“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….”
So begins one of the most famous documents in world history, the American Declaration of Independence. Drafted by a committee that included Thomas Jefferson as the primary author as well as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the Declaration was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in the summer of 1776, signed first by John Hancock, the President of the Congress, and eventually by 55 of his colleagues as well.
That much everyone knows, but students of American History have some basic questions that need explanation, most importantly:
Why was such a Declaration necessary?
What did it declare?
The first question is important when you consider that by the summer of 1776, the American colonies had been locked in a political conflict with Great Britain for more than a decade, and the two sides had been involved in a shooting war for more than a year. Ever since the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, the colonists had complained about the efforts by the British government to levy new taxes on the colonies. Those complaints had even swelled into spasms of violence, from the riot that led to the Boston Massacre in 1770 to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, even before the April 1775 showdown between the Minutemen and the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill later that summer.
The colonists had also made previous statements—official and unofficial—announcing their displeasure with the British government and claiming their rights as Englishmen. Jefferson had even written an earlier document, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, for the First Continental Congress in 1774, which had announced that parliament had no rights to enforce laws or taxes on the American colonies. Even then, Jefferson had suggested the colonies were independent, but as the title suggested, his emphasized the rights of British America within the empire. If anything, most American rebels wanted to appeal to King George III to rein in parliament, and perhaps agree to an arrangement where the American colonies could have some form of home rule while maintaining the King as their sovereign.
By 1776, however, as the reality of armed conflict set in (colonial forces had invaded Quebec in the summer of 1775, and the British began sending fresh troops to New York by the late spring of 1776), the colonists faced a difficult choice. It was not likely that King George III was going to take their side against parliament—indeed, the new soldiers coming over the Atlantic were living proof that the King was as determined to bring the colonists to heel as his government. But who would be willing to say that the breach was irreparable?
In early 1776, Thomas Paine provided the intellectual nudge that so many colonists needed. In his pamphlet Common Sense, Paine stripped away the argument that the King would provide a unifying force. Indeed, he argued that monarchy itself was the problem. If the colonists hoped to be free, they needed to separate themselves from the Old World altogether. Paine’s pamphlet became a bestseller and provided the right argument at the right time, helping to convince many patriots that the future of their rebellion depended on their willingness to embrace complete independence.
As Paine wrote: “In short, monarchy and succession have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes. . . . In England, a King hath little more to do than to make war and give away places; which, in plain terms, is to empoverish the nation and set it together by the ears. A pretty business indeed for a man to be allowed eight hundred thousand sterling a year for, and worshipped into the bargain! Of more worth is one honest man to society, and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”
In addition to the intellectual revolution urged by Paine, independence offer practical advantages as well. As long as the colonies were merely rebellious parts of the British empire, they could not expect any assistance from other European powers. As independent states, however, the colonies could pursue a foreign policy and seek allies. Merely declaring independence would not be enough to get that assistance, but it was a necessary first step.
Not everyone agreed, however. Some of the representatives to the Continental Congress recoiled at the thought of a final break with Britain—either because they hoped that reconciliation was possible, or at least they wanted to put off that drastic step for as long as possible.
Much depended on the text that Jefferson and his colleagues delivered, which ended up overwhelming any lingering Congressional resistance.
The Declaration can be divided into three main parts:
The introduction, in which Jefferson provides the philosophical grounds for the declaration—that government exists to secure the inalienable rights. Citizens should respect their government as long as it does so, but when it clearly fails to do that, “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
A long list of actions by the King—not Parliament, but the King—that justified the decision to break ties with him. As Jefferson put it: “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.”
All of which builds to the conclusion, stating the ultimate the purpose of the document: “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 just to reinforce what a dramatic step this was, the Declaration concluded: “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.”
Those were not empty words. The members of the Continental Congress took an enormous risk by signing and publishing the Declaration. Although the document eventually became iconic, inspiring similar declarations in places as diverse as Haiti, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Israel, their immediate prospects were not so certain. They had no sure way of knowing how the war would go, or whether the “opinions of mankind” would look favorably upon their rebellion, and they had just committed treason against the only ruler they had ever known. It was a step into an uncertain future—with their lives at stake, and a new nation to win.