The Declaration of Independence is a famous document, but without historic context, it doesn’t often make sense to us in the 21st century. Why, after 150 years of peaceful colonization, did the Colonists decide to rebel against the King of England? What did the British do that angered them so much? What’s with the long list of offenses committed by the King? I’ll take each section a little at a time and try to give a bit of background, and hopefully bring this daring, treasonous document to life.
“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.”
Our founders knew that “in the course of human events,” (or the history of the world), there had been many occasions for “one people to dissolve the political bands which ha[d] connected them with another.” History was their guide to the rights which the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” had entitled them.
Our founders were educated in World History (or as they knew it: “history”), which is packed with stories of revolution. Every continent in every century had its own group of oppressed people who finally recognized the tyranny they were under and decided to risk everything for independence. In Ancient times,
had plenty of rebellions, the
Babylonians rebelled against the Assyrian Empire, Greeks threw off the bondage
of the Persians, and there were several failed attempts to overthrow Roman
In the Dark Ages, overcoming the Roman Empire became a more successful venture by the Jews, the Celts, and the Germanic tribes, while China saw many successful (and not-so-successful) attempts at Revolution through the first millennium, and the map of Europe and the Middle East saw continual change due to constant upheaval and revolt in the Muslim world.
The Middle Ages brought about major changes in the Western World (and the East) that would influence the future of “human rights,” including Scottish Wars for
English peasant revolts, and many uprisings by the Swedish, Vietnamese, French,
Persians, Italians, and more. The Magna Carta, signed in 1215, revolutionized
the idea of the limited power of governing authorities. Independence
So you see, the idea of Revolution was not a radical one; it was generally understood by our founders that we were entitled to equal station by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. The purpose of the document to follow this opening paragraph would be to “declare the causes which impel them to the separation” from the British King.
“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,
and the pursuit of Happiness.” Liberty
The Founders largely believed in a Supreme Being, the Creator of the World: God. In Genesis we read about God’s creation of the earth and the creation of man: LIFE. We read that He gave man dominion over the earth and the animals, and the freedom to make our own choices (even if the consequences were negative):
We read that He created us to be fruitful and multiply, to eat the fruit of the
land, and to enjoy His creation: THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. These rights, these
gifts were not the gifts of any benevolent monarch or government; they were the
gift of our Creator from the beginning of time. LIBERTY
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
The Founders were also students of John Locke, the English Philosopher. Many of his thoughts on civil governments are echoed throughout the Declaration of Independence, specifically this line on the consent of the governed. In his 2nd Treatise Locke wrote: “For no government can have a right to obedience from a people who have not rightly consented to it; which they can never be supposed to do, til either they are put in a full state of liberty to choose their government and governors, or at least til they have such standing laws, to which they have by themselves or their representatives given their free consent; and also til they are allowed their due property, which is so to be proprieters of what they have, that nobody can take away any part of it without their own consent, without which men under any government are not in the state of free men, but are direct slaves under the force of war.”
Many of these truths had been continually violated by the British army in the colonies, as we will discuss soon in the long list of violations by the King; but for now, keep in mind that the Americans were trained and educated to think like Locke while they were being increasingly treated like slaves of the crown.
So it only follows that they would think this:
“--That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
*Note: The framers of this text truly did believe that “all men are created equal” and slaves were no exception. Thomas Jefferson originally included a paragraph about the horrors of slavery and how the King of England was responsible for it (and was trying to bribe the slaves with freedom in exchange for the murder of the Colonists). Although a slave owner himself, he knew that a truly free nation would not condone slavery. But this brought about intense debate.
A minority of Southern delegates would not consent to this addition, and some Northern delegates would not compromise their trade with merchants who were part of the slave trade. In order to declare
the agreement had to be unanimous. So this one paragraph was removed from the
final text. So while Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many other American
Founders continued to hold slaves, they also petitioned for the end of slavery
and worked to prepare their own slaves for a free life in the future. America
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes;”
It was not for “light and transient causes” that a revolution should take place; the Founders understood what a serious undertaking it would be to defy the most powerful King in the world. They understood that they were literally risking their lives. It would be considered treason, but it was a daring feat for a weighty matter:
They also understood the human mind:
“…and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
This has proven true all throughout history. Just like the slow boiling of a frog in a pot, the American colonists had been gradually subjected to tyranny, at first almost unrecognizable, and then at the end, as blatant disregard for any rights of their own.
How did they go from respecting the authority of
to wanting a Revolution? In a nutshell, Britain was a conquering nation,
and had its armies spread all over the world. Colonization takes funds, and the
British coffers were running low. The King’s solution to this was to make the
Colonies pay the cost of having the British rule over them. Taxes rose, British
soldiers exerted more and more authority, and the Colonists lost more and more
rights. The Colonists felt it only proper that if they were to be taxed, they
should also be represented in Parliament. King George was appalled at such a
That infamous independent spirit first bred by their Puritan fathers combined with increasingly heavy-handed British regulations on trade, taxes, and laws awakened the Colonists to the realization that they had reached a turning point.
“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, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”
The Colonists, up to this point, recognized
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
By proclamation of the King, colonists were required to provide housing for British soldiers. Unspeakable abuses of individual citizens accompanied this “quartering.” The 3rd Amendment to the Constitution would prevent this kind of abuse of freedom.
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
If a British soldier was accused of murder, he was protected from any real punishment by being removed from the place (in this case, Massachussetts) where the crime was committed, to a territory outside that colony’s legal authority, and the trial was a sham.
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
After the Boston Tea Party, the King was so angry that he intended to punish the citizens of
by closing their port. His purpose was
to deprive the Boston
colony of much needed trade from around the world. Massachusetts
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
Here we go back to the main point of this whole Declaration: consent of the governed. The Stamp Act was the first of many that would require American colonists to pay taxes to the British government. Every time the colonies cried foul, the King would issue more. They petitioned for fair treatment, and were rewarded with even more regulations.
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
As more taxes were imposed, instances of smuggling increased. The British government handled these cases swiftly in British military courts with no jury present. The 6th and 7th Amendments to the Constitution were born from this experience.
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
Charges of murder against a colonist could result in a trial that might (and often did) take place in
or other British colonies. Remember, a sea voyage could take weeks or months,
essentially removing a person from their homeland for a very extended period,
possibly with no hope of returning. England
|British War Ship|
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
This refers to the Quebec Act, mentioned in Part 5. The British government declared Catholicism the official religion of the
and ADDED that the Province now extended well into American territories, such
as Michigan, Wisconsin,
Illinois, and . This was also an effort to prevent
westward expansion. Indiana
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
Since the Pilgrims first settled in
Plymouth, charters of one kind or another had been in
existence in .
The charters outlined the government of the colony allowed by the British
monarchy. The charter referred to here gave the colonists freedom of religion,
but appointed governors by the monarchy instead of elected by the people. Massachusetts
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for
This was absolute tyranny over the Colonies. King George unequivocally believed that he ruled supreme and that the colonists must live by his command. Thus, consent of the governed was ignored and absolute monarchy was imposed from across the wide
When the colonists insisted on electing their own local legislatures, the King
simply “suspended” them.
The long list of complaints to the King is about to wind up…
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
In a vicious circle of events, the King and Parliament implemented increased rule over the Colonists, so the Colonists became rebellious and “independent.” This finally resulted in the King declaring that the American Colonies were no longer under the protection of the King, and he declared it on two separate occasions while he increased his war against them.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
This was all a result of the increased warfare taking place in the Colonies since the Boston Massacre of 1770.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
The battles of
were a shock to the British Army. A disorganized band of farmers and family men
somehow employed guerilla tactics that exhausted and defeated the
well-organized British soldiers after the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The
British underestimated the fighting fury of freedom-minded settlers and,
despite their superior training, supply of arms, and reinforcements, repeatedly
failed to squash this rebellion. The King turned to paid soldiers from neighboring
European countries (“Mercenaries”) to reinforce his troops. Concord
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
King George’s anger knew no bounds. He began authorizing the capture of any ships trading with the Americans. Not only were they captured, cutting of trade with the Colonies, but the crew were pressed into the service of the British military to fight against the Colonists. In many cases, they would be forced to fight against their own friends and kin.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
King George attempted to employ the Indian tribes in his battle against the Americans. The Americans had enough experience with hostile Indians to know that this was a determined brutal attack on even the women and children. The Cayuga and Seneca were among several tribes to fight with the British.
Thus ends the list of specific injuries of King George to the American Colonies, followed by a reminder that they had tried very hard to be loyal subjects to the Crown.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
As excessive taxes and regulations grew, the Colonists attempted to reason and plead with
. One example was The Stamp
Act Congress of 1765, which resulted in an early bill of rights and a statement
of grievances, to which Parliament conceded. (The Stamp Act put a tax on every
form of printed paper in the Colonies; the Colonists feared that this would
soon lead to the loss of free speech.) The Colonists sent various versions of
pleas to the King, asking for peace and fairness in exchange for their loyalty.
He either ignored these or responded with more heavy-handed measures. So they
declared him openly to be a Tyrant. England
wraps up the resolution:
Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
The Colonists repeatedly attempted to appeal for justice at British citizens. They were, up to this day, subjects of the British crown, sharing the same ancestry as British citizens and were perfectly happy to remain so. Despite these pleas for justice and equality, they were treated as slaves to the King, and finally “denounced our Separation” and declared themselves citizens of a new nation, and enemies of their former friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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.
The men who signed this document were representatives of all thirteen colonies. The separation from
unanimous decision. They would no longer consider themselves British subjects;
they would form their own government, fight their own wars. Britain
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine
, we mutually
pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. Providence
These signers were willfully committing treason, and they felt the weight of it. Revolution is no small undertaking. You can imagine being in that room in
the fear of what they were about to publish, the anger at the King, the
uncertainty of the future. But each of these men knew that freedom was worth
the price they might be asked to pay. Philadelphia
So, what was the British response?
His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of Parliament on Thursday, October 31, 1776
Nothing could have afforded Me so much Satisfaction as to have been able to inform you, at the Opening of this Session, that the Troubles, which have so long distracted My Colonies in , were at an End; and that My unhappy People, recovered from their Delusion, had delivered themselves from the Oppression of their Leaders, and returned to their Duty. But so daring and desperate is the Spirit of those Leaders, whose Object has always been Dominion and Power, that they have now openly renounced all Allegiance to the Crown, and all political Connection with this Country. They have rejected, with Circumstances of Indignity and Insult, the Means of Conciliation held out to them under the Authority of Our Commission: and have presumed to set up their rebellious Confederacies for Independent States. If their Treason be suffered to take Root, much Mischief must grow from it, to the Safety of My loyal Colonies, to the Commerce of My Kingdoms, and indeed to the present System of all
. One great Advantage,
however, will be derived from the Object of the Rebels being openly
avowed, and clearly understood. We shall have Unanimity at Home, founded in the
general Conviction of the Justice and Necessity of Our Measures.
. . .
in this arduous Contest I can have no other Object but to promote the true Interests of all My Subjects. No people ever enjoyed more Happiness, or lived under a milder Government, than those now revolted Provinces: the Improvements in every Art, of which they boast, declare it: their Numbers, their Wealth, their Strength by Sea and Land, which they think sufficient to enable them to make Head against the whole Power of the Mother Country, are irrefragable Proofs of it. My Desire is to restore to them the Blessings of Law and
equally enjoyed by every Subject,
which they have fatally and desperately exchanged for all the Calamities of
War, and the arbitrary Tyranny of their Chiefs.” Liberty
It is important to remember that although
was declared, it was not immediate. They Continental Army would fight for 5
long years before they actually won. Independence
On July 2, the delegates voted to adopt the Declaration. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail how it should be celebrated (although now we celebrate on the date it was approved – the 4th):
It “will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.
You will think me transported with Enthusiasm, but I am not – I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”
This Declaration makes so much sense with the context explained. Every American should read it on Independence Day. Read it with your families. Share the real and factual history of our nation and preserve it for future generations!