The Declaration of Independence


Did you know only two of the 56 signatures of the Declaration of Independence were penned on July 4, 1776? The others didn't sign until nearly a month later. Join Active Minds for a look at this pivotal document and its historical context. We will examine the philosophy and ideas that underlie the text as well as the continuing influence of the document today all around the world.

Key Lecture Points

  • The writing and ratification of the Declaration of Independence by the members of the Second Continental Congress in 1776 was the seminal act in the creation of the United States of America.
  • The Declaration was the culmination of more than a decade of intensifying tension between the British Crown and Parliament , and its colonies in North America. The costly French and Indian Wars (1754-63) triggered a period wherein British authorities increased taxation and control of colonial economic affairs and the colonies responded with ever greater resentment and anger.
  • Additionally, the Declaration was reflective of intellectual changes of the Enlightenment. The core Enlightenment ideas of freedom from oppression, natural rights and new ways of thinking about government played a significant role in molding the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, the primary drafter of the Declaration, as well as the other members of the Continental Congress.
  • While July 4th is the day upon which most Americans celebrate the independence of the American colonies from the British, the Continental Congress actually voted for independence on July 2. That said, it was on July 4th that the text of the Declaration of Independence was approved. The document was not signed by the delegates, however, until August 2, 1776.
  • For 235 years, the Declaration of Independence has been an influential (if not legally binding) document for the US and the world. In the US, it has been the model for declarations against slavery and for women’s suffrage. Additionally, More than 100 declarations of independence have been issued by new states breaking away from empires since the American example in 1776.

Exploration Questions

  • What role did the Declaration of Independence play in the Revolutionary War?
  • How did the ideas of the Enlightenment influence the Declaration of Independence?
  • How has the Declaration of Independence impacted other countries?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think the Declaration of Independence has been a model for so many other nations’ declarations of independence?
  • What do you think America would be like today if we had been able to reconcile with Britain and hadn’t declared independence?
  • Imagine you are having coffee with Jefferson, what would you ask him about the early days of the American Revolution?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Armitage, David. The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (paperback). Harvard University Press, 2008. 300 pages. Places the Declaration of Independence into the context of world history.
    Click here to order
  • Ellis, Joseph J. American Sphinx: the Character of Thomas Jefferson (paperback). Vintage, 1998. 464 pages.
    Click here to order
  • Bernstein, R. B. Thomas Jefferson (paperback). Oxford Press, 2005. 253 pages.
    Click here to order