United States Declaration of Independence

Facebook Twitter

“Believe me, dear Sir:  there is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves the union with Great Britain than I do.  But by the God that made me, I will cease to exist before I yield to a connection on such terms as the British Parliament propose; and in this, I think I speak the sentiments of America.”

                                                 Thomas Jefferson,  November 29, 1775

                                                    Principal author of the Declaration

By the time that the Declaration of Independence was adopted in July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies and Great Britain had been at war for more than a year.  Relations between the colonies and the mother country had been deteriorating since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763.  The war had plunged the British government deep into debt, and so Parliament enacted a series of measures to increase tax revenue from the colonies.  Parliament believed that these acts, such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townsend Acts of 1767, were a legitimate means of having the colonies pay their fair share of the costs to keep the colonies in the British Empire.

Many colonists, however, had developed a different conception of the empire.  Because the colonies were not directly represented in Parliament, 

colonists argued that Parliament had no right to levy taxes upon them.  This tax dispute was part of a larger divergence between British and American interpretations of the British Constitution and the extent of Parliament’s authority in the colonies.  The orthodox British view, dating from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was that Parliament was the supreme authority throughout the empire, and so by definition anything Parliament did was constitutional.  In the colonies, however, the idea had developed that the British constitution recognized certain fundamental rights that no government –not even Parliament–could violate.  After the Townsend Acts, some essayists even began to question whether Parliament had any legitimate jurisdiction in the colonies at all.  Anticipating the arrangement of the British Commonwealth, by 1774 American writers such as Samuel Adams, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson were arguing that Parliament was the legislature of Great Britain only, and that the colonies, which had their own legislatures, were connected to the rest of the empire only through their allegiance to the Crown.

The issue of Parliament’s authority in the colonies became a crisis after Parliament passed the Coercive Acts in 1774 to punish the Province of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party of 1773.  Many colonists saw the Coercive Acts as a violation of the British Constitution and thus a threat to the liberties of all of British America.  In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia to coordinate a response.  Congress organized a boycott of British goods and petitioned the king for repeal of the acts.  These measures were unsuccessful because King George III and the ministry of Prime Minister Lord North were determined not to retreat on the question of parliamentary supremacy.  As King George III wrote to Lord North in 1774, “blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent.”

Even after fighting in the American Revolutionary War began at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, most colonists still hoped for reconciliation with Great Britain.  When the Second Continental Congress convened at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia in May 1775, some delegates hoped for eventual independence, but no one yet advocated declaring it .  Although many colonists no longer believed that Parliament had any sovereignty over them, they still professed loyalty to King George, whom they had hoped would intercede on their behalf.  They were to be disappointed: in late 1775, the king rejected Congress’s second petition, issued a Proclamation of Rebellion, and announced before Parliament on October 26, 1775 that he was considering “friendly offers of foreign assistance” to suppress the rebellion.  A pro-American minority in Parliament warned that the government was driving the colonists toward independence.

In January 1776, just as it became clear in the colonies that the king was not inclined to act as a conciliator, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” was published. Paine, who had recently arrived in the colonies from England, argued in favor of colonial independence, advocating republicanism as an alternative to monarchy and hereditary rule.  “Common Sense” introduced no new ideas, and probably had little effect on Congress’s thinking about independence; its importance was in stimulating public debate on a topic that few had previously dared to openly discuss.  Public support for separation from Great Britain steadily increased after the publication of Paine’s enormously popular pamphlet.

Although some colonists still held out hope for reconciliation, developments in early 1776 further strengthened public support for independence.  In February 1776, colonists learned of Parliament’s passage of the Prohibitory Act, which established a blockade of American ports and declared American ships to be enemy vessels.  John Adams, a strong supporter of independence, believed that Parliament had effectively declared American independence before Congress had been able to.  Adams labeled the Prohibitory Act the “Act of Independency,” calling it “a compleat Dismemberment of the British Empire.”  Support for declaring independence grew even more when it was confirmed that King George had hired German mercenaries to use against his American subjects.

Despite this growing popular support for independence, Congress lacked the clear authority to declare it.  Delegates had been elected to congress by thirteen different governments– which included extra-legal conventions, ad hoc committees, and elected assemblies– and were bound by the instructions given to them.  Regardless of their personal opinions, delegates could not vote to declare independence unless their instructions permitted such an action.  Several colonies, in fact, expressly prohibited their delegates from taking any steps towards separation from Great Britain, while other delegations had instructions that were ambiguous on the issue.  As public sentiment for separation from Great Britain grew, advocates of independence sought to have the Congressional instructions revised.  For congress to declare independence, a majority of delegations would need authorization to vote for independence, and at least one colonial government would need to specifically instruct (or grant permission for) its delegation to propose a declaration of independence in Congress.  Between April and July 1776, a “complex political war” was waged to bring this about.

In the campaign to revise Congressional instructions, many Americans formally expressed their support for separation from Great Britain in what were effectively state and local declarations of independence.  More than ninety such declarations were issued throughout the the Thirteen Colonies from April to July 1776.  These “declarations” took a variety of forms.  Some were formal, written instructions for Congressional delegations, such as the Halifax Resolves of April 12, with which North Carolina became the first colony to explicitly authorize its delegates to vote for independence.  Others were legislative acts that officially ended British rule in individual colonies, such as on May 4, when the Rhode Island legislature became the first to declare its independence from Great Britain.  Many “declarations” were resolutions adopted at town or county meetings that offered support for independence.  A few came in the form of jury instructions, such as the statement issued on April 23, 1776, by Chief Justice William Henry Drayton of South Carolina:  “the law of the land authorizes me to declare…that George the Third, King of Great Britain…has no authority over us, and we owe no obedience to him.”  

Some colonies held back from endorsing independence.  Resistance was centered in the middle colonies of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.  Advocates of independence saw Pennsylvania as the key: if that colony could be converted to the pro-independence cause, it was believed that the others would follow.  On May 1, however, opponents of independence retained control of the Pennsylvania Assembly in a special election that had focused on the question of independence.  In response, on May 10 Congress passed a resolution, which had been promoted by John Adams and Richard Henry Lee, calling on the colonies without a “government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs” to adopt new governments.  The resolution passed unanimously, and was even supported by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, the leader of the anti-independence faction in Congress, who believed that it did not apply to his colony.

As was the custom, Congress appointed a committee to draft a preamble to explain the purpose of the resolution.  John Adams wrote the preamble, which stated that because King George had rejected reconciliation and was hiring foreign mercenaries to use against the colonies, “it is necessary that the exercise for every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed.”  John Adams’ preamble was meant to encourage the overthrow of the governments of Pennsylvania  and Maryland, which were still under proprietary governance.  Congress passed the preamble on May 15, 1776 after several days of heated debate, but four of the middle colonies voted against it, and the Maryland delegation walked out in protest.  Adams regarded his May 15 preamble effectively as an American Declaration of Independence, although a formal declaration would still have to be made.

“This Day the Congress has passed the most important Resolution, that ever was taken in America.” 

                                                              John Adams   May 15, 1776

On the same day that Congress passed Adams’s radical preamble, the Virginia Convention set the stage for a formal Congressional declaration of independence.  On May 15, the Convention instructed Virginia’s congressional delegation “to propose that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain.”  In accordance with those instructions, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a three-part resolution to Congress on June 7, 1776.  The motion which was seconded by John Adams, called on Congress to declare independence, from foreign alliances, and prepare a plan of colonial confederation.  

The part of the resolution relating to declaring independence read:

“Resolved, 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.” 

Lee’s resolution met with resistance in the ensuing debate.  Opponents of the resolution, while conceding that reconciliation with Great Britain was unlikely, argued that declaring independence was premature, and that securing foreign aid should take priority.  Advocates of the resolution countered that foreign governments would not intervene in an internal British struggle, and so a formal declaration of independence was needed before foreign aid was possible.  All Congress need to do, they insisted, was to “declare a fact which already exists.”  Delegates from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and New York were still not yet  authorized to vote for independence, however, and some of them threatened to leave Congress if the resolution were adopted.  Congress therefore voted on June 10, 1776 to postpone further discussion of Lee’s resolution for three weeks.  Until then, Congress decided that a committee  should prepare a document announcing and explaining independence  in the event  that Lee’s resolution was approved when it was brought up again in July.

Support for a Congressional declaration of independence was consolidated in the final weeks of June 1776.  On June 14, the Connecticut Assembly instructed its delegates to propose independence, and the following day the legislatures of New Hampshire and Delaware authorized their delegates to declare independence.  In Pennsylvania, political struggles ended with the dissolution of the colonial assembly, and on June 18 a new Conference of Committees under Thomas McKean authorized Pennsylvania’s delegates to declare independence.  On June 15, the Provincial Congress of New Jersey, which had been governing the province since January 1776, resolved that Royal Governor William Franklin was “an enemy to the liberties of this country” and had him arrested.  On June 21, they chose new delegates to Congress and empowered them to join in a declaration of independence.

Only Maryland and New York had yet to authorize independence.  When the Continental Congress had adopted Adams’ radical May 15 preamble, Maryland’s delegates walked out and sent to the Maryland Convention for instructions.  On May 20, the Maryland Convention rejected Adams’ preamble, instructing its delegates to remain against independence, but Samuel Chase went to Maryland and, thanks to local resolutions in favor of independence, was able to get the Maryland Convention to change its mind on June 28,1776.  Only the New York delegates were unable to get revised instructions .  When Congress had been considering the resolution of independence on June 8, the New York Provincial Congress told the delegates to wait.  But on June 30, the Provincial Congress evacuated New York as British forces approached, and would not convene again until July 10.  This meant that New York’s delegates would not be authorized to declare independence until after Congress had made its decision. 

While political maneuvering was setting the stage for an official declaration of independence, a document explaining the decision was being written, and on June 11, 1776 Congress appointed a “Committee of Five,” consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, to draft a declaration.  Because the committee left no minutes, there is some uncertainty about how the drafting process proceeded–accounts written many years later by Jefferson and Adams, although frequently cited, are contradictory and not entirely reliable.  What is certain is that the committee, after discussing the general outline that the document should follow, decided that Jefferson would write the first draft.  The committee in general, and Jefferson in particular, thought Adams should write the document, but Adams persuaded the committee to choose Jefferson and promised to consult with Jefferson personally.  Considering Congress’s busy schedule, Jefferson probably had limited time for writing over the next seventeen days, and likely wrote the draft quickly.  He then consulted the others, made some changes, and then produced another copy incorporating these alterations.  The committee presented this copy to the Congress on June 28, 1776.  The title of the document was “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled.”

Congress ordered that the draft “lie on the table.”  For two days Congress methodically edited Jefferson’s primary document, shortening it by a fourth, removing unnecessary wording, and improving sentence structure.  Congress removed Jefferson’s assertion that Britain had forced slavery on the colonies, in order to moderate the document and appease persons in Britain who supported the Revolution.  Although Jefferson wrote that Congress had “mangled” his draft version, the Declaration that was finally produced, according to his biographer, John Ferling, was “the majestic document that inspired both contemporaries and posterity.”

On Monday, July 1, having tabled the draft of the declaration, Congress resolved itself into a committee of the whole, with Benjamin Harrison of Virginia presiding, and resumed debate on Lee’s resolution of independence.  John Dickinson made one last effort to delay the decision, arguing that Congress should not declare independence without first securing a foreign alliance and finalizing the Articles of confederation.  John Adams gave a speech in reply to Dickinson, restating the case for an immediate declaration.

After a long day of speeches, a vote was taken.  As always, each colony cast a single vote; the delegation for each colony–numbering two to seven members–voted amongst themselves to determine the colony’s vote.  Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against declaring independence.  The New York delegation, lacking permission to vote for independence abstained.  Delaware cast no vote because the delegation was split between Thomas McKean (who voted yes) and George Read (who voted no).  The remaining nine delegations voted in favor of independence, which meant that the resolution had been approved by the committee of the whole.  The next step was for the resolution to be voted upon by the Congress itself.  Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, who was opposed to Lee’s resolution but desirous of unanimity, moved that the vote be postponed until the  following day. 

On July 2, South Carolina reversed its position and voted for independence.  In the Pennsylvania delegation, Dickinson and Robert Morris abstained, allowing the delegation to vote three-to-two in favor of independence.  The tie in the Delaware delegation was broken by the timely arrival of Caesar Rodney, who voted for independence.  The New York delegation abstained once again, since they were still not authorized to vote for independence, although they would be allowed to do so by the New York Provincial Congress a week later.  The resolution of independence had been adopted with twelve affirmative votes and one abstention.  With this, the colonies had officially severed political ties with Great Britain.  In a now-famous letter written to his wife on the following day, John Adams predicted that July 2 would become a great American holiday.  Adams thought that the vote for independence would be commemorated; he did not foresee that Americans–including himself–would instead celebrate Independence Day on the date that the announcement of that act was finalized.

After voting in favor of the resolution of independence, Congress turned its attention to the committee’s draft of the declaration.  Over several days of debate, Congress made a few changes in wording and deleted nearly a fourth of the text, most notably a passage critical of the slave trade, changes that Jefferson resented.  On July 4, 1776, the wording of the Declaration of Independence was approved and sent to the printer for publication.

The Declaration of Independence is not divided into formal sections; but it is often discussed as consisting of five parts:

  1. Introduction, 
  2. the Preamble, 
  3. the Indictment of George III,
  4. the Denunciation of the British people,
  5. the Conclusion

Hence a new nation was created by the inhabitants of that said nation. An experiment using newly formed format of self government known as a Constitutional Republic was established.  Within this new experiment  “We The People” would be the ultimate authority through the ballot box.  The United States America would truly become one nation under God. 

Now You Know More of What Really Happened…………          

Facebook Twitter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *