The Declaration of Independence
Created | Updated Aug 28, 2012
The Independence Movement
In May of 1775, the argument with the government of Britain had escalated to open defiance, as the battles of Lexington and Concord had already taken place. The British general Thomas Gage, acting as the governor of the Massachusetts colony, had been ordered by Parliament to enforce a set of laws by whatever force he deemed necessary. These laws were known collectively as 'The Intolerable Acts' in the colonies, and the colonists were just as determined to oppose them. Delegations from every colony came to meet in Philadelphia to discuss their options in the Second Continental Congress.
The Second Continental Congress Convenes
The Congress first endeavoured to react to the situation. It adopted the Olive Branch Petition, drafted by John Dickinson, which was a formal petition to the king to intercede on behalf of the colonies. It expressed the view that Parliament was overstepping its authority, but through the constitutional check on their power by the king, reason could be restored, and the colonies could reconcile their differences with the mother country. On 6 July, it also approved the Declaration of Arms, drafted by John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson. This document, while still holding out the hope of peace, approved of armed resistance to the policies of Parliament. It also expressed the belief that the king was being misled by his closest advisors in this situation.
In short order, the Continental Congress found itself acting as a national government. As colonial militias gathered to besiege Gage in the town of Boston, John Adams of Massachusetts introduced a proposal to call those troops an army and to provide a general to oversee them. He nominated George Washington, who had acquitted himself favourably during the French and Indian War, as this general. General Washington was approved, and he accepted this post in June of 1775. The situation continued to escalate, as the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought, and Ethan Allen's 'Green Mountain Boys' took Fort Ticonderoga from the British in New Jersey. Congress also established a post office for 'The United Colonies' in June of '75.
The colonies received their answer to the Olive Branch Petition on August 23, 1775. A royal proclamation declared that the king's subjects in the American colonies were 'engaged in open and avowed rebellion'. Soon after, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act, which made all American vessels and cargoes forfeit to the crown. Congress responded to this by authorising privateering against British vessels, and created a small colonial navy.
In January of 1776, the seminal push towards independence was provided by Thomas Paine, when he published the pamphlet entitled Common Sense. At the time of its publishing, tradition holds that one third of the population of the colonies favoured independence, one third favoured reconciliation, and one third kept their mouth shut and hoped nobody asked them what they thought. The latter group was made up primarily of farmers in the interior countryside. Independence hinged on winning the support of this group, for they would be needed to provide the backbone of the war, in supplies and in fighting men. Common Sense served to harden the resolve of those already involved, and it had a huge impact on that undecided third. Paine's eloquent arguments destroyed the underlying assumptions of the Loyalist faction:
The English Constitution: Paine stripped away the illusions of freedom under the English constitution at his time and revealed the hidden truth that the king still possessed the ultimate power in England. As the granter of titles and lands, his patronage assured that he controlled the majority vote in Parliament. '... that it (the crown) derives its whole consequence merely from being the giver of places and pensions is self-evident, wherefore, though we have been wise enough to shut and lock the door against absolute monarchy, we at the same time have been foolish enough to put the crown in possession of the key'.
The divine right of kings: Paine artfully used Old Testament quotes to show that God fully disapproved of the notion of kings.
Further reflections on monarchy: he delved into the history of England's kings, showed his current line to have risen from a usurper, and dispelled the myth that hereditary succession prevents internal strife. 'Thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest (of William the Conqueror), in which time there have been, including the Revolution, no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions.'
British policy in America: Paine argued that British policies in America were designed entirely for the benefit of Britain, without concern for the welfare of the Americans.
The protection of the crown: Loyalists pointed to the French and Indian War as a direct reason for continued loyalty to the crown, which indicated a need for the American colonies to be protected by the mother country. Paine argued that the ties to England only contributed to warfare, and that, left to their own devices, the American people would not be troubled by European powers in their enmity to Britain. Along with the desire for peace, this argument was also designed to tug at the purse strings of the colonists. 'Whenever a war breaks out between England and any foreign power, the trade of America goes to ruin, because of her connection with Britain.'
Paine's title and initial tone imply a reasonable and rational approach to the question of independence, but he was not above using propaganda. He recreated the worst privations of the citizens of Boston for the rest of the country and accused avowed Loyalists of everything from greed and selfishness to cowardice. However, his use of reason was also very powerful, as when he endeavoured to show how a small colonial navy could defeat its mighty British counterpart, which was spread out all over the world and would be forced to sail 4000 miles to refit and recruit. He also gives promises of what America can build after it has destroyed the old ties. It can even be said that the Declaration of Independence was his idea:
Were a manifesto to be published, and despatched to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and the peaceable methods we have ineffectually used for redress; declaring, at the same time, that not being able, any longer, to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the British court, we have been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her; at the same time, assuring all such courts of our peaceable disposition towards them, and of our desire of entering trade with them: Such a memorial would produce more good effects to this Continent, than if a ship were freighted with petitions to Britain.
A more succinct summation of the Declaration may never have been written. Taken as a whole, Common Sense is possibly one of the most influential works in all of history, save the Christian Bible.
Congress Declares Independence
As a direct result of Common Sense, as well as the continuing unwillingness of Parliament of King George to treat with Congress for a resolution, the independence movement gained enormous support. The final alarm came in May of 1776, when Congress learned that the king had negotiated treaties with German states for mercenaries to fight in America. By the middle of that month, the legislatures of eight colonies had openly stated that they would support independence. Congress approved, after enduring an entire year of argument from independence firebrand John Adams, a resolution calling for new colonial constitutions to replace the old royal charters1. The colonies began writing these new constitutions, which removed the authority of their governance from the king, and placed it in the will of the people.
On the 15 May 1775, the Virginia Convention approved a resolution 'that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states'. This command was forwarded to the Virginia delegates, and Richard Henry Lee introduced that resolution to Congress on June 7:
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 absolved.
John Adams immediately seconded the resolution; through discussion, it quickly became evident that the vote was going to pass. John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress, then proposed that a declaration be drafted. This was agreed, and the 'Committee of Five' was appointed: John Adams and Roger Sherman to represent the New England colonies, Ben Franklin and Robert R Livingston to represent the middle colonies, and Thomas Jefferson to represent the southern colonies. Congress went into recess to allow the committee time to produce the document.
The Committee of Five unanimously chose Thomas Jefferson to write the document. Although he was the youngest member of their group, they agreed that Jefferson was the most eloquent writer of their group. Jefferson wrote furiously for several days, scratching and editing his content until he had what he liked. He asked Franklin and Adams to review the document, and they recommended several changes, which he grudgingly agreed to. The document then went to the full Committee, which recommended a few other changes, before notifying Congress that the document was ready.
On July 1, Congress reconvened, and on the following day, the Lee resolution was approved unanimously by 12 colonies (New York abstained). Thus began what became a tedious plodding through the Declaration of Independence, as various delegates recommended changes to the document. Thomas Jefferson fought for the integrity of his document, but in the end, 86 changes were made. Congress chose to eliminate two paragraphs:
A derogatory reference to the English people, for electing Parliament members who continued to cause trouble for their American kin. This was deemed extremely impolitic, as it would have inflamed the British public to greater motivation in the War for Independence. Moreover, it would have been a betrayal of those members of Parliament (like John Wilkes and Charles Fox) who had been outspoken in the defence of the rights of the colonists, as well as influential writers (like Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, both of whom were good friends of Benjamin Franklin and heavily influenced by him). Above all, the Americans wanted to keep the focus on the struggle as a conflict between the people and the government of Great Britain, which allowed them to capture the moral high ground.
Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their Legislature to extend a jurisdiction over these our states. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here, no one of which could warrant so strange a pretension: that these were effected at the expence of our own blood and treasure, unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain: that in constituting indeed our several forms of government, we had adopted one common king, thereby laying a foundation for perpetual league and amity with them: but that submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution, nor ever in idea, if history may be credited: and we appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, as well as to the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations which were likely to interrupt our correspondence and connection. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity, and when occasions have been given them, by the regular course of their laws, of removing from their councils the disturbers of our harmony, they have by their free election re-established them in power. At this very time too they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and deluge us in blood. These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and to hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have been a free and great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it: the road to glory and happiness is open to us too; we will climb it in a separate state, and acquiesce in the necessity which pronounces our everlasting Adieu!
A passionate denunciation of the slave trade, which many consider hypocritical, given that Jefferson was himself a slave owner. Regardless, it was the delegations from South Carolina and Georgia who insisted the line be stricken, as they deemed the trade necessary to their livelihood. Many historians point to this moment in history as the beginning of the breach that would lead to the American Civil War.
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of great britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, and murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
After enduring this for two long days, Congress finally approved the Declaration late on 4 July 1776. Immediately following the vote, the bells were rung at the top of the Pennsylvania State House2 to signify the accomplishment, and this signaled bells all over the city. The Declaration was rushed off to the printers unsigned, contrary to common belief, and copies were read in all state legislatures, as well to the Continental Army, by General Washington himself.
On July 9, the New York Convention approved the acts of Congress, thus making independence unanimous. In light of this development, Congress ordered that 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America3... be signed by every member of Congress.' Timothy Matlack, Congress' secretary, engrossed4 the document, and it was made available for signing on 2 August. Not every delegate was present, so some signatures were taken later. Some delegates never signed. Of those, the most significant were John Dickinson, who still stubbornly hoped for reconciliation, and Committee of Five member Robert Livingston, who felt that the Declaration was premature.
Impact of the Declaration of Independence
The design of the Declaration was to gain further public support for independence, both among the states and from abroad, with a keen eye to France as a potential ally. It emphasised the justification for the revolution from the aspect of the 'social contract' argument which had been echoing throughout the colonies, and had its proponents in Britain and France. All of the grievances of the colonies were placed on the feet of King George III, the rationale being that when he rejected their petitions for the redress of the wrongs of Parliament, their wrongs also became his wrongs. His violations of 'natural law,' it argued, gave the colonists the right and the duty to revolt.
The design worked wonderfully. The movement gained more supporters in the colonies, and, coupled with Ben Franklin's admirable diplomacy effort gained them an ally in France. It worked beyond Jefferson's expectations. His document was continually referred to in the Constitutional Convention in 1789, and was therefore a huge influence on the foundation of the national government. Moreover, as the first contractual agreement for the replacement of government, its influence spread throughout the world, as peaceful and not-so-peaceful revolutions began to radiate throughout the history of the Western world.