The adoption of the Declaration of Independence of “the thirteen united States of America” on July 4, 1776 formally ended a process that had been set in motion almost as soon as colonies were established in what became British North America. The early settlers, once separated physically from the British Isles by an immense ocean, in due course began to separate themselves politically, as well. Barely a decade after Jamestown was founded, the Virginia Company in 1619 acceded to the demands of the residents to form a local assembly, the House of Burgesses, which, together with a governor and council, would oversee local affairs. This arrangement eventually was recognized by the crown after the colony passed from the insolvent Virginia Company to become part of the royal domain. This structure then became the model of colonial government followed in all other colonies.

As the number and size of the colonies grew, the Crown sought to increase its control and draw them closer to England. However, those efforts were sporadic and of limited success during most of the 17th century, due to the isolation and the economic and political insignificance of the colonies, the power struggles between the King and Parliament, and the constitutional chaos caused in turn by the English Civil War, the Cromwell Protectorate, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. There was, then, a period of benign neglect under which the colonies controlled their own affairs independent of British interference, save the inevitable local tussles between the assemblies and the royal governors jockeying for political position. Still, the increasingly imperial objectives of the British government and expansion of British control over disconnected territories eventually convinced the British of the need for more centralized policy.

This change was reflected in North America by a process of subordinating the earlier charter- or covenant-based colonial governments to more direct royal control, one example being the consolidation in the 1680s of the New England colonies, plus New York and New Jersey into the Dominion of New England. While the Dominion itself was short-lived, and some of the old colonies regained charters after the Glorious Revolution, their new governments were much more tightly under the King’s influence. Governors would be appointed by the King, laws passed by local assemblies had to be reviewed and approved by royal officials such as the Board of Trade, and trade restrictions under the Navigation Acts and related laws were enforced by British customs officials stationed in the colonies. William Penn and the other proprietors retained their possessions and claims, but the King, frequently allying himself with anti-proprietor sentiments among the settlers, forced them to make political concessions that benefited the Crown.

Trade and general imperial policy were dictated by Parliament and administered from London. Still, the colonial assemblies retained significant local control and, particularly in the decades between 1720 and 1760, took charge of colonial finance through taxation and appropriations and appointment of finance officers to administer the expenditure of funds. While direction of Indian policy, local defense, and intercolonial relations belonged to the Crown, in fact even these matters were left largely to local governments. The Crown’s interests were represented in the person of the royal governor. However strong the political position of those governors was in theory, in practice they were quite dependent on the colonial assemblies for financial support. The overall division of political authority between the colonial governments and the British government in London was not unlike the federal structure that the Americans adopted to define the state-nation relationship after independence.

A critical change occurred with the vast expansion of British control over North America and other possessions in the wake of the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War) in 1763. Britain was heavily indebted from the war, and its citizens labored under significant taxes. Thus, the government saw the lightly-taxed colonials as the obvious source of revenue to contribute to the cost of stationing a projected 10,000 troops to defend North America from hostilities from Indian tribes and from French or Spanish forces. Parliament’s actions to impose taxes and, after colonial protests, abandon those taxes, only to enact new ones, both emboldened and infuriated the Americans. This friction led to increasingly vigorous protests by various local and provincial entities and to “congresses” of the colonies that drew them into closer union a decade before the formal break. Colonials organized as the Sons of Liberty and similar grass-roots radicals destroyed British property and attacked royal officials, sometimes in brutal fashion. At the same time, British tactics against the Americans became more repressive, in ways economic, political, and, ultimately, military. That cycle began to feed on itself in a chain reaction that, by the early 1770s, was destined to lead to a break.

The progression from the protests of the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, to the Declaration of Resolves of the First Continental Congress and subsequent formation of the Continental Association to administer a collective boycott against importation of British goods in 1774, to the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms issued by the Second Continental Congress in 1775, to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, shows a gradual but pronounced evolution of militancy in the Americans’ position. Protestations of loyalty to King and country and disavowal of a goal of independence were still common, but were accompanied by increasingly urgent promises of resistance to “unconstitutional” Parliamentary acts. American political leaders and polemicists advocated a theory of empire in which the local assemblies, along with a general governing body of the united colonies, would control internal affairs and taxation, subject only to the King’s assent. This “dominion theory” significantly reduced the role of Parliament, which would be limited to control of external commerce and foreign affairs. It was analogous to the status of Scotland within the realm, but was based on the constitutional argument that the colonies were in the King’s dominion, having emerged as crown colonies from the embryonic status of their founding as covenant, corporate, or proprietary colonies. Had the British government embraced such a constitutional change, as Edmund Burke and some other members urged Parliament to do, the resulting “British Commonwealth” status likely would have delayed independence until the next century, at least.

In early 1776, sentiment among Americans shifted decisively in the direction of the radicals. Continued military hostilities, the raising of American troops, the final organization of functioning governments at all levels, the realization that the British viewed them as a hostile population reflected in the withdrawal of British protection by the Prohibitory Act of 1775, and Thomas Paine’s short polemic Common Sense opened the eyes of a critical mass of Americans. They were independent already, in everything but name and military reality. Achieving those final steps now became a pressing, yet difficult, task.

The Declaration was the work of a committee composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston. They were appointed on June 11, 1776, in response to a resolution introduced four days earlier by Richard Henry Lee acting on instruction of the state of Virginia. Jefferson prepared the first draft, while Franklin and the others edited that effort to alter or remove some of the more inflammatory and domestically divisive language, especially regarding slavery. They completed their work by June 28, and presented it to Congress. On July 2, Congress debated Lee’s resolution on independence. The result was no foregone conclusion. Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson and Robert Morris, both of whom had long urged caution and conciliation, agreed to stay away so that the Pennsylvania delegation could vote for independence. The Delaware delegation was deadlocked until Cesar Rodney made a late appearance in favor. The South Carolina delegation, representing the tidewater-based political minority that controlled the state, was persuaded to agree. The New York delegates abstained until the end. Two days later, the Declaration itself was adopted. It was proclaimed publicly on July 8 and signed on July 19.

Jefferson claimed that he did not rely on any book or pamphlet to write the Declaration. Yet the bill of particulars in the Declaration that accused King George of numerous perfidies is taken wholesale, and frequently verbatim, from Chapter II of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Constitution proposed by a convention on May 6, 1776, and approved in two phases in June. Moreover, Jefferson’s Declaration clearly exposes its roots in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. It would be astounding if Jefferson, a Virginian deeply involved in the state’s affairs, was unaware of such a momentous event or was oblivious to the influence of Locke on the many debates and publications of his contemporaries.

Three fundamental ideas coalesced in the Declaration: 17th-century social compact and consent of the governed as the ethical basis of the state, a right of revolution if the government violates the powers it holds in trust for the people, and classic natural law/natural rights as the divinely-ordained origin of rights inherent in all humans. The fusion of these different strands of political philosophy showed the progression of ideas that had matured over the preceding decade from the at-times simplistic slogans about the ancient rights of Englishmen rooted in the king’s concessions to the nobles in Magna Charta and from the incendiary proclamations by the Sons of Liberty and other provocateurs.

The structure was that of a legal brief. The King was in the dock as an accused usurper, and he and the jury of mankind were about to hear the charges and the proposed remedy. At the heart of the case against the King were some fundamental propositions, “self-evident truths”: Mankind is created equal; certain rights are “unalienable” and come from God, not some earthly king or parliament; governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed” and exist to secure those rights; and, borrowing heavily from Locke, there exists a residual recourse to revolution against a “long train of abuses and usurpations.”

Once the legal basis of the complaint was set, supporting facts were needed. Jefferson’s list is emotional and provocative. As with any legal brief, it is also far from impartial or nuanced. Some of the nearly thirty accusations seem rather quaint and technical for a “tyrant,” such as having required legislative bodies to sit “at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records.” Others do not strike us as harsh under current circumstances as they might have been at the time, such as King George having “endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purposed obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.” At least one other, describing the warfare by “the merciless Indian Savages,” sounds politically incorrect to the more sensitive among our modern ears.

The vituperative tone of these accusations is striking and results in a gross caricature of the monarch. But this was a critical part of the Declaration. Having brushed aside through prior proclamations and resolves Parliament’s legitimacy to control their affairs, the Americans needed to do likewise to the King’s authority. King George was young, energetic, and politically involved, with a handsome family, and generally popular with the British people. Many Americans, too, had favored him based on their opinion, right or wrong, that he had been responsible for Parliament repealing various unpopular laws, such as the Stamp Act. As well, as Hamilton remarked later at the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, the King was bound up in his person with the Nation, so it was emotionally difficult for many people to sever that common identity between themselves and the monarch. To “dissolve the political bands” finally, it would no longer suffice to blame various lords and ministers for the situation; the King himself must be made the villain.

Before the ultimate and extraordinary remedy of independence could be justified, it must be shown, of course, that more ordinary relief had proved unavailing. Jefferson mentions numerous unsuccessful warnings, explanations, and appeals to the British government and “our British brethren.” Those having proved ineffective, only one path remained forward: “We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America… declare, That these United Colonies are… Independent States.”

The Declaration was a manifesto for change, not a plan of government. That second development, moving from a revolutionary to a constitutional system, would have to await the adoption of the Articles of Confederation and, eventually, the Constitution of 1787. True, since the early days of the Republic, various advocates of causes such as the abolition of slavery have held up the Declaration’s principles of liberty and equality as infusing the “spirit” of the Constitution. But this has always been more a projection by those advocates of their own fervent wishes than a measure of what most Americans in 1776 actually believed.

Being “created equal” was a political idea in that there would be no hereditary monarchy or aristocracy in a republic based on consent. It was also a religious idea, in that all were equal before God. It did not mean, however, that people were equal “in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions,” as James Madison would mockingly write in The Federalist No. 10. He and Jefferson, along with most others, were convinced that, if people were left to their own devices, the natural inequality among mankind would sort things out socially, politically, and economically. Even less did such formal equality call for affirmative action by government to cure inequality of condition. It was, after all, as Madison explained in that same essay, “a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property” that were the “improper and wicked project[s]” against which the councils of government must be secured.

In the specific context of slavery, the Declaration trod carefully. Jefferson’s criticism of the British negation of colonial anti-slave trade laws in his original draft of the Declaration was quickly excised by cooler heads who did not want to stir that pot, especially since almost all of the states permitted slavery. Jefferson’s later lamentation regarding slavery that “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” was a distinct minority view. Many Americans had escaped grinding poverty in Europe, had served years of indentured servitude, or lived under dangerous and hardscrabble frontier conditions. As a result, as the historian Forrest McDonald observed, few of them trembled with Jefferson. It remained for later generations and the crucible of the Civil War and Reconstruction to realize the promise of equality that the Declaration held for the opponents of slavery.

Republished with gracious permission from Constituting America.

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The featured image is a detail from Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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