Independence was adopted on July 2, 1776 pursuant to the "Lee Resolution" presented to the Continental Congress by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, which read: "Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
On June 11, 1776, a committee consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, was formed to draft a suitable declaration to frame this resolution. Jefferson did most of the writing, with input from the committee. His original draft included a denunciation of the slave trade, which was later edited out. His draft was presented to congress on July 1, 1776. The Declaration was rewritten somewhat in general session prior to its adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, at the Pennsylvania State House. The adopted copy was then sent a few blocks away to the printing shop of John Dunlap. Through the night between 150 and 200 copies were made, now know as "Dunlap broadsides". The original has never been found. The 25 Dunlap broadsides still known to exist are the oldest surviving copies of the Declaration.
On July 19, 1776, Congress ordered a copy be hand written for the delegates to sign. This copy of the Declaration was produced by Timothy Matlack, assistant to the secretary of Congress. Most of the delegates signed it on August 2, 1776, in geographic order of their colonies from north to south, though some delegates were not present and had to sign later. Two delegates never signed at all. As new delegates joined the congress, they were also allowed to sign. A total of 56 delegates eventually signed. This is the copy on display at the National Archives. Word of the declaration reached London on August 10.
Several myths surround the document: because it is dated July 4, 1776, many people falsely believe it was signed on that date. John Hancock's name is larger than that of the other signatories, and an unfounded legend states that it is large so that King George III would be able to read it without his spectacles. A painting by John Trumbull, depicting the signing of the Declaration with all representatives present, hangs in the grand Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States: no such ceremony ever took place. There is no evidence that Benjamin Franklin ever made the statement often attributed to him: "We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately". The Liberty Bell was not rung to celebrate independence, and it certainly did not acquire its crack on so doing: that story comes from a children's book of fiction, Legends of the American Revolution, by George Lippard. The Liberty Bell was actually named in the early nineteenth century when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.
A fictionalized (but somewhat historically accurate) version of how the Declaration came about is the musical play (and 1972 movie) 1776, which is usually termed a "musical comedy" but deals frankly with the political issues, especially how disagreement over the institution of slavery almost defeated the Declaration's adoption.
The Declaration was used as a propaganda tool, in which the Americans tried to establish clear reasons for their rebellion that might persuade reluctant colonists to join them and establish their just cause to foreign governments that might lend them aid. The Declaration also served to unite the members of the Continental Congress. Most were aware that they were signing what would be their death warrant in case the Revolution failed, and the Declaration served to make anything short of victory in the Revolution unthinkable.
The Declaration appeals strongly to the concept of natural law and self-determination. The Declaration is heavily influnced by the Act of Abjuration of the Dutch Republic, by the Discourses on Government of the Republican martyr Algernon Sydney, to whose legacy Jefferson and Adams were equally devoted; ideas and even some of the phrasing was taken directly from the writings of John Locke, particularly his second treatise on government, titled "Essay Concerning the true original, extent, and end of Civil Government."
The Declaration of Independence contains many of the founding fathers' fundamental principles, some of which were later codified in the United States Constitution. It has also been used as the model of a number of later documents such as the declarations of independence of Vietnam and Rhodesia.
Thomas Jefferson originally wrote "inalienable". When subsequent printed and hand-copied reproductions were made, John Adams, fellow Declaration Committee member (and later second President of the United States), arbitrarily had the word changed to "unalienable"; which he believed more correct. The original signed version of the final draft (i.e. the master document) of the Declaration of Independence (not the one in the National Archives) says "inalienable". The inscription on the Jefferson Memorial reads "inalienable".