Ideas & Events: The Declaration of Independence

In June 1776, the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, assigned Thomas Jefferson the task of drafting a declaration of independence from Great Britain. John Adams, a forceful and respected voice for independence, would be his chief collaborator in producing one of the most inspirational and influential documents in world history.

“A skiff made of paper”

For three weeks, Adams and Jefferson labored under immense pressure. Some delegates argued for postponing independence, fearful of Great Britain’s wrath; one warned that the colonies were about to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” There were reports that 17,000 mercenaries hired by the British would soon land in New York. As head of the Board of War, Adams was concerned about shortages of weapons, supplies and funds to pay the troops.

Despite these distractions, the declaration was a tour de force: It chronicled the abuses of a tyrannical monarchy, and it crystallized ideas about individual liberty and self-government that were still unfamiliar to many—yet expressed a universal yearning.

A revolution complete, unexpected and remarkable

In the final debate, on July 1, Adams proclaimed, “We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.” His speech is widely credited with the next day’s unanimous vote for independence, which was publicly announced on July 4 and has resonated around the globe ever since.

In one of the most haunting yet fitting coincidences of U.S. history, Adams and Jefferson died hundreds of miles apart on the same day: July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after independence was declared.