The Declaration of Independence was America’s first and, arguably, greatest document. It not only laid out the reasons why we should leave the British Empire but also eloquently explained a different set of rules by which a nation should be governed. The background leading to the creation of this document is critical to understanding its content.
At the end of the French and Indian War (or Seven Year’s War) in 1763, the British Empire’s treasury was depleted due to the terrible expense of the war. Although it had been fought in several parts of the world, King George and Parliament decided to recover much of the cost on the backs of their American subjects.
Parliament enacted the Stamp Act (taxes on most printed materials) in 1765 and then the Townshend Act (taxes to fund royal officials, as well as language reinforcing Parliament’s right to tax the colonies) in 1767. While Parliament felt it reasonable that the colonies share of the cost of the recent war, the colonists felt quite different.
To understand where the Americans were coming from, it is important to understand that for much of our early history the British Empire had neglected their American colonies. As a result, Americans had developed a strong independent streak. Out of necessity, our early leaders created their own assemblies and learned how to govern themselves.
Colonial officials reasoned that since the colonies were not directly represented in Parliament, that legislative body did not have the right to levy taxes on them. Not surprisingly, tensions rose over the course of the next few years as the Americans resisted and found ways to avoid paying these new taxes.
Following the Gaspee Affair in 1772 in which colonists burned a British ship, and the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when the Sons of Liberty threw a shipload of tea into Boston Harbor, Parliament attempted to assert its authority with a series of bills known in America as the Intolerable Acts (in England they were called the Coercion Acts).
They essentially stripped Massachusetts of most of the freedoms it had enjoyed since its founding. The harshness of these acts first surprised and then outraged people in all thirteen colonies. People reasoned if England could do that to one, they could do it to all.
To address this crisis and craft a response, colonial leaders convened the First Continental Congress in September 1774. They met in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, and delegates attended from 12 of the 13 colonies; Georgia chose not to attend. They decided to impose a boycott on British goods and send King George a list of their grievances, but their petition fell on deaf ears.
As one month led into the next in 1775, matter grew worse. On April 19, American militiamen first fought British regulars at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and on May 10 colonial leaders convened the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Most of the representatives still hoped for a reconciliation with England. After all, most still thought of themselves as English. Their ancestors had come over from England, their laws were based on English laws, and we spoke the same language.
Not surprisingly, the first point of business for Congress was to try to forge a reconciliation with England, and John Dickinson led this effort. Because most colonists viewed Parliament and not the King as the real problem, they sent a second petition, the so-called Olive Branch petition, directly to King George in July 1775. They soon found out they did not have a sympathetic ear with the King.
On August 23, in reaction to the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, Parliament passed the Proclamation of Rebellion which formally declared the colonies to be in a state of rebellion. By the time Congress’ petition arrived at court in late August, King George refused to even receive it, and the chance for reconciliation was essentially at an end.
Notified in late 1775 of these developments, John Adams and others who saw independence as the only choice for the colonies began to agitate for it. Then, in January 1776, Thomas Paine, an Englishman newly arrived in America, published a pamphlet called “Common Sense” which advocated for complete independence from England. His timing was perfect.
Much like Harriett Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” crystallized the abolitionist movement in the 1850s, Paine’s pamphlet presented to the American people a sound and well-reasoned argument for why separation from England made sense. Ideas that only months before were almost too extreme to discuss were now seen as the best alternative. The table was now set for the great debate to reach its inevitable conclusion.
The discussions were intense, but by late June enough progress had been made toward securing the votes that Congress formed a “Committee of Five” to draft a resolution declaring independence. This committee which included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman, and Thomas Jefferson wanted Adams to draft the document. However, Adams insisted that Jefferson do the writing with Adams editing it as needed.
On July 2, the Congress approved the Lee Resolution, introduced by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, calling for independence from Great Britain. The Committee of Five promptly submitted its declaration document to Congress which they approved, after several modifications, on July 4. Thus, in the minds of the delegates, and soon in the eyes of the world, our nation was born.
The words contained in the Declaration of Independence were some of the most revolutionary ideas ever printed. When Congress approved the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” they were going where no government had gone before.
The preamble further declared that “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Given that, in 1776, hereditary monarchies ruled all the nations of the earth, this too was a radical doctrine.
The Declaration of Independence also listed 27 grievances the King had committed against his subjects in America, essentially justifying our decision to separate from England.
These complaints ranged from “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly” to “He has made Judges dependent on his will” to “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures.” Taken together, they made a compelling case for leaving the British Empire.
Ultimately, the American colonists in 1776 were left with two choices. They could either completely submit to the authority of Parliament and the Crown, becoming vassals of England, or declare complete independence and thereby control their own destiny. Time has shown that they chose wisely.
So why should the background to the Declaration of Independence matter to us today? It is important to know that our Forefathers tried to reconcile with the mother country and that rebellion was not our preferred choice.
We also must recognize the intensity of the debate and the widely varying opinions regarding the proper course of action to take and understand that our Forefathers agonized over their decision.
Finally, we must appreciate that these words revolutionized the way that not only Americans but also the rest of the world viewed the role of government and the very concept of where the right to govern originates.
Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page, Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.