holding copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Alliance with France, while an African American holds Washington’s horse. At Washington’s feet are torn documents relating to peace efforts by Great Britain and the United States. A military encampment can be seen in the distance.

Noel Le Mire (1724–1801). Le Général Washington, Ne Quid Detrimenti Capitat Res publica. Paris: ca.1785. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (021.02.00) [Digital ID# cph 3c02494]

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George Washington Appointed Commander in Chief

On June 15, 1775, two days before the bloody battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill in Charlestown, Massachusetts, George Washington was appointed commander of America’s armed forces by the Continental Congress. Washington’s appointment confirmed a commitment to war to achieve the revolutionary goals of national rights and ultimate independence from the British Parliament and Monarchy. By appointing a Virginian to command the army at Boston, Congress hoped to cement Virginia to a continental revolution.

Commission of George Washington as Commander in Chief, June 19, 1775. Manuscript document. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (011.04.00) [Digital ID# us0011_04]

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Loyalist Yields to “Liberty Men”

Violence was commonplace as patriots or “liberty men” and loyalists tried to coerce their opponents to submit. In this print a “Virginian loyalist” is forced to sign a document, presumably issued by the Williamsburg Convention, by a club-wielding mob of liberty men. On the left a man is being led towards a gallows while in the background hangs a sack of feathers and a barrel of tar.

Philip Dawe. The Alternative of Williams-burg. London: Printed for R. Sayer and J. Bennett, February 16, 1775. Mezzotint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (013.02.00) [Digital ID# cph-3g05280]

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Oaths of Allegiances

American revolutionaries often dealt out harsh treatment, such as tar and feathering, whipping, or even hanging to Americans loyal to the British Crown. Most states required suspected loyalists to take an oath of allegiance or, in the case of Pennsylvania, an affirmation of allegiance. Shown here are typical certifications of affirmations of allegiance made in Pennsylvania.

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  • Certifications of the Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance and Fidelity. Printed and signed oaths, 1777–1782. Marian S. Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (135.01.00) [Digital ID# us0135_01]

  • Certifications of the Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance and Fidelity. Printed and signed oaths, 1777–1782. Marian S. Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (135.02.00) [Digital ID# us0135_02]

  • Certifications of the Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance and Fidelity. Printed and signed oaths, 1777–1782. Marian S. Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (135.03.00) [Digital ID# us0135_03]

  • Certifications of the Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance and Fidelity. Printed and signed oaths, 1777–1782. Marian S. Carson Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (135.04.00) [Digital ID# us0135_04]

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Signing the Declaration

The Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, voted on July 19 to officially inscribe it, and signed it on August 2. Its purpose was to announce American independence to the world and to explain the reasons for the American action. This print portrays the members of the Continental Congress, having signed the Declaration, leaving Independence Hall. John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are among those depicted standing on the steps, facing a crowd of citizens.

The Rebels of ‘76—Or the First Announcement of the Great Declaration. Philadelphia: S. Ashton, ca. 1860. Hand-colored engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (037.05.00) [Digital ID# pga.03091]

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Struggle for America

In this 1778 British satirical, political cartoon, the zebra represents America, with each stripe representing one of the thirteen colonies. General George Washington is shown grasping the tail, while Lord North, grips the reins, each attempting to steer the zebra in a different direction. Several other men offer guidance and instructions.

The Curious Zebra—Alive from America! Walk in Gem’men and Ladies, Walk in. London: G. Johnson, 1778. Hand-colored etching. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (024.03.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca.10751]

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The Assumed Plan

Franklin was chosen by the Continental Congress as one of its first ministers to France. In Paris he reached his peak of fame, becoming the focal point for a cultural Franklin-mania among the French intellectual elite. Franklin ultimately helped negotiate a cessation of hostilities and a peace treaty that officially ended the Revolutionary War. In this 1779 British political cartoon Franklin is shown laughing, holding his “Plan” that calls for draining of the “British Ocean” to facilitate an invasion by French troops. His other hand holds strings connected to the noses of the French King and members of the French Court.

Artist Unknown. The Plan, or a Scene in the French Cabinet. [London: September 1779] Etching. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (127.01.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca.10081]

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The British Take New York

Early American optimism, spawned by American victories at Boston and Canada, encouraged the belief that a hastily assembled army of soldiers fresh from the plow and shop could prevail against the powerful professional forces of Great Britain. American hopes were dashed in the summer of 1776 in the campaign around New York City. This print shows the British Army entering New York City in September 1776, after American forces were defeated in a series of battles.

Franz Xaver Habermann. L’Entré triumphe de troupes royales a Nouvelle Yorck. Augsbourg: ca. 1778. Hand-colored engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (013.03.00) [Digital ID# ppmsca.24332]

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The Toast to George Washington

Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791) was an essayist, judge, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the best-known American composers in the eighteenth century. He wrote this celebratory song to honor General George Washington. “The Toast” was originally published in the Pennsylvania Packet, April 8, 1778.

[Francis Hopkinson]. “The Toast,” 1778. Manuscript songbook. Music Division, Library of Congress (011.05.00) [Digital ID# us0011_05]

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Washington Congratulated on New Jersey Victory

Continental Congress President Henry Laurens (1724–1792) was quick to convey congratulations to General George Washington for his victory over the British army at Monmouth Court House. Washington’s Continental Army had followed the British army as it marched from Philadelphia to New York, assaulting the British rear guard on June 28, 1778. Although badly mauled, the Americans claimed victory when the British abandoned the battlefield to find refuge in New York.

Letter from Henry Laurens to George Washington, July 7, 1778. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (039.01.00) [Digital ID# us0039_01]

Read the transcript

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Washington’s Army Defiantly Fights Back

America’s proverbial back was to the wall in December 1776, as British forces hounded George Washington’s Continental Army through New Jersey into Pennsylvania. In this letter to John Hancock (1737–1793), president of the Continental Congress, seeking greater powers, Washington declared that “desperate diseases require desperate Remedies.” Washington then plunged back across the Delaware River to surprise the British army and win pivotal victories at Trenton and Princeton.

Letter from George Washington to John Hancock, December 20, 1776. Manuscript. George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (029.00.00) [Digital ID# us0029]

Read the transcript

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Writing the Declaration of Independence

Realizing the importance of the writing of the Declaration of Independence for the American Revolution and posterity, Thomas Jefferson prepared these notes of the proceedings in the Continental Congress in the summer of 1776. He included a copy of the Declaration as it was presented to Congress on June 28 and amended by them in the days leading up to its final approval by Congress on July 4, 1776.

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  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Debates in the Continental Congress, June 7-August 1, 1776. [ante 1781]. Manuscripts. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (034.02.03) [Digital ID# us0034_02p3]

    Read the transcript

  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Debates in the Continental Congress, June 7-August 1, 1776. [ante 1781]. Manuscripts. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (034.02.04) [Digital ID# us0034_02p4]

    Read the transcript

  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Debates in the Continental Congress, June 7-August 1, 1776. [ante 1781]. Manuscripts. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (034.02.01) [Digital ID# us0034_02p1a]

    Read the transcript

  • Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Debates in the Continental Congress, June 7–August 1, 1776. [ante 1781]. Manuscripts. James Madison Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (034.02.02) [Digital ID# us0034_02p2a]

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