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Foundations of U.S. Government

Declaring Independence from Britain

American Decision for Independence

After a failed attempt to open negotiations with Britain, popular support for declaring independence from Britain grew.

In May 1775 the Second Continental Congress met, with delegates prepared to defend the colonies militarily by creating the Continental Army. While thus preparing for armed resistance, many delegates still hoped a compromise with Britain was possible. The Congress drafted what became known as the Olive Branch Petition. (Offering an olive branch refers to making a gesture of peace or reconciliation.) This 1775 document requested negotiation of tax and trade policies with the British government. The delegates swore their loyalty to the king and expressed the hope that their grievances with Britain could be addressed. When the petition was delivered to him, the king refused to read it.

In early 1776 Thomas Paine, a recent immigrant from England, published Common Sense, a pamphlet advocating colonial separation from Great Britain. The pamphlet, which was widely read in the colonies, made the argument that it was only common sense that the colonies declare their independence from Britain. Paine vehemently attacked the institution of monarchy, with statements such as, "For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king." Paine's pamphlet helped convince many colonists that it was time to sever political ties with Britain.

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence, written in part to gain foreign support for the cause, justified the colonists' decision on the basis of natural rights and social contract theory and listed the injustices committed by the king that deprived colonists of their rights.

In June 1776 the Second Continental Congress created a committee to draft the Declaration of Independence, which justified the American colonies' separation from the British Empire. A major reason for that justification was to encourage foreign support for the Americans' cause. The declaration was mostly written by Thomas Jefferson, who drew upon the ideas of the English political philosopher John Locke to justify the decision for independence. Locke based his views on social contract theory, the idea that government originates as an agreement between the governed and those who govern. He believed in the idea of natural right, any right that all people possess by being human, including the rights to life, liberty, and property. If a government fails to protect these rights, then the social contract is broken, and people have the right to replace that government. Thus, before listing the specific grievances that caused the colonies to declare independence, the Declaration of Independence includes this declaration of natural rights:

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, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, 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. …
The idea that the government was based on the "consent of the governed," while promoted in writing by Locke and other writers, was revolutionary in practice. Since ancient times, most European governments had been monarchies. The new government would be a republic in which people ultimately held political power. From the beginning, the United States thus embraced the principles of natural rights and limited government. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress approved the final language of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration of Independence was signed by John Hancock, president of the Second Continental Congress, when the document was approved, but most delegates did not sign the document until August 1776.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 1656604
The longest section of the Declaration of Independence is the declaration of grievances, or injustices, which justified the colonists' declaration of independence. The grievances are specifically directed at the king: "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States." The grievances include "imposing taxes without our Consent," "depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury, and the dissolving of colonial assemblies." The declaration further cites the stationing of large numbers of troops in the colonies and cutting off trade with the rest of the world. After listing the reasons that justify independence, the declaration concludes by asserting that the 13 colonies are "Free and Independent States … and all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is … totally dissolved."

Winning Independence

Won by the Americans with the aid of France, the American Revolution (1775–83) concluded with an official recognition from Britain that the colonies were independent.

    Simply declaring independence did not mean Britain would recognize the independence of the colonies—Britain was determined to hold on to its colonies in North America. Fighting continued for more than five years after the Declaration of Independence was issued. The Continental Army, fighting for independence, faced long odds in opposing the powerful British army and navy. In addition, many Americans remained loyal to Britain. A key factor in securing independence was the assistance of France, which supplied vital financial aid and sent both troops and ships to join with American forces. Their help was crucial in the American victory in the war's final major battle, which ended with the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781. In 1783 the Treaty of Paris brought the war to an end and official recognition by Britain of the independence of the United States.