America Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents


Detail from: Currier and Ives. The Declaration Committee. New York, 1876. Lithograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The committee delegated Thomas Jefferson to undertake the task, and he worked diligently in private for days to compose a document.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Draft and Prints

Letter of June 24, 1826, from Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, declining to attend the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in the District of Columbia: Holograph. Page 1. Page 2. Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Jefferson’s letter to Weightman is considered one of the sublime exaltations of individual and national liberty — Jefferson’s vision of the Declaration of Independence and the American nation as signals to the world of the blessings of self-government. This was the last letter written by Jefferson, who died ten days later, on July 4, 1826. Coincidentally, John Adams, another great defender of liberty, died on the same day.

Fragment of the earliest known draft of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776 / Holograph. Page 1. Page 2. Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This is the first public exhibit of the only surviving fragment of the earliest known draft of the Declaration of Independence. This fragment demonstrates that Jefferson heavily edited his first draft of the Declaration before he prepared a clean, or “fair” copy that became the basis of the “original Rough draught.” Jefferson clearly wrote this composition draft of the Declaration on the top half of sheets of paper thus allowing space for notes. None of the deleted words and passages in this fragment appears in the “original Rough draught,” but all of the undeleted 148 words including those carreted and interlined were copied into the “original Rough draught” in a clear form.

The historical significance of this fragment was recognized in 1947 by Julian P. Boyd, who was preparing an edition of Jefferson’s papers. The writing on the bottom half of the sheet is Jefferson’s draft of a resolution on the resignation of General John Sullivan, July 26, 1776.

Jefferson’s “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, written in June 1776, including all the changes made later by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other members of the committee, and by Congress: Holograph. Page 1, with minor emendations in the hands of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

The “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, one of the great milestones in American history, shows the evolution of the text from the initial composition draft by Jefferson to the final text adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776. Jefferson himself indicated some of the alterations made by Adams and Franklin.

Late in life Jefferson endorsed this document: “Independance. Declaration of original Rough draught.”

Fragment of George Washington’s personal copy of the “Dunlap Broadside” of the Declaration of Independence, which he ordered read to his assembled troops in New York, July 9, 1776: Broadside. [In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration By the Representatives of the United States of America, In General Congress Assembled.] [Philadelphia: John Dunlap, July 4, 1776.] Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Fragment of the “Dunlap Broadside” of the Declaration of Independence, sent on July 6 to George Washington by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress. General Washington had the Declaration read to his assembled troops in New York on July 9. Later that night, the Americans destroyed a bronze statue of Great Britain’s King George III, which stood at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green. The text is broken at lines thirty-four and fifty-four, with the text below line fifty-four missing.

A “Dunlap Broadside,” one of only twenty-four known surviving copies of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence, done by John Dunlap in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776: Broadside. In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration By the Representatives of the United States of America, In General Congress Assembled. Philadelphia: John Dunlap, July 4, 1776. Broadside Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

One of twenty-four surviving copies of the first printing of the Declaration of Independence done by Philadelphia printer John Dunlap in the evening of July 4. These rare documents are known as “Dunlap Broadsides” of the Declaration of Independence.

A contemporaneous print representing the destruction of the statue of King George III in New York City following the reading of the Declaration of Independence to the American army, July 9, 1776: La Destruction de la Statue royale a Nouvelle Yorck/Die Zerstorung der Koniglichen Bild Saule zu New Yorck. By Andre Basset. Paris: Chez Basset, 177-. Hand-colored engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (6) LC-USZC4-1476 (color) and LC-USZ62-22023 (b&w)

The destruction of the statue of King George III at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green occurred on the night of July 9 after the American army had heard the reading of the Declaration of Independence. (The tail of the horse is in the New York Historical Museum.)

A contemporaneous print representing the committee of five delegates, chaired by Thomas Jefferson, that was appointed to prepare a declaration of independence. They are shown submitting their draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, June 28, 1776: Engraving (unfinished). Congress Voting the Declaration of Independence. By Edward Savage after a painting by Robert Edge Pine, c. 1776. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (7) LC-USZ62-6078-A (b&w)

Edward Savage’s engraving, based on Robert Edge Pine’s painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, is considered one of the most realistic renditions of this historic event. Jefferson is the tall person depositing the Declaration of Independence on the table. Benjamin Franklin sits to his right. John Hancock sits behind the table. Fellow committee members, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston stand (left to right) behind Jefferson.

An 1876 print representing the “Declaration Committee,” chaired by Thomas Jefferson, which was charged in June 1776 with drafting a declaration of independence for action by the Continental Congress: Lithograph. The Declaration Committee. By Currier and Ives. New York, 1876. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (8) LC-USZ62-820 (b&w)

The “Declaration Committee,” which included Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and John Adams of Massachusetts, was appointed by Congress on June 11, 1776, to draft a declaration in anticipation of an expected vote in favor of American independence, which occurred on July 2. Currier and Ives prepared this imagined scene of the writing of the Declaration for the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

The Timeline

1776

  • June 7: Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, receives Richard Henry Lee’s resolution urging Congress to declare independence.
  • June 11: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston appointed to a committee to draft a declaration of independence. American army retreats to Lake Champlain from Canada.
  • June 12-27: At the request of the committee, Jefferson drafts a declaration that is the basic text of his “original Rough draught.” Jefferson’s draft—now in the manuscript collections of the Library of Congress—is reviewed by the committee before being submitted to the Congress.
  • June 28: A fair copy of the committee draft of the Declaration of Independence is read in Congress.
  • July 1-4: Congress debates and revises the Declaration of Independence.
  • July 2: Congress declares independence as the British fleet and army arrive at New York.
  • July 4: Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence in the morning of a bright, sunny, but cool Philadelphia day. John Dunlap prints the Declaration of Independence. These prints are now called “Dunlap Broadsides.” Twenty-four copies are known to exist, two of which are in the Library of Congress. One of these was Washington’s personal copy.
  • July 5: John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, dispatches the first of Dunlap’s broadsides of the Declaration of Independence to the legislatures of New Jersey and Delaware.
  • July 6: Pennsylvania Evening Post of July 6 prints the first newspaper rendition of the Declaration of Independence.
  • July 8: The first public reading of the Declaration is in Philadelphia.
  • July 9: Washington orders that the Declaration of Independence be read before the American army in New York from his personal copy of the “Dunlap Broadside.”
  • July 19: Congress orders the Declaration of Independence engrossed (officially inscribed) and signed by members.
  • August 2: Delegates begin to sign engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence. A large British reinforcement arrives at New York after being repelled at Charleston, S.C.

1777

  • January 18: Congress, now sitting in Baltimore, Maryland, orders that signed copies of the Declaration of Independence printed by Mary Katherine Goddard of Baltimore be sent to the states.

Drafting the Documents

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia behind a veil of Congressionally imposed secrecy in June 1776 for a country wracked by military and political uncertainties. In anticipation of a vote for independence, the Continental Congress on June 11 appointed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston as a committee to draft a declaration of independence. The committee then delegated Thomas Jefferson to undertake the task. Jefferson worked diligently in private for days to compose a document. Proof of the arduous nature of the work can be seen in the fragment of the first known composition draft of the declaration, which is on public display here for the first time.

Jefferson then made a clean or “fair” copy of the composition declaration, which became the foundation of the document, labeled by Jefferson as the “original Rough draught.” Revised first by Adams, then by Franklin, and then by the full committee, a total of forty-seven alterations including the insertion of three complete paragraphs was made on the text before it was presented to Congress on June 28. After voting for independence on July 2, the Congress then continued to refine the document, making thirty-nine additional revisions to the committee draft before its final adoption on the morning of July 4. The “original Rough draught” embodies the multiplicity of corrections, additions and deletions that were made at each step. Although most of the alterations are in Jefferson’s handwriting (Jefferson later indicated the changes he believed to have been made by Adams and Franklin), quite naturally he opposed many of the changes made to his document.

Congress then ordered the Declaration of Independence printed and late on July 4, John Dunlap, a Philadelphia printer, produced the first printed text of the Declaration of Independence, now known as the “Dunlap Broadside.” The next day John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, began dispatching copies of the Declaration to America’s political and military leaders. On July 9, George Washington ordered that his personal copy of the “Dunlap Broadside,” sent to him by John Hancock on July 6, be read to the assembled American army at New York. In 1783 at the war’s end, General Washington brought his copy of the broadside home to Mount Vernon. This remarkable document, which has come down to us only partially intact, is accompanied in this exhibit by a complete “Dunlap Broadside”—one of only twenty-four known to exist.

On July 19, Congress ordered the production of an engrossed (officially inscribed) copy of the Declaration of Independence, which attending members of the Continental Congress, including some who had not voted for its adoption, began to sign on August 2, 1776. This document is on permanent display at the National Archives.

On July 4, 1995, more than two centuries after its composition, the Declaration of Independence, just as Jefferson predicted on its fiftieth anniversary in his letter to Roger C. Weightman, towers aloft as “the signal of arousing men to burst the chains…to assume the blessings and security of self-government” and to restore “the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.”


Originally published by the United States Library of Congress to the public domain.

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