The Second Continental Congress appointed five committee members to draw up a statement explaining why the colonies wanted independence. They chose John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia.
Jefferson was known for his skill as a writer, so the committee chose him to draft the declaration. Jefferson, however, wanted Adams to be the actual author. Adams reportedly replied, “You can write ten times better than I can.”
The committee met several times to talk about ideas and organization. Thomas Jefferson worked for two and a half weeks. He wrote. “We are putting before all of mankind words that are both simple and firm, a justification for the stand that we’re being forced to take.”
In the first part of the Declaration, Jefferson wrote that all men have rights including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He wrote that governments should get their power from the people, not a king.
Jefferson listed the many ways that King George III had neglected his duties to the people. He also drafted a section attacking the slave trade. He described slavery as “a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty.”
Some small changes were made to the final draft by Franklin and Adams, and it was given to Congress on June 28th, 1776. However, delegates from South Carolina and Georgia wouldn’t sign it because of the language against slavery. Some delegates from New England would not sign because their merchants had profited from the slave trade. All language about slavery was taken out following the congress debate.
On July 4th delegates from twelve colonies voted for the written declaration. The same day, Congress approved the written Declaration of Independence. It was signed first by John Hancock, president of Congress, making the document legal and binding.
The first public reading of the Declaration of Independence was in Philadelphia on July 8th. By July 15th, all thirteen states had agreed to the resolutions in the new declaration. On August 2nd, it was signed by the members of Congress.
The ideals behind “all men are created equal” grew in importance. Northern states used them to free slaves in their states. Abraham Lincoln used equal rights to justify the war against slavery. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. In his famous speech, he repeated the ideals of the Declaration “that all men are created equal.”
Women used equal rights to fight for the vote. In 1848, women at an equal rights meeting in New York wrote that “all men and women are created equal.”
Source: Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence
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