The Declaration was passed on July 2 with no opposing votes. A committee of five had drafted it to be ready when Congress voted on independence. John Adams, a leader in pushing for independence, had persuaded the committee to select Thomas Jefferson to compose the original draft of the document, which Congress edited to produce the final version. The Declaration was a formal explanation of why Congress had voted on July 2 to declare independence from Great Britain, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, "The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America"— although Independence Day is actually celebrated on July 4, the date that the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved.
After ratifying the text on July 4, Congress issued the Declaration of Independence in several forms. It was initially published as the printed Dunlap broadside that was widely distributed and read to the public. The source copy used for this printing has been lost and may have been a copy in Thomas Jefferson's hand. Jefferson's original draft is preserved at the Library of Congress, complete with changes made by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, as well as Jefferson's notes of changes made by Congress. The best-known version of the Declaration is a signed copy that is displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and which is popularly regarded as the official document. This engrossed copy was ordered by Congress on July 19 and signed primarily on August 2.
The sources and interpretation of the Declaration have been the subject of much scholarly inquiry. The Declaration justified the independence of the United States by listing colonial grievances against King George III, and by asserting certain natural and legal rights, including a right of revolution. Having served its original purpose in announcing independence, references to the text of the Declaration were few in the following years. Abraham Lincoln made it the centerpiece of his policies and his rhetoric, as in the Gettysburg Address of 1863. Since then, it has become a well-known statement on human rights, particularly its second sentence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This has been called "one of the best-known sentences in the English language", containing "the most potent and consequential words in American history". The passage came to represent a moral standard to which the United States should strive. This view was notably promoted by Lincoln, who considered the Declaration to be the foundation of his political philosophy and argued that it is a statement of principles through which the United States Constitution should be interpreted.
The U.S. Declaration of Independence inspired many similar documents in other countries, the first being the 1789 Declaration of Flanders issued during the Brabant Revolution in the Austrian Netherlands (modern-day Belgium). It also served as the primary model for numerous declarations of independence in Europe and Latin America, as well as Africa (Liberia) and Oceania (New Zealand) during the first half of the 19th century.