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Thomas Jefferson Writes

The Declaration of Independence

JUNE   1776

2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
7 Richard Henry Lee Introduces a Resolution to Declare Independence
10 Congress recesses after postponing a vote on the Lee Resolution
12 Virginia Bill Of Rights Approved AND a Committee is appointed for Confederation
28 Thomas Jefferson Circulates the finished draft for a Declaration of Independence
29 Virginia declares itself an independent commonwealth, Institutes a Constitution

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"I did not consider it any part of my charge to invent new Ideas, but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.  It (Declaration of Independence) was intended to be an expression of the American mind."  Thomas Jefferson

Though the Second Continental Congress had recessed for three weeks, that did not mean an end to their business.  Before the close of business on June 7th, Richard Henry Lee had submitted a second resolution.  This one stated that "a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation."  Lee's concern was that, in the event that the Colonies approved his earlier resolution to declare themselves free from Great Britain, a plan be readily available to unite the Colonies in some organized, governmental fashion.   On June 12th a Committee was established to begin that work.  You will learn more about that committee and their efforts when we move on to the next part of this exhibit.

Meanwhile Thomas Jefferson was busily preparing the document he had been delegated to write, a "letter of resignation" to declare the Colonies independence from England.    His effort was influenced by many things including Magna Carta, but the manuscript was uniquely Jefferson's.  He reportedly finished his first draft in less than two weeks using "neither book or pamphlet."

The document we now call The Declaration of Independence went through several steps to the finished form we know today.  Fifty years later Jefferson wrote, "I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee (of five including Sherman and Livingston) I communicated it separately to Dr. (Benjamin) Franklin and (John) Adams requesting their corrections."

After Franklin and Adams had made their own suggestions and corrections to the rough draft, Jefferson said he "wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee (of five), and from them, (submitted it) unaltered to the Congress."  Though considered to be a rather poor speaker, Thomas Jefferson's brilliance as a writer became quickly evident in The Declaration of Independence.   Drawing on the philosophy of 17th Century philosopher John Locke, Magna Carta, and The Virginia Declaration of Rights, his manuscript was historic.

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Benjamin Franklin and John Adams review Thomas Jefferson's rough draft to make corrections.  (Photo from the estate of J.L.G. Ferris)

John Locke (1632-1704)

Oxford educated John Locke's Two Treatises of Government (1690), undoubtedly heavily influenced by Magna Carta, attacked the theory of the divine right of kings.  Locke believed in government to the extent that it was the obligation of government to protect the rights of its citizens to "life, liberty, and property".  He further held that there was a "natural law" that was supreme.  This latter concept indicated that, when government became corrupt, it was not only the RIGHT of the people to revolt, but their OBLIGATION to free themselves.   As Thomas Jefferson penned his Declaration of Independence he quickly established that the Colonies not only had the right to revolt, but that it was almost a fore-ordained obligation to the process of natural law....("When in the course of human events"). 

The Virginia Declaration of Rights

Only two days after the Second Continental Congress recessed and while Thomas Jefferson was pondering his task, something unprecedented happened in his home-colony of Virginia.  On June 12th the Virginia House of Burgesses considered and then adopted a document based on English Common Law, Locke's philosophy of natural law, and the thinking of that day.  Written by George Mason, a wealthy Virginia planter, it became known as The Virginia Declaration of Rights.  Among its 16 provisions:

  • All men have inherent rights to life, liberty, and property
  • All power is vested in the people
  • Government is established to benefit, not rule the people
  • Leadership roles should not be hereditary
  • Legislative and Executive Powers should be separate and distinct
  • The principles of free elections
  • Government can not suspend laws without the consent of the people
  • The right to trial by jury and to confront witnesses
  • There should be no cruel and unusual punishment
  • Provisions to eliminate unlawful searches of persons or personal property
  • Trial by jury is preferable and should be held sacred
  • "Freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty"
  • A well regulated militia is required to defend a free state
  • People have a right to a uniform government
  • Free government is preserved only by adherence to fundamental principles
  • The freedom to practice religion according to personal reason and conviction

Sadly, few Americans have ever heard of or read the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  It was widely copies by the other colonies in the years that followed, and George Mason and his Declaration of Rights influenced both The Declaration of Independence and our United States Constitution with its "BILL OF RIGHTS".

The last weekend of June, 1776 was an incredible one.  On Friday Jefferson circulated the draft for the Declaration of Independence.  The following day Virginia declared itself to be an independent commonwealth and became the first colony to enact its own state constitution.  Like a father nervously pacing the hospital waiting room, the stage was set for the most historic day in modern history:

July 2, 1776



Read the Virginia Declaration of Rights...You'll be amazed at how many of our other documents took words from it Click on me if you want to visit the archives and read the Virginia Declaration of Rights before you continue your tour.


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Birth of A Nation Exhibit

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[Our Founding Documents]  [Royal, Inc. - A Parable of Independence]
[Freedom is Born - The 1st & 2nd Continental Congresses]
[Magna Carta's Impact on the Declaration of Independence]   [Read Magna Carta]
[Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence]  [Virginia Declaration of Rights]

[Adoption of the Declaration]  [Read the Declaration of Independence]
[The Articles of Confederation]  [Read the Articles]  [Shay's Rebellion]
[Constitutional Convention]  [Debating the Constitution]  []
[Adopting the Constitution]  [The Constitution in Outline Form]   [Read the Constitution]
[ Amending the Constitution]  [The Bill of Rights]  [Adding Amendments]
Outlines and Time Lines
[Events Leading to Revolution]  [Time-line for our Documents]   [Our Form of Government]
[Signers of Declaration of Independence]  [Constitutional Convention Delegates]

Flag Display
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Capitol Display
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Unless otherwise noted, all materials by C. Douglas Sterner