If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:8:38

Background and introduction to the United States Declaration of Independence

Video transcript

Male: I'm here with Walter Isaacson and what are we about to talk about? Walter: We're talking about the Declaration of Independence, which happens, as it says up top, on July 4, 1776, but what we have to remember is that for more than a year, since April 1775 there had been a lot of fighting going on. There was a revolution happening, but up until this point the fighting was mainly against what they considered to be the acts of Parliament and Parliament's ministers and taxing the colonies. Finally, with this document they decide they're going to become ... The American colonies are going to become free and independent, a separate country, which means rebelling against the King himself, George the III. Male: And this is George the III in all of his regality. (laughing) Walter: Right. You know up until they met in Congress with the Continental Congress gathering themselves together they pretended at least to respect George the III, and they were blaming everything on the British Parliament, but it was a pretty difficult thing to decide you were going to overthrow the King himself. Male: And just to be clear, this Continental Congress it's easy now for us in hindsight. It seems like a very official thing, but this was really a rebel congress. It wasn't sanctioned in any way by kind of the formal government, by the government of Great Britain. Walter: Right, and as you see it says the 13 United States of America. This is the first time they really start using the phrase United States of America. They weren't really a country yet. They were 13 different colonies, and not all of them wanted to come to this Continental Congress. Getting them all together was quite difficult. They do so partly to help George Washington's troops get funded because they've started the skirmishes up in Lexington and Concord and Massachusetts, but by 1776 George Washington has a real army and they have to fund him, and eventually they'd figure out well this congress ought to decide are we really having a revolution? Are we trying to break away from the King himself? And the answer here is yes. Male: Wow. And so this is the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and these three fellows on the right-hand side look very familiar. Walter: They're on the committee that the Congress appoints to draft the Declaration. Actually there were five people on the committee, but these of course are the three most important. Thomas Jefferson only 33 years old, by far the youngest person on the committee and he's chosen to write the first draft. Then Benjamin Franklin, who is a mentor of Jefferson's, a printer from Philadelphia. Franklin had just been spending the past two decades almost going back and forth to England to try to prevent a revolution. Then John Adams, the very passionate sage from the State of Massachusetts who was the one who was most in favor of revolution. In fact, when Franklin comes back to Philadelphia in early 1776 after having tried to hold Britain and America together most of these people didn't know whether he would be on the side of revolution or not. In fact, his own son, William Franklin, is, at this time of this Declaration, the Royal Governor of New Jersey and is staying loyal to King George. Male: And just to, once again emphasize the context, the Royal Governor of New Jersey. This wasn't like the Governor of New Jersey we imagine now. He wasn't elected by the people. He was appointed. Walter: No, he was appointed by the King. He was the Royal Governor, and you know Franklin was proud of his son, but they have this incredible split starting in 1776 where William Franklin remains loyal to the crown and loyal to King George the III who had made him Governor of New Jersey. Male: Now, one thing that you had mentioned a few seconds ago that I think is surprising is when you mentioned that Jefferson was 33 years old when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. How normal was that? You know back then it seemed like people did I guess mature faster, but he was still perceived as a fairly young person. Walter: Yes. They all loved to be thinking of themselves as young rebels too. In fact, Jefferson I think is the second youngest person in the Continental Congress, but there was a third person who lied about his age to pretend to be younger and actually wasn't. Jefferson was a good wordsmith. He was from Virginia and it was very important of this person from ... Franklin from Pennsylvania and Adams from Massachusetts to make sure we got Virginia in because Virginia, there was a chance it would remain loyal and ... Male: It was a large wealthy ... Walter: A large wealthy land-owning colony and so getting the Virginians in, and there were very strong rebels from Virginia. The Lees of Virginia as well as Jefferson were in favor of declaring independence so they decide they want to make sure that Jefferson gets to write the first draft. Male: Interesting. And so what we see here, this is the final text. This is the official Declaration of Independence. Walter: Right. Male: In the future videos we can talk about previous drafts. Walter: Right. They went through five drafts to get to this draft and this is the one that they do after unaninously all 13 colonies, now called the 13 United States in this document, declare this to be the cause of the colonies. And what you can see in the first paragraph is they have to explain why are we writing this document. They say well if you're going to have a revolution, if you're going to dissolve the political bands which have connected you with another state, then the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them a decent respect. This is the equal station they get because of nature and nature's God. It's a pretty interesting phrase. Male: Let's read the whole thing. Walter: Yeah. Male: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands," this is what you were talking about, "which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them." Walter: What they're saying right there is that the laws of nature and the fact that nature's God created us all equally means that one set of people don't have to be subserviant to or occupied by or colonies of another set of people. They want to be free and independent, and it's interesting that they use the phrase, "Laws of nature and nature's God," because this is sort of the beginning of the enlightenment where we're supposed to understand that nature gives us our rights and reasons. John Locke, the great British philosopher, believed in the laws of nature, and these were deists. They kind of were religious a bit, but they didn't subscribe to any particular religious dogma, and so they just talk about nature's God allowing us all to be free and equal. Male: Right. "A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to a separation." So that's really just saying ... Walter: What they're saying is we care what the rest of you think. And by the way, it's directed at one particular people, the French, because we're not going to win this revolution in the United States unless the French help support us. The French, by the way, were already at war with the British. There's been a long set of wars throughout the 18th century where France and Britian were fighting each other. So, this document is particularly aimed at saying to the French, you've been fighting Britain for a long time so we have a decent respect for all the opinions of mankind, but yours in particular and we're going to tell you why we're fighting this and of course in France at the time this notion of liberty, equality, fraternity, that's bubbling up as well. So, the document is to try to persuade other nations please support us. We're explaining why we're having this revolution. Male: And that's I think important to remember for someone in 21st century America. It's obviously a major world power now, the major world power. But back then this was like a little colony. It's kind of a sideshow. Walter: Right, right. And it's important for us to remember now too that whenever we do something, whenever we get involved in the world we should have a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. Male: Right. Walter: That's how we started as a nation saying when we do something we're going to be open. We're going to be honest. We're going to explain to you why.