1776 — Declaration of Independence

Signing the Declaration of Independence
Signing the Declaration of Independence

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution to the Continental Congress stating that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." Four days later Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration embodying the intent of the resolution. The committee, consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston, pressed on Jefferson the task of writing their report.

On June 28 the committee submitted to Congress "A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled." The Congress passed Lee's original resolution on July 2, thus deciding in favor of independence, but took three days to debate and amend the committee's draft declaration before approving it on July 4. "The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America" (the Continental Congress never officially called it the Declaration of Independence) was engrossed on parchment, and on August 2 every member present signed it, the remaining members signing later.

The separation of Lee's resolution for independence from Jefferson's declaration suggests the prescience of Congress. It recognized that more was required on this auspicious occasion than a simple statement of withdrawal from the British Empire. The world was watching and a "decent respect to the Opinions of mankind" required a statement of causes and principles. Fortunately, Jefferson did not fail them. The declaration presents in brief compass the fundamental premises of American nationhood: "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights," and "that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Looking back more than two hundred years later, the reader focuses on these brief phrases in the declaration and wants to know where they came from and what they meant. A few scholars have claimed that Jefferson relied heavily on a handful of eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers, notably Francis Hutcheson, for many of the key ideas. More believe that John Locke exercised a predominant influence over Jefferson's thinking; many of the words in the opening paragraphs of the declaration closely resemble passages from Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Jefferson himself did not credit any particular philosopher but claimed his aim was to "place before mankind the common sense of the subject" and to make the declaration "an expression of the American mind." For the document to serve its purpose, Jefferson had to draw together ideas in common currency, whatever their source. The declaration is a powerful and incisive summary of Whig political thought to which Locke and many others had contributed.

Declaration of IndependenceThe most perplexing word in the declaration is equality. How could the slaveholders in Congress have embraced an idea so out of keeping with the realities of bound labor in America? Jefferson and the committee implicitly recognized the contradiction by including in the original draft a charge that the king had "waged a cruel war against human nature" by assaulting a "distant people" and "captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere." Although Jefferson deflected guilt from the colonists to the monarch, the words offended southern delegates, especially those from South Carolina, who were unwilling to countenance any acknowledgment that slavery violated the "most sacred rights of life and liberty." The price of their endorsement of the declaration was removal of the slavery passage, foreshadowing the repeated compromises with slavery that were made after independence was achieved. The word equality remained, however, and eventually, after immense cost to the nation and thousands of blighted lives, it triumphed over the slave power.

The significance of the declaration's fundamental principles came to be understood only as American history unfolded. At the time, Congress was as concerned with the charges brought against the king as with ideas of political philosophy. The list of his tyrannical acts constitutes the bulk of the declaration, and Congress devoted more attention to amending these charges than polishing the statement of principles. The indictment of the king assumed importance because the colonists previously had directed their criticism against Parliament or the king's ministers, not against the king himself. Protests against royal government customarily began with an assertion of loyalty to the monarch. He was the friend of the people amid their many enemies. In constitutional terms, the most radical revolutionaries asked only that the king treat their assemblies as the sovereign legislatures for the colonies, just as Parliament was for England. They never questioned his right to rule.

To turn on the king after 1774 was a sharp reversal, yet necessary before independence could be complete. It was a difficult turn to make. England waged war on the colonies for fourteen months after April 19, 1775, before the colonists could bring themselves to make the final break. During all that time they referred to the troops as "ministerial," as if the Crown's bureaucracy, not the king, waged the war. One principle inhibited criticism of the king himself, the idea that the king could do no wrong. Even if the policies came from his mouth or pen, it was assumed as a necessary fiction of state that malicious ministers had deceived him, not that he had acted out of ill will toward his people.

That idea was so strong that it took much evidence to the contrary to persuade people that George III endorsed the oppressive policies of his ministers and favored severe measures against the colonists. By August 1775, he was using his personal influence to persuade the Privy Council to declare the colonies in open rebellion. Through the fall he urged the "most decisive exertions" to put an end to the disorders. On December 22, 1775, he signed the American Prohibition Act into law, forbidding all commerce with the colonies. He explicitly put the Americans outside of his protection, thus, according to the principles of monarchical government, ending their obligation of allegiance.

Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published in January 1776, crystallized the growing sense that George III was a "royal brute" who merited disdain rather than allegiance. Even then many held back, but by June 1776 the preponderance of opinion was that the last tie with Britain, allegiance to the monarch, had been broken not by his loyal American subjects but by the king himself. Jefferson noted in the declaration that "mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable" than to abolish accustomed forms of government. "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."

It was the purpose of the declaration to demonstrate that the history of the king was a "history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny." By showing the king to be a traitor to his people, the colonists rightfully dissolved the last political bonds with Britain and assumed a "separate and equal station" among nations of the earth. Although looking back we turn most frequently to the noble enunciation of political principles, at the time perhaps the primary purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to achieve release from Britain by indicting the British king for treason against his American subjects.

1776 Bibliography