Constitutional Topic: The Declaration of Independence
The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns the Declaration of Independence, the text of which is available at this site. The final, signed version of the Declaration can be seen in person at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
The Declaration of Independence is seen as that document that established the new nation of the United States. The date of its formal acceptance by the Continental Congress, July 4, 1776, is celebrated each year in the U.S. with fireworks, parties, citizenship ceremonies, and baseball games. 1976, the two-hundredth anniversary of that date, was a giant party, the bicentennial, with a special quarter minted that year to help celebrate.
All this for 2000 words written in long-hand on a piece of parchment paper? What's so special about the Declaration of Independence and what it says?
A history lesson
Any discussion of the Declaration of Independence must have at least a few words about history. There have been entire books written about the history of the colonies in the new world, the Revolutionary War, the patriots. This page cannot provide all of the depth needed to fully understand the historical context, but it will give you a good place to get an overview, and hopefully spur you on to do further research.
Life in America in the 18th century was not easy. Colonists, most of whom came from England or whose parents or grandparents came from England, had to contend with harsh winters, unfriendly Indians, foreign flora and fauna, and with the results of wars mostly started and fought 1000 miles away. The people who came to America, though, were a hardy bunch. Many came to satisfy a need for adventure, some to escape persecution, others were brought here as servants or slaves. The hardships they faced on an almost daily basis gave them a fierce loyalty to each other, to their colonies, to the land on which they lived. Far from the King, they felt free.
The colonists were loyal subjects of the English King, George III. For a time. They fought with the British (they were British, after all) against the French in the French and Indian War (known to the English as the Seven Years War). A young George Washington cut his military teeth at Pittsburgh in 1754, where he was hailed as a hero for taking on a large French contingent, despite being captured and sent home packing. In 1763, the English won that war, which started in the colonies and expanded to Europe and Asia, and they took much of the French holdings in North America as prizes of war.
1763. 1776. In thirteen years, the colonies went from loyal subjects, helping the war cause, to rebels, intent on expelling Britain from the world it had conquered, intent on independence. The British, it can be said, brought this upon themselves.
There are many reasons given for the change, from the patriotic to the cynical. For some, the colonists were intent on freedom, on ridding themselves of a monarch that oppressed them. For others, the ruling elite of the colonies was done sharing the wealth of their holdings with the mother country, and had to sever all ties to keep it all for themselves. The real truth is that both are true, to some extent, and there are lots of little reasons in between.
The French and Indian War was a great victory for the United Kingdom, but it left a large hole in the nation's wallet, doubling its debt. Taxes were increased everywhere, and the colonies were no exception. Indeed, the King felt that since his soldiers were in the colonies, there to protect the people (and the land and its riches) against foreign attack and Indian transgression, that the colonies should pay more than their fair share of the defense budget.
In the years to follow, 1763 through 1765, the British Parliament enacted several laws which the colonists sharply disagreed with. The Proclamation of 1763 prevented settlement of the area south of the Appalachians; the Currency Act prohibited the use of paper money for the payment of debt; the Sugar Act placed a tax on goods imported into the colonies, such as sugar, wine, and coffee and provided for tight control on its enforcement; the Quartering Act required colonists to board soldiers upon request. In 1765, a final, pivotal law - the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act placed a direct tax on the colonists themselves, not just on imports. The Act required tax stamps be purchased and affixed to all manner of paper goods, from legal documents to newspapers to playing cards. By itself, the Stamp Act might not have started a revolution, but combined with all the previous acts, it lit a fire.
As a result of the Stamp Act, a Stamp Act Congress was called, and nine of the thirteen colonies sent representatives. They denounced the Act and sent a formal denunciation to the King and the Parliament. The Act was repealed in 1766, but not in direct response to the colonist's pleas - in fact, it was British merchants and exporters who pressured the repeal, based on falling sales from the colonies' boycotts of all taxable items.
Probably because it had not fully comprehended the fury of the colonists over the Stamp Act, the Parliament tried a direct tax on the colonies again in 1767. The Townshend Acts placed duties on many staple imports such as glass, paper, paint, and tea. The colonists rebelled against the tax by once again boycotting the goods. This time, there would be no repeal - the British sent in troops to intimidate the colonies, to induce trade. For years, the soldiers lived in the midst of the colonists, their presence stirring anger and frustration. American politicians, including Benjamin Franklin, called for the repeal of the acts and the return of the troops. Though the Parliament did back off slightly on the economic front, they were determined to maintain the troops.
In 1770, things boiled over in Boston. An unruly mob, some angry that idle British soldiers were taking valuable jobs, confronted a small contingent of soldiers. They attacked the soldiers with snowballs, and the soldiers returned bullets, killing five. The so-called Boston Massacre was seized upon by the revolutionaries who had already established themselves, Samuel Adams among them. Paul Revere struck a famous engraving of the incident. John Adams, who wanted to ensure fairness, defended the soldiers at trial, where most were acquitted. More than half of Boston's population turned out for the funeral procession. And the British withdrew their troops.
In 1773, the Tea Act was enacted. To help finance the East India Company's expensive imperial expansion in India, Parliament eliminated the tax on the Company's tea. Most Americans, by now, were drinking imported Dutch tea, to avoid paying the Townshend tax. The cost of the Company's tea would be cheaper than the Dutch tea, even with the Townshend tax. This gave the colonists a dilemma - pay less for tea and pay the hated tax, or pay more for tea and continue defiance. When a shipment of the Company's tea arrived in Boston, a band of men led by Samuel Adams, attacked the three ships it had arrived on and threw the tea into Boston Harbor. The Boston Tea Party was a turning point.
Could a tea-stained harbor really lead to war? The British Parliament, up to now determined to placate the colonists by pulling back taxes just enough to cool the flames of rebellion, decided now was the time to stand firm. They demanded payment for the tea, and the town of Boston refused to pay. The Parliament responded by passing the Coercive Acts (called Intolerable Acts by the colonists) in March, 1774.
The Continental Congresses and War
Word of the Intolerable Acts spread quickly. In September, 1774, another intercolonial meeting was called. Fifty-six delegates from twelve colonies gathered in Philadelphia. The First Continental Congress, as it was later known, drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which they sent to King George. At the same time, Canada was invited to join with the Congress and the Continental Association it established. Committees of Safety were established, charged with enforcing the goals of the association, which were primarily the boycott of English goods. One of the last things the Congress did was agree to meet again in May of 1775, to discuss their options, giving the King plenty of time to respond to the Declaration.
The intention of the British was not to give up - and the best way it knew how to subdue rebellion was by sending in the troops. The Americans, many of whom had been a British infantryman at one point in his life, knew that a confrontation was inevitable. They began to train, farmers, peasants, shopkeepers, to be able to pick up their guns to fight, on a minute's notice (hence the moniker Minuteman). They did not have to wait long to put their practice to use. In April, 1775, British troops were sent from Boston to find a colonist supply dump in Concord. Paul Revere and Billy Dawes set off from Boston to warn the minutemen - first they stopped in Lexington, where a small group of them waited for the troops. Joined by Samuel Prescott, the three rode on to Concord where the main body of the resistance lay. The three were captured, but Prescott escaped and made his way to Concord. The first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired in Lexington, where the minutemen slowed the British, giving the Concord contingent time to prepare, once warned by Prescott. The troops finally reached Concord, where intense gun battles raged - the British finally pulled back to lick their wounds.
Less than a month later, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia as planned. The answer from the King was obvious. The colonists felt they had no choice - war was at hand, and it was a battle they had to win. Many at the Congress still wanted to resolve the issue peacefully, despite the indications given in Concord. The Congress met throughout the spring and summer, conducting national business, such as setting standards for the conduct of trade, establishing currency, and the establishment of foreign diplomats to strike alliances.
The British were not in a conciliatory mood, however, and King George declared the colonies to be rebellious and seditious, and sent 12,000 Hessian mercenaries to North America to suppress the uprising. Skirmishes had continued after Concord, including the taking of Fort Ticonderoga and Crown Point on Lake Champlain and the Battle of Bunker Hill. The patriots of the North were bound and determined to fight, though the Southern delegates were not so sure. John Adams ensured the South would enter into the fray by suggesting a Southerner would lead the American troops - none other than the hero of the French and Indian War, George Washington. With the threat of the Hessians, the thrill of the American victories up to that point, and the outlook of political and economic freedom, the road was laid.
One main obstacle remained. The final decision to declare the colonies independent of Britain. Throughout early 1776, the majority of the Congress was not convinced that independence was the right move. It took a 55-page pamphlet by Pennsylvanian Thomas Paine to change their minds. Written in January, 1776, Common Sense argued forcefully for independence. The pamphlet gained a great following, and was widely read throughout the colonies. Its arguments were convincing (as was the threat of 12,000 Hessian troops), and by spring of 1776, independence was on the mind of most Americans, including those in Congress.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee proposed three things: that the colonies declare themselves independent of Britain; that the colonies should join together somehow; and that foreign alliances should be sought out. The committee to look into the question of independence was made up of John Adams, Ben Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was well regarded as a writer, and was also needed to balance the Northerners on the committee. He was drafted by the other members to write a declaration, which he did despite personal problems with his wife's health and other duties he had in Congress. He presented the declaration to the committee within a few days. The committee forwarded it on to the Congress after some revisions.
On July 2, the Congress voted to accept the document, after some editing toned down some particularly caustic paragraphs and struck others completely. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was formally accepted. It was formally signed on August 2, 1776, with some members adding their names after that date. The Declaration was printed and sent out to the colonies and to the troops. A new nation, the "united States of America," was born.
The Declaration of Independence was originally written by Jefferson, but the document as we know it today is not entirely his. The independence committee made a considerable number of revisions to Jefferson's draft. Jefferson forwarded a marked-up copy of his first draft to Franklin (who stayed at home much of the time from the effects of gout), asking for his input following the revision of the rest of the committee. This draft survives today, and is housed in the Library of Congress. Once the committee was satisfied with the declaration, it was sent to the full Congress for approval.
For two days, July 2 and 3, the Congress worked on the declaration. It was a harsh attack on the King and on Britain itself. Despite the fervor of revolution, it was thought wise to tone down the rhetoric. Jefferson's first two paragraphs, with their strong and patriotic wording (like "when in the course of human events," and "we hold these truths to be self-evident"), were left mostly untouched. But Jefferson was much too wordy in his listing of the crimes of the King. Though such lists, justifications for the actions about to be taken, were common, they usually had a small number of well-known offenses the common folk could recall and wrap their minds around. Jefferson, with a seeming photographic memory of the events of the last decade, listed many small, trivial events and did so at great length. Notably, a long charge concerning the slave trade was struck, and a long attack on the British people was edited back considerably. In all, it is generally agreed that the final, edited version of the Declaration is a much stronger document than Jefferson's drafts.
The Declaration of Independence is divided into three main parts, in a style that was very common in its day. A preamble, a list of grievances or justifications, and finally the point of all that preceded it. Much of the preamble came from a previous work by George Mason, the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Published just days after Lee's proposition to the Congress, Jefferson borrowed heavily from the work. Whether this was of his own volition or at the behest of the independence committee is unknown, but such borrowing was perfectly ethical at the time, though we might frown on such unattributed use today.
The preamble establishes that all men have rights, that the government is established to secure those rights, and if and when such government becomes a hindrance to those rights, it should be abolished - or ties to it broken. It notes that people would rather do some amount of suffering rather than take this extreme step, but that such tolerance is not unlimited. The abuses of the colonies by the King had reached such a point. The time to present the facts to the world was here.
Then are listed almost 30 separate points, the crimes of the King against the people of the colonies, and finally an indictment of the people of Britain, for allowing such injustices to continue. It vows that the new nation has no lasting grudge against the people of Britain, but that it will fight them if need be: "Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."
Finally, the climax of the document, its declaration. Buried in verbal flourish, the point can be boiled down to this: "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."