Creating the Declaration of Independence

Index: All Documents

Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence

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.

Author: Thomas Jefferson
Title: Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence
Medium: Manuscript
Date: June–July 1776
Collection: Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence
Explore

Draft Virginia Constitution, 1776

In May 1776, Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote at least three drafts of a Virginia constitution. Jefferson’s litany of British governmental abuses in his drafts of the Virginia Constitution became his "train of abuses" in the Declaration of Independence.

Author: Thomas Jefferson
Title: Draft Virginia Constitution
Medium: Manuscript
Date: May 1776
Collection: Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Draft Virginia Constitution
Explore

Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776

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 a few weeks later. 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."

Author: George Mason with amendments by Thomas Ludwell Lee
Title: Virginia Declaration of Rights
Medium: Manuscript
Date: May 1776
Collection: George Mason Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Virginia Declaration of Rights
Explore

Common Sense, 1776

In January 1776, Thomas Paine (1737–1809) penned his famous pamphlet Common Sense, in which he urged the American Colonies to declare independence and immediately sever all ties with the British monarchy. With its strong arguments against monarchy, Common Sense paved the way for the Declaration of Independence more than any other single publication. Paine suggested a form of government to replace the British colonial system:
a one-house legislature for each colony that would be subordinate to a one-house continental congress with no executive power at either level.

Author: Thomas Paine
Title: Common Sense. . . .
City: Philadelphia
Publisher: R. Bell
Date: 1776
Collection: Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Common Sense
Explore

Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, 1775

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms puts forth the reasons for America’s rebellion that were raised in the 1775 congressional declaration. Although the final manifesto stressed a hope for the restoration of peace, Thomas Jefferson’s draft was a "Spirited Manifesto," according to John Adams (1735–1826). The spirited and creative qualities of Jefferson’s writing helped secure his selection as chair of the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Author: Thomas Jefferson
Title: Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms
Medium: Manuscript
Date: 1775
Collection: Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms
Explore

A Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774

Thomas Jefferson’s A Summary View of the Rights of British America declared America’s right to rebel against an oppressive and despotic government and heralded the arrival of an independent America. Jefferson’s pamphlet was originally drafted as instruction for Virginia’s delegates to the Continental Congress in 1774.

Author: Thomas Jefferson
Title: A Summary View of the Rights of British America
City: Williamsburg:
Publisher: Clementina Rind
Date: 1774
Collection: Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

A Summary View of the Rights of British America
Explore

Fairfax County Resolves, 1774

The Fairfax County Resolves, written by George Mason (1725–1792) and George Washington (1731/32–1799) and presented on July 17, 1774, was the first clear statement of fundamental constitutional rights of the British American colonies as subjects of the British Crown. Adopted the next day by the Fairfax County Convention, which met to protest British retaliations against Massachusetts after the Boston Tea Party, the resolves call for a "firm Union" of the colonies because an injury against one colony is "aimed at all."

Author: George Mason and George Washington
Title: Fairfax County Resolves
Medium: Manuscript
Date: July 17, 1774
Collection: George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Fairfax County Resolves
Explore

Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764

The incongruity of arguing for their own freedom and liberty while enslaving others was openly discussed by American revolutionaries during the period leading up to the writing of the Declaration of Independence and beyond. In his most famous pamphlet, The Rights of British Colonists Asserted and Proved, James Otis (1725–1783) asserted that the slave trade is "the most shocking violation of the law of nature." He also stated that "It is a clear truth, that those who every day barter away other men’s liberty will soon care little for their own."

Author: James Otis
Title: Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved
City: Boston
Publisher: Edes and Gill
Date: 1764
Collection: Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved
Explore

Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, 1751

When Thomas Jefferson asserted the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence, he was influenced by the writings of Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696–1782). Kames was a Scottish moral philosopher who argued for the right to "the pursuit of happiness" in his acclaimed work Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion. Jefferson owned and annotated this copy.

Author: Henry Home, Lord Kames
Title: Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, in Two Parts
City: Edinburgh
Date: 1751
Collection: Thomas Jefferson Library, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion
Explore

Two Treatises of Government, 1690

The works of John Locke (1632–1704), well-known English political philosopher, provided many Americans with the philosophical arguments for inalienable natural rights, principally those of property and of rebellion against abusive governments. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson did not incorporate Locke’s emphasis in his "Second Treatise of Government" on the right to property but gave the right to rebel a prominent place.

Author: John Locke
Title: Two Treatises of Government
City: London
City: Awnsham Churchill
Date: 1690
Collection: Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Two Treatises of Government
Explore

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence, 1776

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.

Author: Thomas Jefferson
Title: Declaration of Independence
City: Philadelphia
Publisher: John Dunlap
Date: July 4, 1776
Collection: George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

First Printed Version of the Declaration of Independence
Explore