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The Declaration of Independence: Origins

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1 The Declaration of Independence: Origins
The Bill of Rights Institute Chicago, IL October 2, 2008 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University

2 Background 1763 – The French and Indian War ended. The British forced the French from North America and assumed financial obligations that led them to try to raise more revenue from the American colonists. 1765 – Parliament passed the Stamp Act, its first effort to lay a direct tax on the Americans, provoking massive colonial opposition. – Parliament passed the Townshend Acts to raise money through duties on trade, provoking another wave of colonial resistance. 1770 – British troops fire on and kill five civilians during a riot in Boston which becomes known as “The Boston Massacre.” 1773 – Parliament passed the Tea Act prompting colonists dressed as “Indians” to dump newly imported tea into Boston harbor rather than allow the import taxes on it to be paid in what became known as the Boston Tea Party. 1773 – The British responded with a series of “Coercive Acts.” They closed the port of Boston, revised the Massachusetts charter to undercut popular power and enhance that of the Crown, allowed English officials charged with murder for killing colonists with repressing riots or enforcing British revenue laws to be tried in England (which, colonists said, meant they would be acquitted), and allowed military commanders to quarter troops where needed to control the civilian population. 1774 – Americans throughout the Continent quickly called those laws the “Intolerable Acts,” and most colonies sent delegates to a Continental Congress, later known as the “First Continental Congress,” to coordinate their opposition. It met in Philadelphia in September and October 1774, and dumbfounded the King’s ministers, who considered the colonists incapable of acting together. Congress pledged loyalty to the Crown and assured the King that peace and harmony would immediately return if the colonies were returned to their situation in The King ignored their pleas. 1775 – War broke out in the farming towns of Lexington and Concord some twenty miles north and west of Boston. Paul Revere, a Boston silversmith and experienced express rider, warned the people in the town the night before that war was imminent. Samuel Adams and John Hancock are among those who escape.

3 The Second Continental Congress: Same as the First?
While the fledgling United States was fighting for its independence from England, it was being run (and the war conducted) by the Continental Congress. Although this body had no formal authority, it met in session from 1774 through the end of the war in 1781, establishing itself as a “de facto” government. But it may have been something more than that. About a year into the Revolutionary War, the Second Continental Congress took steps toward nationhood. It met on May 10, 1775 and began drafting and issuing numerous petitions, resolutions, addresses, and declarations for settling their grievances with Britain. For example, Thomas Jefferson drafted a Declaration on Taking Up Arms only to have it rejected and an alternate declaration written by John Dickinson approved. None of the documents called for independence and many explicitly rejected that outcome.

4 Thomas Paine On January 9, 1776—the same day James Wilson proposed that Congress once again disavow any desire for Independence, a Philadelphia press distributed the first copies of Common Sense. The pamphlet was published anonymously, but in time it became known as the work of Thomas Paine, a largely self-educated Englishman of no particular distinction, who had first arrived in America in 1774. Earlier colonial pamphlets and essays, including John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania ( ), had presented carefully reasoned arguments sprinkled with references to Tacitus, Montesquieu, or a familiar list of English and Scottish political and legal writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, and often assumed an almost scholarly character. Not Common Sense. Paine wrote in a knock-about language, as John Adams later put it, “suitable for an Emigrant from New Gate [the English jail], or one who had chiefly associated with such Company,” with references to “’The Royal Brute of England,’ ‘The Blood upon his Soul,’ and a few others of equal delicacy.” While Paine’s arguments were not new, particularly in Congress, they were meant to persuade the people whose support Congress needed. The pamphlet was widely published, circulated, read, and discussed and was successful in shifting the public debate from reconciliation to deciding how an independent America should be governed.

5 Common Sense American freedom would never be secure under British rule, Paine argued, because “the so much boasted Constitution of England” was deeply flawed. The problem lay in two major “constitutional errors”—monarchy and hereditary rule. To prove the point he cited, with more passion than order, one kind of evidence after another. The Bible, he insisted, condemned monarchy as “one of the sins of the Jews.” Nature also disapproved of monarchy, which was why it so often presented capable kings with inept sons, or gave mankind “an ass for a lion.” Monarchy and hereditary rule made bad rulers even of capable individuals by breeding arrogance, and by separating them from the rest of mankind whose interests they needed to know well. Moreover, the ambitions of kings and those who would be kings caused civil and foreign wars that had laid both Britain and “the world in ashes.” The problem, then, was not just that evil persons were exercising power. It was systemic, in the very design of British government, which, like all governments, was incapable of constraining the power of hereditary rulers. The only way to solve that problem was to redesign the machine of government, eliminating monarchy and hereditary rule and expanding the “republican” element of British government which derived power not from birth but from the ballot. The solution, in short, was revolution. Paine provided suggestions for a new government and argued that Americans could defeat the British and thrive on their own—both economically and politically.

6 The Declaration of Independence
On June 11, 1776, a committee was appointed to draft the document: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution declaring the “United States Colonies free and independent states.” Two days later, on July 4, it formalized this proclamation in the Declaration of Independence, in which the nation’s founders used the term United States of America for the first time. But what was in the Declaration? And who was responsible for it? While this question has been debated by scholars for some time, there is general consensus today on these questions…

7 Thomas Jefferson The committee chose Jefferson to draft the document. Why? Because having a Virginian and a Southerner, rather than a New Englander, write the document had great political advantage: it would demonstrate that support for Independence went far beyond the “radical” New Englanders who were sometimes accused of pulling the country in their preferred “democratical” or “anti-monarchical” direction. As was the common practice at the time, Jefferson drew on other documents for his draft: the draft preamble for the Virginia constitution that he had just finished and which was itself based on the English Declaration of Rights; a preliminary version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights by George Mason.

8 Jefferson’s Draft: Charges and Opening
All agreed that the document must contain a set of charges against the King. The English Declaration of Rights and previous colonial documents of a similar sort had included such a set of claims. The various charges had a common purpose: to demonstrate that the King had inflicted on the colonists “unremitting injuries and usurpations,” all of which had as a “direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny.” But it was the paragraphs that preceded and introduced the charges against the King that were distinctive. “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 & of nature’s god entitle them, a descent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” In an earlier draft the opening began, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, and to assume…,” which was more awkward and also harder to say than the revised version. The earlier draft also referred to an “equal & independent station” rather than a “separate and equal.”

9 Jefferson’s Draft: Second Paragraph
As reported by the committee, the paragraph began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable 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, laying the foundation on such principles, and organizing it’s powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety & happiness.”

10 Jefferson’s Draft: Second Paragraph
Jefferson—perhaps with some help from Franklin—made the same kind of careful editorial adjustments in the opening lines of this paragraph, which, as an examination of successive drafts of the document reveals, were based on the first three provisions of George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. Jefferson began with Mason’s statement “that all men are born equally free and independent,” which he rewrote to say they were “created equal & independent” then (on his “original rough draft”) cut out the “& independent.” Mason said that all men had “certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity,” which Jefferson compressed into a statement that men derived from their equal creation “rights inherent & inalienable,” then moved the noun to the end of the phrase so it read “inherent & inalienable rights.” Among those rights, Mason said, were “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety,” which Jefferson again shortened first to “the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness,” and then simply to “life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” George Mason

11 Jefferson’s Draft: Second Paragraph
The second paragraph continued: “Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light & transient causes: 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 re accustomed. But when a long train of abuses & usurpations, begun at a distinguished period, & 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, & to provide new guards for their future security.” Jefferson’s assertions of the right of revolution summarized succinctly ideas defended and explained at greater length by a long list of 17th-century writers that included such prominent figures as John Milton, Algernon Sidney, and John Locke, as well as a host of others, English and Scottish, familiar and obscure. By the time of the Revolution those ideas had become, in the generalized form captured by Jefferson, a political orthodoxy whose basic principles colonists could pick up from sermons or newspapers or even schoolbooks without ever reading a systematic work of political theory. The sentiments Jefferson eloquently expressed were, in short, absolutely conventional among Americans of his time. John Locke

12 Jefferson’s Draft: Second Paragraph
Jefferson concluded the second paragraph: “Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; & such now is the necessity which constrains them to expunge their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which appears no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest, but all have in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let the facts be submitted to a candid world, for truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.” After his list of charges, he concluded that section: “a prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free.” King George III

13 Jefferson’s Draft: The Penultimate Section
The underlined passages were deleted from the final draft and the bold passages left in. “Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend a jurisdiction over these our states. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration & settlement here, no one of which could warrant so strange a pretension: that these were effected at the expense of our own blood & treasure, unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain: that in constituting indeed our several forms of government, we had adopted one common king, thereby laying a foundation for perpetual league & amity with them: but that submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution, nor ever in idea if history may be credited: and we appealed to their native justice & magnanimity as well as to the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations which were likely to interrupt our connection & correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice & of consanguinity, & when occasions have been given them, by the regular course of their laws, of removing from their councils the disturbers of our harmony, they have by their free election re-established them in power. At this very time too they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch & foreign mercenaries to invade & destroy us. These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bid us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and to hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends. We might have been a free & a great people together; but a communication of grandeur & of freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it: the road to happiness & to glory is open to us too; we will climb it apart from them and acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our eternal separation! For Jefferson, the key to this section was that America had been settled with no help from Britain. Indeed, he had written an entire treatise, which remained locked away in an unpublished notebook until the 20th century, to refute a point in the speech on American affairs that George III delivered to Parliament in The King said that the colonies had been planted by the British nation “with great industry, nursed with great tenderness,” and, above all, “protected and defended at much expence and treasure.”

14 Jefferson’s Draft: The Conclusion
Then, finally, on the basis of all that came before, the Declaration arrived at its main business: “We therefore the representatives of the United States of America”—no longer the United Colonies—“in General Congress assembled do, in the name & by authority of the good people of these states, reject and renounce all allegiance & subjection to the kings of Great Britain & all others who may thereafter claim by, through, or under them,” a passage that amounted to a rejection not only of George III but of his descendants and any other claimants to the throne, in effect, a rejection of monarchy, as well as of those public servants the King appointed. And more: “we utterly dissolve all political connection which may heretofore have subsisted between us & the parliament of people of Great Britain,” a statement that strangely suggested there might once have been some political connection between Parliament and the “good people” of America; “and finally we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states and that as free & independent states they have full power to levy war, conclude pace, contract alliances, establish commerce, & to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Much of this language was initially drafted by Richard Henry Lee in his congressional resolution to declare independence, June 7, And Jefferson’s prose (above) was further edited by Congress to more accurately reflect Lee’s language.

15 Mr. Jefferson and His Editors
The committee suggested changes and Jefferson accommodated them, working closest with Adams and Franklin. Then Congress made their revisions: rewriting or chopping off large sections of the draft, eliminating in the end fully ¼ of Jefferson’s text. Exactly how this process unfolded and who was responsible for what largely remains a mystery as there are no accounts of the proceedings beyond Jefferson’s notes and he was anything but a dispassionate observer. Congress agreed to the final version on July 4, 1776. In the end, what generations of Americans came to revere was not Jefferson’s but Congress’s Declaration, the work not of a single man, or even a committee, but of a larger body of men with the good sense to recognize a “pretty good” draft when they saw it, and who were able to identify and eliminate Jefferson’s more outlandish assertions and unnecessary words.

16 To Sign or Not to Sign Why sign the document?
Only John Browne, Parliament’s clerk, signed the English Declaration of Rights. Moreover, the members of England’s 17th century Parliaments did not customarily sign instruments they presented to the King, nor were declarations and petitions signed by their drafters elsewhere in Europe. From the viewpoint of those who opposed its message, the Declaration was nothing less than a public confession of treason. And conviction for treason meant death and confiscation of estate. The Crown did not recognize the legitimacy of the Continental Congress. By affixing their signatures, the delegates signaled that each of the colonies mentioned supported the petition, and also founded it upon their own personal authority and dignity. This was, they seemed to say, not the work of an inconsequential faction of colonists, as their critics in England so often alleged, but the voice of the American people and of the men of consequence they selected to speak for them. The Declaration was read in American cities in the days after its adoption by Congress. Still, only on January 8, 1777, after the long, disastrous military campaign of 1776 was over and the Americans had won victories at Trenton and Princeton, did Congress send the states authenticated copies of the Declaration of Independence— with the signatures affixed.

17 Signers — John Hancock New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton Massachusetts: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott New York: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross Delaware: Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

18 Aftermath: American Scripture
In the 15 years after its adoption, the Declaration was all but forgotten. It was revived by Jeffersonian Republicans and used as a partisan document in the 1790s. The Declaration’s language was used to support Republicans and the French Revolution and used against the Federalists and their alliance with Britain. In the late 1820s and 1830s, both Whigs and Jacksonians claimed descent from Jefferson and his party, which served to confirm and perpetuate the old Republican reverence for the Declaration of Independence and its emphasis upon Jefferson’s role in its creation, which persists today, over a century and a half later. Opponents of slavery also cited the Declaration, particularly its second paragraph. In his most famous speech—the Gettysburg Address (1863)—President Abraham Lincoln began: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC ( ) contains excerpts from the Declaration. However, Jefferson’s prose was altered (for space reasons), the right of revolution passage that Jefferson felt was the point of the Declaration was eliminated, and much of what was included was not written by Jefferson.

19 Conclusion It is important to understand that the ideas in the Declaration were not Jefferson’s but were instead a reflection of popular ideas and writings of the time. Furthermore, the finished product—the words themselves—should by understood as the work of Congress as a whole and not the work of Jefferson. The Declaration—and Jefferson himself—have gained an almost mythic quality. This deification of the document and the man who was picked to draft it has obscured the reality of America’s revolutionary past and the politics involved in constructing and developing the American polity: a far messier and complicated project than is popularly understood.

20 Further Reading Becker, Carl. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. Harcourt Brace, 1922. Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. Knopf, 1997. Paine, Thomas. Common Sense


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