Constitutional Topic: The Declaration of Independence – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net

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
. 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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”