On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee brought what came to be called the Lee Resolution before the Continental Congress. This resolution stated “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states …” Congress debated independence for several days. The Committee of Five — John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson — was given the job of drafting a formal Declaration of Independence. They gave the task of writing the document to Jefferson.
The Declaration contained 3 sections: a general statement of natural rights theory and the purpose of government; a list of grievances against the British King; and the declaration of independence from England. More than 20 years later, the Second, Third, Fourth, and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution would contain prohibitions against the government to prevent the same forms of tyranny as were listed as grievances. Jefferson’s writing was influenced by George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, as well as by his study of natural rights theory and the writings of John Locke, including Two Treatises of Government. Franklin and Adams edited Jefferson’s draft, and the final document was presented to Congress about two weeks later.
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to declare independence from England. Congress made several changes to Jefferson’s draft, including removing references condemning slavery. On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted. John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, signed it that day. The rest of the Congress signed two months later. By affixing their names to the document, the signers courageously pledged to each other their “lives … fortunes … and sacred honor.”
Many consider the Declaration of Independence to be the philosophical foundation of American freedom. It has been quoted by such citizens as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They have called it a beacon of hope for people everywhere.