Over the last two weeks I’ve discussed the vote for independence and the creation of the Declaration itself. This really is the key document to the American Revolution and one that fundamentally changed the the world. So I’m devoting a third week to this important topic. This week, I want to go through the Declaration line by line and explain the significance of each part. With that, let’s begin:
IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776The July 4 date is the date Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration, although Congress added the very next line calling it unanimous a couple of weeks later after the New York delegation changed its vote so that all 13 colonies supported the Declaration.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Declaration of Independence (from Wikimedia)
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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.Ok, so this introduction summarizes quite well the idea of social contract theory. Radical ideas first espoused by people like Thomas Hobbes, and later expanded by thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As the age of reason replaced medieval superstition, theorists could not simply rely on the idea that leaders were leaders because God ordained it, the so-called divine right of kings.
|John Locke (from Wikimedia)
Jefferson famously replaced “property” with “pursuit of happiness” a term Locke used elsewhere, as did other political philosophers. It is also a shortened version of what George Mason wrote in his Virginia Declaration of Rights, published a month earlier. Jefferson never explained this alteration. Some have theorized this was he did not want property to be seen as code words for protecting slavery. It could also simply be that Jefferson was thinking more about the right of taxation, which does take property and is acceptable if the people consent to it through elected representatives.
The phrase seemed to work. Jefferson then proceeds to explain that any government attempt to undermine these rights is justification for its replacement.
The next section goes through the list of reasons why the King had violated the social contract with the colonists:
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.These are general objections to restrictions colonial legislatures had to face more often in recent years as London attempted to reign in colonial legislatures. Although the King’s Privy Council had never rejected a bill of Parliament since before George I took power, George III’s Council had rejected colonial legislation on several occasions. It also emphasizes the futility of attempting to govern from such a distance, where it could take months for messages to pass back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.This seems to be a dig at attempts to suspend colonial law making authority in colonies that objected to Parliamentary laws. The colonies had no representation in Parliament and could not relinquish legislative authority to that body. Some have also said it is a criticism of the royal government’s failure to redistrict legislatures as populations move into western lands without representation in the colonial legislatures.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
|Signing the Declaration (from Wikimedia)
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.In the years leading up to war, royal governors repeatedly suspended legislative sessions and elections when it was clear those legislatures would vote on things with which the leadership in London disagreed. This effectively left some colonies without representative government, sometimes for years.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.This criticized attempts by the crown to limit immigrants from outside of the British Empire from settling in the colonies, and also attempts to restrict settlements in western lands. Colonists wanted to settle more lands and expand westward. London did not want large numbers of people with traditional allegiances to other European powers settling in large numbers. It also did not want westward expansion to provoke new was with Indian tribes.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.For nearly a decade, London had attempted to have judges be appointed by royal governors and to have London pay their salaries. Colonists saw this as an attempt to bias judges in favor of London. This was one reason Massachusetts began Committees of correspondence, to see if London was undermining judicial control in other colonies as well. It was one of those sneaky behind the scenes power grabs that put patriot leaders on high alert.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.This is most likely a reference to the many tax collectors, customs officials, and other trade regulators that often cost more than the taxes they created. Colonists also saw how British office holders often sucked up wealth in other colonies around the world. This included Bishops for the Anglican Church. These created comfortable lives for well connected members of the British establishment, but left the colonies poorer overall.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.The most famous of these incidents was the British occupation of Boston beginning in 1768. New York also had a fight over having to pay for soldiers they did not want. Armies were necessary when there was an external threat. Using them as law enforcement against the people was an act of tyranny.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.This fight went back at least as far as the French and Indian war, when British commanders simply did whatever they wanted, without feeling constrained to explain themselves to colonial legislatures, or even royal governors. Civilian control, meaning local control of soldiers in their midst, was considered an absolute necessity.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:This seems to be a dig at the king for supporting the authority of the Parliament in London to legislate on behalf of the colonies.
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:Again, this is a reference to putting regulars in colonies that did not want them and which colonists had to support financially. This was not just an issue of putting soldiers in individual homes. Colonists did not was to support regular soldiers within their colonies, wherever the regulars slept.
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:This is a jab at one of the Coercive Acts, which ordered that colonial courts could not try soldiers for murder. Such trials would be held back in London.
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:Britain had always barred direct trade between colonies and other countries outside the empire. But with the outbreak of war, it has banned all colonial trade anywhere. Such a blockade is generally considered an act of war.
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:This, of course, had been the rallying cry of protest since the Stamp Act of 1765.
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:Britain, of course, had moved many hearings to admiralty courts without juries.
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:Britain had threatened to send colonists to London for trial of certain crimes, though I’m not sure they ever actually did this until the war began.
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these ColoniesThis referenced the Quebec Act. Britain had maintained many French laws and refused to introduce basic English principles of government, like juries and elected legislatures. It then gave Quebec control over all western lands. This expanded the size of a colony that had no basic liberties, thus preventing other colonies from settling those lands without giving up their rights as Englishmen.
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:This is a pretty direct reference to the Massachusetts Government Act, the 1774 coercive act which revoked the colonial charter and took away most power of self-government.
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.Again, this references the suspension of colonial legislatures when a royal governor did not like what they were doing. This seems to be a direct reference to the Declaratory Act which held that Parliament had the right to legislate for the colonies in all cases whatsoever. Also, of course, London seemed to bypass colonial legislatures and imposing its own rules on colonists on an ever expanding range of issues.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.In late 1775, following news of Lexington and Concord, the King declared the colonies in rebellion and outside his protection. This effectively called on Parliament to go to war with the colonies. The King’s decision to take Parliament’s side rather than broker a compromise was what led many moderates in the colonies to join the move for independence.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.Since the war began, the army and navy had of course engaged in open warfare, burning towns like Falmouth, Charlestown, and Norfolk.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.Although they had not been in battle yet, delegates were well aware that the King had paid German mercenaries to supplement the army that Britain was sending to America. The idea that leader would hire foreigners to kill his own people was seen as an act of tyranny.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.Britain regularly captured merchant vessels and forced colonist sailors either to join the British Navy or be killed.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.Domestic insurrections is generally considered to be a reference to Virginia Governor Dunmore’s attempts to get slaves to oppose the rebellion in defense of the Crown. This also references attempts by British Indian agents to get various tribes to support British efforts in the war. The phrase “merciless Indian Savages” has been tagged as racist in recent years. However, it does reflect the fear at the time that native tribes engaged in warfare tended to commit horrific acts against civilians and prisoners. Yes, colonists often visited the same level of cruelty against natives. But for the colonists at this time, this was a particularly scary element of warfare that they wished to avoid.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.Colonies had been sending petition for many years, but of course made no progress with these. This was Congress’ way of saying that we tried to settle this by appealing to the government, but got nowhere. The refusal of leaders even to consider petitions and debate the problems was a sign that the government was not interested in the support of the people, but rather relied on the tyrannical use of force to control them.
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 an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.Colonies also made direct appeals to the English people. They sometimes got results when the English, concerned about trade boycotts, encouraged Parliament to back down. But in recent years, the British public did not seem terribly sympathetic. As a result, they seemed to hold different interests and could not remain as a single people anymore. Someday, they might be allies again, but never again one people.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.This final paragraph states very directly that for the above reasons, the colonies are now sovereign States with no political ties to Britain. They would continue a war against what they now regarded as the foreign nation of Great Britain, and would seek the assistance of other countries to win that war.
In pledging their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, the delegates recognized they were putting everything on the line. After this open challenge to who would be the sovereigns of North American settlements, there was no turning back.
With that the Continental Congress and America awaited Britain’s response.
Next week: the British begin landing the largest military force ever seen in America at Staten Island, New York.
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Next Episode 101: British Land at Staten Island
Previous Episode 99: Declaring Independence
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Declaration of Independence (full text): http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document
Declaration of Independence (annotated)
Happy Independence Day: Which Day Is It? http://unlearnedhistory.blogspot.com/2015/07/happy-independence-day-which-day-is-it.html
Locke, John Two Treatises of Civil Government, 1689: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/locke-the-two-treatises-of-civil-government-hollis-ed
Rousseau, Jean-Jaques The Social Contract, 1762:
Wolverton, Joe II In Pursuit of the "Pursuit of Happiness
Declaration of Independence, Lesson Plan
(from archive.org unless noted)
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. 5, June 5 - Oct. 8, 1776, Gov’t Printing Office, 1904.
Becker, Carl L. Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas, Harcourt, Brace & Co. 1922.
Dwight, Nathaniel The Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Harper & brothers, 1840.
Force, Peter American Archives, Fifth Series, Vol 1, M. St. Claire Clarks, 1837.
Goodrich, Charles A. Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Mather, 1840.
Linn, William The Life of Thomas Jefferson: Author of the Declaration of Independence, and Third President of the United States, Andrus, Woodruff, & Gauntlett, 1843
Lossing, Benson J. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence. The Declaration Historically Considered, Evans, Stoddart & Co. 1870.
Tyler, Moses, C. The Literary History of the American Revolution, 1763-1783, Vol. 2, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, Basic Books, 2013.
De Bolla, Peter The Fourth of July: And the Founding of America, Harry N. Abrams, 2008.
Hogeland, William Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776 Simon & Schuster, 2010.
Maier, Pauline American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, Knopf, 1997 (Book recommendation of the week).
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.