Study Guide

Declaration of Independence Timeline

By Thomas Jefferson

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Virginia Company lands and establishes Jamestown colony

The British presence in North America, and the establishment of the colonies that would declare independence in approximately 170 years, begins with the Jamestown colony in Virginia, which was named after Elizabeth I, known as the Virgin Queen.

December 1620

Pilgrims arrive in Plymouth, MA

Sure, it wasn't Plymouth back then, and people aren't even 100% sure that we've named have the right rock "Plymouth Rock," but the Pilgrims created the first British settlement in New England. If you think about it, they kind of set the trend for using America to rebel against British policies.


French and Indian War

Part of a much larger battle called the Seven Years' War fought in several regions around the world, between Great Britain, France, Austria, and Prussia. In North America, the British troops and their Native American allies defeated the French and their Native American allies, paving the way for the colonies to eventually expand westward towards the Pacific as the U.S. grew.

October 7, 1763

The Royal Proclamation, a.k.a. the Proclamation of 1763

After the end of the French and Indian War, Parliament passed the Proclamation of 1763 to prevent colonists from settling west of the Appalachian mountains, into much of the new land won from the French during the war. The colonists were displeased, to say the very least.

April 5, 1764

Parliament passes the Revenue Act (a.k.a. the Sugar Act)

Colonists had long avoided the tariff (import tax) on non-British molasses imported into North America by smuggling it in. The Revenue Act lowered the tariff so smuggling could stop, but required people to submit detailed lists of everything on their ship when they entered a port.

Even your personal belongings had to be listed, so think about how you'd feel if you had to give the TSA a list of every single thing you had with you when you went through customs. If you didn't, or if you were caught lying, you went to military court—meaning no jury.

June 2, 1764

Quartering Act

This legislation said that colonists had to house any standing troops in the area. Ever wonder why there is a very specific amendment in the Bill of Rights about no quartering of troops? This is why. If you had no idea there was an amendment about quartering troops, now you know (hint: it's the 3rd one).

March 22, 1765

Passage of the Stamp Act

Parliament passed a law, introduced by first minister (now known as prime minister) George Grenville, which basically put a tax on most types of paper (plus dice), all of which had to have a special official stamp to prove the tax had been paid. Shockingly, this tax did not go over well.

March 18, 1766

Repeal of the Stamp Act 

Yes, the Stamp Act was actually repealed pretty quickly. King George III replaced first minister Grenville with a man who opposed the Stamp Act, and the government recognized the act was driving away colonial business. Um, y'think?

July 2, 1767

Passage of the Townshend Acts

Charles Townshend replaced William Pitt, who sympathized with the colonists, as first minister when Pitt's health failed. Townshend quickly passed laws to further increase taxes on goods imported to the colonies, things like paint, glass, and tea.

Remember, the colonists were often forced to buy from Britain, either by law or because the tariffs for foreign imports were super high, so there was often no way around the fees without smuggling. The Townshend Acts were a tipping point in bringing about the eventual decision to declare independence.

March 5, 1770

The Boston Massacre

For several years, both political and physical conflict had been increasing between colonists and imperial officials. On this night, a crowd was aggressively pestering ten British soldiers guarding a customs house in Boston. In a panic, the British soldiers opened fire, wounding six and killing five members of the crowd. Leaders of the colonial opposition seized the opportunity and spread word of the incident throughout the colonies, as evidence of British brutality.

May 10, 1773

Passage of the Tea Act

To bolster the East India Company, Parliament passed this law, which said that the colonies could only buy tea from the East India Company, giving the company a monopoly on the tea business. Their prices would be lower than American merchants, but would put locals out of business.

December 16, 1773

Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was the eventual response to the Tea Act. It's the famous night when a bunch of men disguised as Native Americans angrily dumped tea imported from England into the Boston Harbor, turning the harbor into the largest, saltiest cup of iced tea ever (probably—that record probably hasn't been officially measured by Guinness).

March 21-May 20, 1774

Passage of the Coercive Acts, a.k.a. the Intolerable Acts

The name pretty much gives away that this legislation was not well received—you don't just throw around the name "the Intolerable Acts."

Britain could see that the colonies were leaning towards independence; to clamp down on its revenue source, Parliament passed a series of laws that closed Boston's port and put Massachusetts very firmly under control of the British crown. There's also one where Parliament let Quebec remain Catholic and keep their judicial system, but it's not quite as relevant to this particular story.

April 19, 1775

Battles of Lexington and Concord

These skirmishes between British redcoats and American Minutemen in Massachusetts towns are generally considered to be the start of the Revolutionary War. One of the original goals of British general Thomas Gage was to capture Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and a gunpowder reserve, but word got out, leading to the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere, which helped the two men escape arrest (remember the thing with the lanterns? "One if by land, two if by sea"?).

The British pushed past the Minutemen at Lexington, but were turned back by a surprisingly strong colonial militia at Concord.

August 23, 1775

King George III declares colonies in open rebellion

After the colonies convened the Second Continental Congress, created their own army and own currency, and generally protested every measure the British government took to establish greater control, the king decided the colonies were clearly not playing along and declared them rebels.

June 7-July 2, 1776

Presentation and passage of the Lee Resolution

The Lee Resolution stated that the colonies should be independent. Richard Henry Lee introduced his resolution to congress on June 7, where it was approved. It was adopted by twelve of the thirteen colonies on July 2, as final touches were being put on the Declaration of Independence.

July 4, 1776

Adoption of the Declaration of Independence

Pretty self-explanatory, but on this date Jefferson presented the final draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress, and it was officially adopted.

July 5, 1776

Declaration of Independence Distributed Around the Colonies

Known as the Dunlap Broadside, printed (not hand-written) versions of the Declaration were made and distributed to colonial governments.

August 2, 1776

Declaration of Independence "Engrossed" on Parchment and Signed

The famous image of the Declaration of Independence is the fancier version of what Jefferson presented to Congress. Once approved, the document was "engrossed," or written nicely on parchment to create an official document. John Hancock, who was the president of the Second Continental Congress, was the first delegate to sign—and he took full advantage of the privilege..

In fact, some of the delegates who couldn't make it never even got to sign, because there was no room left (thanks a lot, John).

September 3, 1783

The Treaty of Paris and the End of the Revolutionary War

The fate of the British war effort in America was sealed after their defeat in Yorktown in late 1781, but with the Treaty of Paris the United States was recognized as an independent nation and the British army was removed.

July 2, 1787

Full ratification of the United States Constitution

The Constitution, which establishes the structure and philosophy of the government of the United States, had to be ratified by nine of the thirteen colonies, finally reaching the goal about six months after the ratification process began.

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