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The Declaration of Independence | Study Guide

Thomas Jefferson

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The Declaration of Independence | Context


British Rule in the American Colonies

Great Britain's stronghold in North American dates back to 1607 with the establishment of Jamestown, the first successful English settlement in what is now Virginia. Virginia became the first official English colony in 1624, and more colonies followed as more people emigrated to the Americas. By 1733 the English crown and Parliament controlled a total of 13 American colonies. These were Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.

In the 18th century England held colonial territories around the globe, including in India, Africa, and large swathes of the Americas. England's relations with these colonies varied. Some, including Australia and the United States, were used as prison outposts. Others were prized for their natural resources, including the people that served as human capital. In all of the colonies, England established its own citizens as colonial subjects alongside natives and other emigrants, all of whom were subject to the rule of the King of England and the law of Great Britain's legislative body, Parliament. Neither entity could work alone. The king couldn't pass laws without Parliament, and Parliament needed the king's approval on political and strategic matters.

In America, the majority of colonists were proud to be subjects of the British Empire. In their minds the British crown offered benefits not available to the subjects of France and Spain and placed them in a civilized position above Native Americans. The benefits included excellent opportunities for commerce and trade and a balanced government that promised liberty and prosperity. Great Britain provided a connection to the Protestant Church, which colonists believed to be less authoritarian than the Catholic Church of France and Spain. Great Britain also provided naval protection, free trade throughout the empire, and easily obtainable lines of credit. In return, the colonies became a great source of raw materials, such as tobacco, timber, and crops. Great Britain saw the American colonies as a ready market for manufactured goods. Establishment of the colonies was also a source of immense pride for the territory–hungry British Empire and an important source of both cotton and tobacco.

Despite their mutually beneficial relationship, the British government and the American colonists didn't always see eye-to-eye. The differences became especially evident when it came to the source and division of political power. The colonists generally believed some matters—levying taxes, establishing armies, and overseeing the court system—should be handled by elected representatives of the people. Minor rifts were caused by this divergent thought that the British king and Parliament did not rule all. These occurred particularly when locally elected assemblies ignored the rulings of crown–appointed governors in favor of their own legislation. But the colonies were important to Great Britain's economy, so the crown and Parliament overlooked most challenges of power. One of the challenges was the tendency for the colonists to ignore any obligation to pay British taxes.

That changed following the French and Indian War (1754–63). During part of the war Great Britain and France vied for control of the Ohio River valley. The British emerged victorious, but at a steep price: £130 million (nearly $13 billion in today's dollars). Much of that amount was spent on defending the American colonies from the French and their American Indian allies. The British government thought it was only fair the colonies reimburse the empire through an increase in taxes, which would henceforth be strictly enforced. England's own population had gone through three such "stamp taxes" to raise money in the past without much opposition. British political leaders assumed the American colonists would react the same way. This major miscalculation sparked the embers of the revolution that eventually led to American independence.

Growing Dissent in the Colonies

The first tax on British goods purchased in the colonies went into effect in November 1765. The Stamp Act added a small tax to the cost of paper products such as deeds, mortgages, and newspapers. It was meant to fund a force of 10,000 British troops in North America to help keep the peace between the colonists and local American Indians. Though the tax made sense in the eyes of the British government, the colonists were outraged. They cited the documents and customs generally interpreted as the components of the British constitution. The constitution said that subjects of the British crown would not be taxed unless they were represented in Parliament. British Parliament had no colonial representatives, so the colonists didn't think they should have to pay taxes. The Stamp Act was repealed a year later due to ongoing boycotts, which ultimately damaged the British economy.

The reprieve didn't last for long. The Townshend Acts of 1767 added taxes to everyday goods imported from England, like tea, lead, glass, paint, and paper. Though most of those taxes were repealed in 1770, the tax on tea remained. Many colonists boycotted the tea sold by the British–owned East India Tea Company, instead opting to purchase Dutch tea from smugglers. That ultimately hurt the East India Tea Company. In 1773 Parliament passed the Tea Act, which attempted to boost English tea sales by lowering the price of tea in the colonies. Though that sounds good in theory, it infuriated the colonists. Even if they didn't intend to buy the tea, they had to pay taxes on it when it was delivered to shore. They believed paying the tax violated the British government's promise of "no taxation without representation." This led to December 1773's Boston Tea Party. A group of Bostonian patriots disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and calmly boarded three British ships in Boston harbor. They hacked open 342 chests of tea before dumping them all into Boston Harbor.

King George III and Parliament were enraged by the act of rebellion. They fought back with the Coercive Acts of 1774. These laws closed Boston's port and replaced Massachusetts's colonial assembly with a crown–appointed Governor's Council. This punishment effectively ceased all trade in the Boston area, which dealt a huge economic blow to Boston and its outlying cities. Once again Bostonians boycotted British goods, which had to be transported dozens of miles from distant ports. Other cities and entire colonies joined the boycott as word spread of Great Britain's harsh actions. Many believed the new laws outweighed the severity of the crime of throwing tea into the harbor. They were right—the Coercive Acts were born out of vengeance and a desire to assert royal and parliamentary authority over the colonies.

Reconciliation Efforts Result in Revolutionary War

The growing resentment of Great Britain's involvement in colonial matters was aimed squarely at Parliament. Many colonists believed Parliament the sole source of all punitive and restrictive measures against the colonies. Most colonists remained loyal to King George III, whom they thought was being misled by court ministers who wanted to enslave the colonies. Hardly anyone was even considering independence from British rule—they just wanted to sever ties with Parliament.

Repairing the relationship with Great Britain was the subject of the First Continental Congress, which convened on September 15, 1774, in Philadelphia. Each colony except Georgia was represented. The delegates spent much of their time discussing how to secure the same rights afforded to other subjects of the British crown. They ultimately came up with the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which defined the rights of Americans and limited Parliament's power over the colonies. The Continental Congress also drafted the Continental Association, which halted trade with Great Britain until the Coercive Acts were repealed.

Both documents arrived in London in December 1774. Parliament wasn't sure how to respond. But King George III immediately decided the only way to maintain complete control over the colonies was to go to war. Parliament eventually agreed with him after six weeks of debate.

The colonists didn't want to go to war, but they were also tired of being ignored. The spring of 1775 saw farmers and merchants readying their rifles in case of a skirmish with British soldiers, the majority of whom were stationed in Boston. The first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired on April 19, 1775, in Lexington, Massachusetts. About 700 British soldiers faced off with a band of 100 minutemen, members of the local militia. Accounts vary as to who shot first, but within minutes 10 minutemen were dead and nine more were injured. The Redcoats, nicknamed for their bright red uniforms, marched on toward Concord, Massachusetts. They planned to raid a storage shed where they believed colonial weapons and ammunition to be hidden. After uncovering a cannon and a few musket balls, the British began their 18–mile walk back to Boston. They were greeted partway there by 1,000 minutemen. The end of the first day of battle saw the deaths or injuries of 273 British soldiers and less than 100 Americans. The British were chased back to Boston, where they were trapped for more than two months. Great Britain and the American colonies were now at war.

Changing Sentiments about Independence, Common Sense, and a Rejection of Peace

The Battles of Lexington and Concord changed everything for already frustrated colonists. Some colonists were still loyal to the British government. But many more were questioning the legitimacy of British rule, particularly since Parliament and the king were authorizing military force against their own subjects. These sentiments were given voice in Common Sense, a pamphlet published by Thomas Paine in January 1776. He cited theories made popular by Enlightenment philosopher John Locke. Paine argued the British government, and monarchies in general, violate the laws of nature and religion. Men are all born equal, so no one man should be able to call himself king and hold himself above everyone else. Likewise, biblical evidence shows God does not favor kings, whose rule always leads to war. Paine advocated for an independent, democratic America in which power lay with the public, not just the elite.

Paine's words changed the way people thought about the colonies' relationship with Great Britain, but members of the Second Continental Congress weren't convinced. They had been in session for nearly a year, having convened in May 1775. They had come together to plan for and discuss the burgeoning war with Great Britain. They were to serve as a united governing body during this time of colonial turmoil. Congress had made overtures of peace in the Olive Branch Petition in the summer of 1775, but it arrived on the very same day King George III received news about the massive British casualties at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He refused to even read the petition. He declared New England to be "in a state of rebellion," and then sent thousands of additional troops to the colonies. It was clear he wasn't going to settle for anything except complete submission. Although many members of Congress still hoped for reconciliation, they knew it was becoming less and less likely.

Congressmen also had to contend with the changing views of the public. Paine had written Common Sense in language sufficiently plain that it could be understood by anyone, even the uneducated and apolitical. His words brought forth the first real public push for independence from Great Britain. State and local assemblies began issuing resolutions calling for colonial sovereignty, or self–governance, in the spring of 1776. On June 7 Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a congressional resolution proposing separation from the British Empire.

Proposal for Independence and Drafting the Declaration

A complaint against Parliament is different from a separation of a colony from its monarch. Members of the Continental Congress knew declaring independence would be considered an act of treason, or a criminal betrayal of one's government. They felt it necessary to justify their actions to the British government, foreign powers, and their own constituents. The Committee of Five was formed on June 11, 1776, and consisted of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Their job was to write the document that would defend the colonies' decision to secede from the British Empire. While the resolution was debated in Congress, the committee began to work.

Jefferson was the head of the committee and the primary writer and architect of the document that came to be known as the Declaration of Independence. He was given 17 days to write, though he finished his initial draft in just a day or two. Many people in such a position would refer to classic texts and philosophical and political treatises. But Jefferson only used two texts for inspiration: Virginia's Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason, and the Virginia Constitution, written by Jefferson himself. The resulting document consisted of a preamble, which argued the inalienable, or non–transferrable, right of all men to a just and fair government. That was followed by a list of grievances against the king and the British population in general, then a formal statement of separation.

Adams and Franklin were the first to read the text and offer suggestions. The most notable suggestion was the removal of an entire section that blamed King George III for the slave trade. Jefferson, a slave owner himself, nominally opposed the slave trade. The international slave trade had been going on for years prior to the reign of King George III, so Adams and Franklin thought it wasn't right to blame him for it. They also felt including the topic would make it difficult to gain consensus from certain of the American colonies for the document. Adams and Franklin also suggested toning down the fiery language blaming the British citizens for their complacency in the British government's abuses of power.

Jefferson was deeply disgruntled about the changes, which kept on coming after the declaration was first presented to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776, and debated on July 3 and 4. About a quarter of it was changed by Congress. All mentions of the slave trade were removed at the insistence of the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina. These colonies profited from the slave trade, as did some merchants in the New England colonies. The lambasting of the British citizenry in the declaration's early drafts was also removed. Many in Congress felt it necessary to at least attempt to keep friends on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. But most of the 86 revisions were minor. Nothing more was added except for language from Richard Henry Lee's original proposal for independence.

At the end of the day on July 4, 1776, 12 of the 13 colonies approved the Declaration of Independence. The delegates from New York gave their approval on July 9 after receiving the go–ahead from their state legislature.

The only member of the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4 was John Hancock, the president of the Congress. His signature made the document "legal and binding" in the eyes of the colonists. Copies were sent to committees and assemblies of each colony on July 5. On July 19 Congress ordered the Declaration of Independence to be engrossed (officially prepared for reading). The engrossing was finished by August 2, which was when most of the 56 signers added their names as a sign of solidarity to the patriot cause. Two delegates, John Dickinson of Delaware and Robert Livingston of New York, refused to add their names to the list of congressional supporters.

Response at Home and Abroad

The Declaration of Independence was first read in public on July 8, 1776, and then distributed widely at home and abroad over the next two months. Patriots who already supported the cause of American independence were encouraged by sentiments of the declaration, particularly the list of grievances against King George III. This was the proof they needed that rebellion against the crown in the name of independence was right and good.

Many colonists loyal to King George III and Parliament, particularly those of the upper class, were not impressed with the Declaration of Independence. One such loyalist was Thomas Hutchinson, who served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1771–74 when he was replaced by military governor Lieutenant Thomas Gage. He anonymously published a 32–page rebuttal to the declaration disguised as a letter to Lord North, the Prime Minister of Great Britain. He systematically addresses Congress's arguments and grievances point by point by printing excerpts from the declaration. Then he explains how the reasoning behind each section is wrong. Like many loyalists, Hutchinson didn't agree with the basic premise that American colonists are a separate people from the British. He sees them as one and the same, which is why he still believed in the sovereignty of the crown and Parliament.

News of the Declaration of Independence reached London by the middle of August 1776. It was printed in its entirety in The London Chronicle. The king and Parliament heard about it at the same time as the rest of the British population. Parliament tried to downplay the declaration as a "trivial document issued by disgruntled colonists." Several people were commissioned to craft rebuttals that pointed out the declaration's inaccuracies and refuted colonial complaints. One of the most well–known of these is "An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress" by John Lind. He was a young conservative pamphleteer. His 130–page defense of the British government and the king himself addresses each of the declaration's points and grievances. It is long–winded where the declaration is short, and pompous where the declaration is matter–of–fact. It focuses on specific instances of government conduct which the declaration alludes to in the vaguest of terms. As for King George III, he didn't speak publicly about the Declaration of Independence until October 31 of that same year. He called the members of the Continental Congress "daring and desperate" for severing all ties with Great Britain. He told Parliament the redcoats had won their last battle but must prepare for another.

The British press and the rest of the British public weren't very impressed with the declaration either. They found it full of inconsistencies and inaccuracies. Many British citizens viewed the Declaration of Independence as an inadequate justification for treason. Even more were angry at how "ungrateful" the colonists were for the benefits that came along with membership in the British Empire.

Despite scorn from London, the most scathing reviews of the declaration came from none other than two of the men who supported it. John Adams had served on the Committee of Five and helped Jefferson shape the declaration into its final form. He later called Jefferson's work unoriginal and of little political and literary value. "There is not an idea in it, but what had been hackney'd in Congress for two years before," he wrote in 1822. By that point, Jefferson and Adams's relationship had soured from that of friendship to one of bitter enemies. Richard Henry Lee had introduced the resolution for independence to the Continental Congress. He also accused Jefferson of copying philosopher John Locke's Two Treatises of Government. Many have wondered if jealousy was at the root of such criticism. No one in the Continental Congress knew at the time just how important and long–lasting a document the declaration would turn out to be. No matter the cause, Jefferson always had the same answer for his critics. The purpose of the Declaration of Independence wasn't to bring forth new and original ideas but to express what many colonists were already thinking.

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