Declaring Independence

In 1776 many colonists made a great leap of faith: they united around the ideals that “all men are created equal” and entitled to the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They declared that all government arose from the people and depended on popular consent. These ideals would shape American politics and society in the centuries that followed. Yet it was an unequal world. Americans also inherited a belief in social hierarchy and institutions that perpetuated inequality. Through the generations, Americans inspired by the Declaration of Independence would contend with these conflicting ideas and commitments.

“The Manner in Which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independant [sic],” London, around 1783

“The Manner in Which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independant [sic],” London, around 1783

The Declaration of Independence

Congressmen voted for independence on July 2, 1776, then spent two days editing Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the text. They officially declared independence on July 4. In August they signed a carefully lettered parchment copy that today is housed in the National Archives. Years later, worried that the original signed Declaration of Independence was fading, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned engraver William Stone to create a copper plate to produce facsimiles of the text. This facsimile was printed from Stone’s 1823 plate.

Print, Declaration of Independence, 1823

Gift of Mrs. E. J. Stone

View object record

Thomas Jefferson’s Desk

On this desk Thomas Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence in June 1776.

Declaration of Independence desk

Declaration of Independence desk

Transfer from U.S. Department of State

Jefferson himself had designed the desk, including a hinged writing board and a locking drawer for papers, pens, and inkwell. The desk was Jefferson’s companion as a Revolutionary patriot, American diplomat, and president of the United States. Late in his life, Jefferson attached a note to the bottom, saying that the desk would likely become a treasured relic, “for its great association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.

Declaration of Independence desk, closed

Declaration of Independence desk, closed

Declaration of Independence desk, partially opened

Declaration of Independence desk, partially opened

Declaration of Independence desk, opened

Declaration of Independence desk, opened