In 1776, Thomas Jefferson was a new and relatively unknown member of the Second Continental Congress. By this time, the Revolutionary War had been going on for over a year. The Congress decided that the next and most important step was to instruct the colonies to create their own constitutions. As almost an afterthought, the Congress also declared that the nation should formally declare its independence from the British Empire. A committee was formed consisting of Ben Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a quiet, reserved member of the Second Continental Congress who did not like to speak in public and who hated confrontation, however he had gained some respect a few years earlier for his writing when his pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America was published.

As the junior, or youngest member of the committee, Jefferson was chosen by John Adams to be the draftsman. Adams explained that Jefferson had a "happy talent for composition and singular felicity of expression." Jefferson accepted the assignment and worked on it for seventeen days. The committee looked over his work and Adams and Franklin made some stylistic changes, then it was presented to Congress on June 28, 1776. Besides the Preamble that Americans remember today with pride, the original draft also included a long list of grievances against Great Britain, Parliament, and King George III. Congress edited most of these out to create a more concise document. Congress' editing of the Declaration of Independence hurt Jefferson's pride immensely. Years later, he still insisted his original version was better.

Congress accepted the edited version on July 4, 1776, hence Independence Day. Interestingly, on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration's signing, both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams passed away within hours of each other.

Read the Declaration of Independence and use the discussion tabs to answer the following questions:

  1. In 1776, slavery was legal and even though he spoke out against slavery, Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. With that in mind, what do you think he meant when he wrote that "all men are created equal?" Does it mean the same thing today? If so, why. If not, what does it mean today? Click here to answer
  2. What did Thomas Jefferson mean when he said "pursuit of happiness"? Why do you think that?
  3. What does "pursuit of happiness" mean to you today?
  4. The Declaration states that all people have "certain inalienable rights" that no government has the right to take away. Besides "life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness," what other right or rights would you have listed. Explain.