The Declaration of Independence is arguably one of the most influential documents in American History. Other countries and organizations have adopted its tone and manner in their own documents and declarations. For example, France wrote its 'Declaration of the Rights of Man' and the Women's Rights movement wrote its 'Declaration of Sentiments'. However, the Declaration of Independence was actually not technically necessary in proclaiming independence from Great Britain.
History of the Declaration of Independence
A resolution of independence passed the Philadelphia Convention on July 2. This was all that was needed to break away from Britain. The colonists had been fighting Great Britain for 14 months while proclaiming their allegiance to the crown. Now they were breaking away. Obviously, they wanted to make clear exactly why they decided to take this action. Hence, they presented the world with the 'Declaration of Independence' drafted by thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson.
The text of the Declaration has been compared to a 'Lawyer's Brief'. It presents a long list of grievances against King George III including such items as taxation without representation, maintaining a standing army in peacetime, dissolving houses of representatives, and hiring "large armies of foreign mercenaries." The analogy is that Jefferson is an attorney presenting his case before the world court. Not everything that Jefferson wrote was exactly correct. However, it is important to remember that he was writing a persuasive essay, not a historical text. The formal break from Great Britain was complete with the adoption of this document on July 4, 1776.
Mercantilism was the idea that colonies existed for the benefit of the Mother Country. The American colonists could be compared to tenants who were expected to 'pay rent', i.e., provide materials for export to Britain. Britain's goal was to have a greater number of exports than imports allowing them to store up wealth in the form of bullion. According to mercantilism, the wealth of the world was fixed. To increase wealth a country had two options: explore or make war. By colonizing America, Britain greatly increased its base of wealth. This idea of a fixed amount of wealth was the target of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations(1776). Smith's work had a profound effect on the American founding fathers and the nation's economic system.
Events Leading to the Declaration of Independence
The French and Indian War was a fight between Britain and France that lasted from 1754-1763. Because the British ended in debt, they began to demand more from the colonies. Further, parliament passed the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which prohibited settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
Beginning in 1764, Great Britain began passing acts to exert greater control over the American colonies which had been left more or less to themselves until the French and Indian War. In 1764, the Sugar Act increased duties on foreign sugar imported from the West Indies. A Currency Act was also passed that year banning the colonies from issuing paper bills or bills of credit because of the belief that the colonial currency had devalued the British money. Further, in order to continue to support the British soldiers left in America after the war, Great Britain passed the Quartering Act in 1765. This ordered colonists to house and feed British soldiers if there was not enough room for them in the barracks.
An important piece of legislation that really upset the colonists was the Stamp Act passed in 1765. This required stamps to be purchased or included on many different items and documents such as playing cards, legal papers, newspapers, and more. This was the first direct tax that Britain had imposed on the colonists. The money from it was to be used for defense. In response to this, the Stamp Act Congress met in New York City. 27 delegates from nine colonies met and wrote a statement of rights and grievances against Great Britain. In order to fight back, the Sons of Liberty and Daughters of Liberty secret organizations were created. They imposed non-importation agreements. Sometimes, enforcing these agreements meant tarring and feathering those who still wished to purchase British goods.
Events began to escalate with the passage of the Townshend Acts in 1767. These taxes were created to help colonial officials become independent of the colonists by providing them with a source of income. Smuggling of the affected goods meant that the British moved more troops to important ports such as Boston. The increase in troops led to many clashes including the famous Boston Massacre.
The colonists continued to organize themselves. Samuel Adams organized the Committees of Correspondence, informal groups that helped spread information from colony to colony.
In 1773, parliament passed the Tea Act, giving the British East India Company a monopoly to trade tea in America. This led to the Boston Tea Party where a group of colonists dressed as Indians dumped tea from three ships into Boston Harbor. In response, the Intolerable Acts were passed. These placed numerous restrictions on the colonists including the closing of Boston Harbor.
Colonists Respond and War Begins
In response to the Intolerable Acts, 12 of the 13 colonies met in Philadelphia from September-October, 1774. This was called the First Continental Congress. The Association was created calling for a boycott of British goods. The continuing escalation of hostility resulted in violence when in April 1775, British troops traveled to Lexington and Concord to take control of stored colonial gunpowder and to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Eight Americans were killed at Lexington. At Concord, the British troops retreated losing 70 men in the process.
May 1775 brought the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. All 13 colonies were represented. George Washington was named the head of the Continental Army with John Adams backing. The majority of delegates were not calling for complete independence at this point so much as changes in British policy. However, with the colonial victory at Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775, King George III proclaimed that the colonies were in a state of rebellion. He hired thousands of Hessian mercenaries to fight against the colonists.
In January 1776, Thomas Paine published his famous pamphlet entitled "Common Sense." Up until the appearance of this extremely influential pamphlet, many colonists had been fighting with the hope of reconciling. However, he argued that America should no longer be a colony to Great Britain but instead should be an independent country.
Committee to Draft the Declaration of Independence
On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee of five men to draft the Declaration: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson was given the task of writing the first draft. Once complete, he presented this to the committee. Together they revised the document and on June 28 submitted it to the Continental Congress. The Congress voted for independence on July 2. They then made some changes to the Declaration of Independence and finally approved it on July 4.
Declaration of Independence Study Questions
- Why have some called the Declaration of Independence a lawyer's brief?
- John Locke wrote about the natural rights of man including the right to life, liberty, and property. Why did Thomas Jefferson change "property" to "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration text?
- Even though many of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence resulted from acts of Parliament, why would the founders have addressed all of them to King George III?
- The original draft of the Declaration had admonitions against the British people. Why do you think that those were left out of the final version?