Declaration of Independence

The American "Declaration of Independence" (1776) is a formal proclamation of the formerly British American colonies to exercise what they believed was their right to sever ties with Great Britain and be recognized as separate, independent states. Representatives convened from all thirteen colonies, forming the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, to address the issue of making the American Revolutionary War officially recognized. The document explains the reasons for the rebellion, directly addressing the British Crown. It also provided a clear, concise cause to rally support from colonists of every class, local military, and the international community.

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Table of contents

    Declaration of Independence: Facts and a Basic Timeline

    War had already broken out on American soil for almost over a year. The "Lee Resolution" (1776), which claimed the Thirteen Colonies were independent from Great Britain, was passed by the Second Continental Congress. It also declared the colonies were at war with Great Britain. However, there was desire and popular support for a formal announcement to the public that explained in more detail the meaning of the "Lee Resolution". The result was the "Declaration of Independence". While Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the "Declaration of Independence" and heavily drew upon his experience drafting the "Constitution of Virginia" (1776), he collaborated with four others, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

    Major debates and omissions were made to Jefferson's version, including the removal of many harsher criticisms towards the British Crown and Jefferson's own condemnation of slavery, despite the document extolling the inherent virtue of the rights of men to govern themselves and legitimizing the individual autonomy over that of hereditary tradition. The goal of the document was to make clear to the rest of the world the legitimacy of the United States and their reasons for rebellion.

    Here's a timeline of important events at that time:

    • April 19, 1775: American Revolutionary War begins with the battles of Lexington and Concord
    • June 11, 1776: Committee of Five is tasked to write the "Declaration of Independence" by the Second Continental Congress1
    • June 11- July 1, 1776: Thomas Jefferson writes the first draft of the "Declaration of Independence"
    • July 4, 1776: the "Declaration of Independence" is officially adopted and is now celebrated on this day
    • August 2, 1776: "Declaration of Independence" is signed

    The American Revolutionary Period of the Declaration of Independence

    The American Revolutionary period occurred from 1765 to 1789. Before, the British Crown allowed the colonies to more or less operate autonomously, rarely being involved in their domestic affairs. Thomas Jefferson represented Virginia in the House of Burgess, the democratic representative legislature. He also served as Virginia's governor before and during the War for Independence. He witnessed firsthand the tightening control of the British Crown through the royal governors starting in the 1760s.

    As the colonies became more prosperous, and the British Crown changed hands from King George II to King George III, the British needed more money to finance its growing empire and wars. British Parliament voted to impose taxes on the colonies. Colonists did not have direct representation in British Parliament. The thirteen colonies formed their own separate state and municipal governments. Each colony, however, had a royal governor appointed by the British Crown. Thomas Jefferson began to notice a growing pattern of the Crown tightening its power in the colonies. While previously legislation could be passed rather easily prior to the American Revolutionary period, royal governors began challenging and dismissing motions passed by local governments dramatically more often.

    Tension began. From the British perspective, the parliamentary system is the supreme legislator. The American view, being that of representative democracy, clashed with their supreme legislator. Colonists did not have direct representation in British Parliament. Yet, British Parliament enacted policies that affected colonists without their consent. The colonists felt that it was an infringement of their rights to be taxed without representation. This has become a core belief that laid the foundation of American democracy that is built upon today. The idea that all men are created equal in Western thought was and still is an American one. The English, such as philosopher Jeremy Bentham, "scoffed" at the idea of equality among men and were dismissive of the ideals extolled in the American "Declaration of Independence".1

    Representative democracy - organization of government focused on the individual and their rights, with the general populace voting to elect representatives.

    The Declaration of Independence: Summary

    While the "Declaration of Independence" was written as one continuous piece, for educational purposes the document can be categorized into specific sections. Certain parts of the document have a clear focus, and segmenting the work helps facilitate a comprehensive understanding of a "Declaration of Independence" summary.

    Declaration of Independence portrait, Thomas Jefferson, StudySmarterThomas Jefferson was the primary author of the "Declaration of Independence". Wikimedia Commons.

    Introduction

    The introduction asserted that man has a right to challenge his governance at any given time. He is entitled to make those decisions, such as severing ties from that government and forming his own separate government. If such an event occurs, it is his duty as a citizen to provide an explanation.

    Preamble

    In the preamble, the authors clearly established what they believe are the natural, irrevocable rights of man. Man is fully capable of governing himself, provided everyone affected is consenting and acknowledges the inherent equality of man, regardless of religious affiliation. When a man is affected by a law, new or old, and consent was not given, he has every right to dissent. When his personal rights are infringed upon, then he no longer exists within a democracy, but as a subject of tyranny. This is the most famously known part of the "Declaration of Independence", as the ideas were broad and sweeping, had mass appeal for many oppressed people the world over, and are ultimately, very inclusive when interpreted as all people are created equal.

    Why is the preamble of the "Declaration of Independence" so famous? Consider these questions: Who doesn't want to have a say in how their world is shaped? Who wants to be told what to do without their consent?

    Grievances against the British Crown

    The documents continued to give a list of grievances against the British Crown. While this is a less famous part of the document, at the time this was a critical part of the reason for drafting the "Declaration of Independence". Essentially the authors thought it proper to present a case in a lawyerly fashion. They had many reasons to rebel, and here they were laid out. They needed to justify their pronouncement to sever ties with Britain in order to be seen as legitimate by their own people and other countries.

    Despite their redress to the British people, the authors felt their petitions to the British Crown were neglected. They felt that Britain, who had many chances to hear their warnings, had failed them. The authors wanted to emphasize their reluctance in the severing of political ties with Great Britain, as the colonists did recognize their common history and the British people as their "brethren."2

    Declaration of Independence, Painting by John Trumbull, StudySmarterPainter John Trumbull's famous dramatization of the drafting of the "Declaration of Independence". The scene is also printed on American postage stamps and dollar bills. Thomas Jefferson is portrayed wearing a red vest. Wikimedia.

    Conclusion

    In conclusion, the document referenced the "Lee Resolution" and the official declaration of war. The "Declaration of Independence" was now their official public announcement to their people and the world, proclaiming their right to self-sovereignty and governance. The authors expressed a preference to maintain harmony with Britain, but unfortunately, this was no longer possible. They placed the blame on Great Britain for creating the conditions for rebellion, so colonists had no other choice but to rebel.

    Delegates from every colony signed the document as a formal act of unity and recognition. The most famous signature was John Hancock's, because it was so large and clearly legible. Other signatories remarked that King George III wouldn't even need his "spectacles" to read it.1 Even today, giving your "John Hancock" has become synonymous with providing one's signature.

    The Declaration of Independence: A Milestone in Democracy

    The "Declaration of Independence" was a milestone in Western written history. It marked the first formal declaration of a people to proclaim their own sovereignty and ability to govern themselves. While the act of governing oneself isn't necessarily new, what marked this as a milestone was that it was recorded in written history, when prior to this, Western governance was, and in many ways, still, organized on hereditary traditions and monarchy for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Proof of the event is still preserved today in the national archive, as the physical "Declaration of Independence" is on display.2

    The core idea was that people can govern themselves and that any governing body or authority is granted its power by the consent of the people. Once this agreement was nullified, the people had the right to dissent, dissolve the government body or sever ties, and recreate a new one that honors this relationship. What was seen as truly radical in Thomas Jefferson's time was his and many others' assertion that authority isn't inherent, but is granted by people, for the people. Today, to most Americans this concept seems normal and almost natural. Yet the extent of government reach, and the exact rights of individuals, are still debated today.

    The Significant Impact of the 1776 Declaration of Independence

    The authors of the "Declaration of Independence" had immediate goals and strategies. The act of declaring in writing is a way to legitimize a statement or idea in a society based on written laws. Mainly, the document provided unifying principles for the colonists, to give the newly formed continental army a reason they were fighting the British, and to draw support and recognition from countries abroad. France and Spain had colonies right next to the British American colonies. They could potentially ally and aid the American Revolutionary War for independence from Britain.

    Once the final draft of the "Declaration of Independence" was agreed upon, it was quickly disseminated among the colonies. Printed as a broadside, it could be posted large and clear in town squares and on buildings for everyone to see.

    Broadside - a large poster, with only one side printed, to be displayed in public.

    The "Declaration of Independence" was read aloud in colonial legislatures, and George Washington, the commander in chief of the continental army, read it to his troops. Public support swelled, and colonists began to tear down monuments and statues representing British authority.

    The ideas presented in the "Declaration of Independence" quickly spread to other colonies, such as Spanish America. The action itself was an inspiration to many colonial peoples seeking self-governance and autonomy from empires. However, the vast majority of the text itself would not be analyzed and discussed until many years after.

    Years after the American Revolutionary war concluded, Thomas Jefferson, acting as a foreign minister to the newly formed United States, befriended Marquis de Lafayette, a French aristocrat who sympathized with and fought with Americans against the British army. Jefferson was the primary author of the "Declaration of Independence" and many of the ideas, such as a government built on individual rights and consent, were ideas he learned from Enlightenment thinkers while in college. Through befriending Lafeyette, he influenced the draft of the French "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" (1789), a French breakaway from monarchy, and instituting a republic. The text of the "Declaration of Independence" wouldn't be revived for discussion again until almost a decade.

    Once Thomas Jefferson was leading democratic-republicans and running for national offices (such as the presidency), interest was revived in favor of bolstering his voter base.1 The Federalists, the opposing political party at the turn of the 18th century, favored a stronger central government. Jefferson was a proponent of limited government, with emphasis on the individual and their rights. His campaign for the presidency referenced his authorship of the "Declaration of Independence" as a major qualification for running the fledgling country.

    The preamble continued to inspire other social movements such as the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr directly referenced the "Declaration of Independence" in his famous "I have a dream" speech. The line "that all men are created equal" is used by King to denounce racism as essentially un-American, and that he was dreaming of the day that America would live up to the standard it was founded upon.3

    Declaration of Independence (1776) - Key Takeaways

    • The "Declaration of Independence" was a formal proclamation of the British American colonies to sever political ties with Great Britain and establish their own independent states.
    • The "Declaration of Independence" formalized in writing the reasons for separating from Great Britain, while providing unifying principles for the newly formed United States of America.
    • Thomas Jefferson is the primary author, and many of his own political views, such as individual rights, provided the basis of the government formed after the "Declaration of Independence".
    • The "Declaration of Independence" inspired other colonies to form independent states, influenced social movements such as women's suffrage and civil rights, and continues to be interpreted and analyzed today.

    1. Meacham, John. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012).

    2. Archives.gov. "Declaration of Independence: A Transcription".

    3. Npr.org. "Transcript of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech."

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Declaration of Independence

    What did the "Declaration of Independence" declare in 1776?

    The "Declaration of Independence" declared in 1776 that the British American colonies are now independent states separating their ties with Great Britain.

    What are 3 main ideas of the "Declaration of Independence" of 1776?

    The 3 main ideas of the "Declaration of Independence" of 1776 are that all men are created equal, they have inalienable rights, and if their rights are violated, they are entitled to rebel.

    Why the "Declaration of Independence" is important?

    The "Declaration of Independence" is important because it was the first time in Western written history that people asserted their right to govern themselves.

    What was the effect of the "Declaration of Independence"?

    The effect of the "Declaration of Independence" was that the British American colonies became separate, independent states, severing political ties with Great Britain, and becoming recognized by the international community.

    What was the United States called before the "Declaration of independence" 1776?

    Before the "Declaration of Independence" in 1776, the United States was called British America and/or the Thirteen British Colonies.

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