Nations are created by civil strife, military rebellion, acts of heroism, acts of treachery. The origin of the United States included them all. This was unique, not only in its impact on the course of world history and the growth of democracy, but also because it all started in one document: the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration was drafted by Thomas Jefferson between June 11 and June 28, 1776. Jefferson wrote of the convictions in the minds and hearts of the American people. The political philosophy of the Declaration was not new. The ideals of individual liberty were already expressed by John Locke and others. Jefferson summarized this philosophy in “self-evident truths” and listed the grievances against the King in order to justify breaking the ties between the colonies and England.
One by one, Congress cut ties to England. The Second Continental Congress was essentially the government of the United States from 1775 to 1788 and gradually took on the responsibilities of a national government. When it met in May 1775, King George III had not yet replied to the petition for redress of grievances sent by the First Continental Congress. In June 1775, Congress established the Continental Army as well as a currency. By the end of July, it created a post office for the “United Colonies.”
The Declaration was the result of the King’s many prods against colonial citizens. In August 1775, a royal proclamation declared that the King’s American subjects were “engaged in open and avowed rebellion.” Later that year, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act that made all American vessels and cargoes forfeit to the crown. In May 1776, Congress learned that the King had negotiated treaties with German states to hire mercenaries to fight in America. These authoritarian acts convinced many colonists that England was treating the colonies as a foreign entity.
In March 1776, Congress adopted the Privateering Resolution that allowed the colonists to arm ships to attack enemies of the “United Colonies.” In April 1776, American ports were opened to commerce with other nations. A “Resolution for the Formation of Local Governments” was passed on May 10, 1776.
On May 15, the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg adopted a resolution that instructed the Virginia delegates in Congress to propose to “declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence on, the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain.”
On May 27, Congress received the Virginia resolution and the movement toward independence quickened. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented to Congress a motion:
“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.”
By June 11, Congress decided to recess for three weeks. It was likely that Lee’s resolution would ultimately pass, so before adjourning, Congress appointed a committee to prepare a declaration. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut – the Committee of Five – were assigned the task.
The committee selected Thomas Jefferson to draft the document – he had drafted the proposed constitution of Virginia. In preparation for his draft of the Declaration of Independence Jefferson relied heavily on this draft, as well as George Mason’s Declaration of Rights, adopted by Virginia on June 12, 1776, and Lee’s resolution.
Changes were proposed by Adams and Franklin and Jefferson presented a “fair copy” or revised document to Congress. The rough draft contains corrections, additions and deletions, primarily in Jefferson’s hand, made by Adams and Franklin, and later by Congress.
On June 28, the Committee of Five presented “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America in General Congress Assembled” for discussion after Lee’s resolution was approved by Congress on Monday, July 2.
For three days, Jefferson sat and listened to the Continental Congress alter his work. The most significant change was the elimination of a paragraph that restricted the slave trade and statements denouncing the people of England for their participation in a war against the colonies. The process of revision continued into the late morning of July 4, 1776.
Then the church bells rang out over Philadelphia: The Declaration was officially adopted.
Anatomy of a Declaration
The Declaration of Independence is made up of five parts: the introduction; the preamble; the body; which can be divided into two sections; and a conclusion. The introduction states that this document will “declare” the “causes” that have made it necessary for the American Colonies to leave the British Empire.
Having stated in the introduction that independence is unavoidable, even necessary, the preamble sets out principles that were already recognized to be “self-evident” by most 18th-century Englishmen, closing with the statement that “a long train of abuses and usurpations…evinces a design to reduce [a people] 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.”
The first section of the body of the Declaration gives evidence of the “long train of abuses and usurpations” heaped upon the colonists by King George III. The second section of the body states that colonists had appealed in vain to their “British brethren” for a redress of their grievances. Having stated the conditions that made independence necessary and having shown that those conditions existed in British North America, the Declaration concludes 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.”
LaVoie works in the Office of the Community Lawyer in Winsted.