The Declaration of Independence is a
famous document, but without historic context, it doesn’t often make sense to
us in the 21st century. Why, after 150 years of peaceful
colonization, did the Colonists decide to rebel against the King of England?
What did the British do that angered them so much? What’s with the long list of
offenses committed by the King? I’ll
take each section a little at a time and try to give a bit of background, and
hopefully bring this daring, treasonous document to life.
“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
and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind
requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the
Our founders knew that “in the course of
human events,” (or the history of the world), there had been many occasions for
“one people to dissolve the political bands which ha[d] connected them with
another.” History was their guide to the rights which the “Laws of Nature and
Nature’s God” had entitled them.
Our founders were educated in World History
(or as they knew it: “history”), which is packed with stories of revolution.
Every continent in every century had its own group of oppressed people who
finally recognized the tyranny they were under and decided to risk everything
for independence. In Ancient times, Egypt had plenty of rebellions, the
Babylonians rebelled against the Assyrian Empire, Greeks threw off the bondage
of the Persians, and there were several failed attempts to overthrow Roman
the Dark Ages, overcoming the Roman Empire became a more successful venture by
the Jews, the Celts, and the Germanic tribes, while China saw many successful
(and not-so-successful) attempts at Revolution through the first millennium,
and the map of Europe and the Middle East saw continual change due to constant
upheaval and revolt in the Muslim world.
The Middle Ages brought about major changes
in the Western World (and the East) that would influence the future of “human
rights,” including Scottish Wars for Independence,
English peasant revolts, and many uprisings by the Swedish, Vietnamese, French,
Persians, Italians, and more. The Magna Carta, signed in 1215, revolutionized
the idea of the limited power of governing authorities.
So you see, the idea of Revolution was not a
radical one; it was generally understood by our founders that we were entitled
to equal station by the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. The purpose of the
document to follow this opening paragraph would be to “declare the causes which
impel them to the separation” from the British King.
“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
and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Founders largely believed in a Supreme
Being, the Creator of the World: God. In Genesis we read about God’s creation
of the earth and the creation of man: LIFE. We read that He gave man dominion
over the earth and the animals, and the freedom to make our own choices (even
if the consequences were negative): LIBERTY.
We read that He created us to be fruitful and multiply, to eat the fruit of the
land, and to enjoy His creation: THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. These rights, these
gifts were not the gifts of any benevolent monarch or government; they were the
gift of our Creator from the beginning of time.
“That to secure
these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers
from the consent of the governed…”
The Founders were also students of John
Locke, the English Philosopher. Many of his thoughts on civil governments are
echoed throughout the Declaration of Independence, specifically this line on
the consent of the governed. In his 2nd Treatise Locke wrote: “For
no government can have a right to obedience from a people who have not rightly
consented to it; which they can never be supposed to do, til either they are
put in a full state of liberty to choose their government and governors, or at
least til they have such standing laws, to which they have by themselves or
their representatives given their free consent; and also til they are allowed
their due property, which is so to be proprieters of what they have, that
nobody can take away any part of it without their own consent, without which
men under any government are not in the state of free men, but are direct
slaves under the force of war.”
Many of these truths had been continually
violated by the British army in the colonies, as we will discuss soon in the
long list of violations by the King; but for now, keep in mind that the
Americans were trained and educated to think like Locke while they were being
increasingly treated like slaves of the crown.
So it only follows that they would think
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 its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such
form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
*Note: The framers of this text truly
did believe that “all men are created equal” and slaves were no exception.
Thomas Jefferson originally included a paragraph about the horrors of slavery
and how the King of England was responsible for it (and was trying to bribe the
slaves with freedom in exchange for the murder of the Colonists). Although a
slave owner himself, he knew that a truly free nation would not condone
slavery. But this brought about intense debate.
A minority of Southern delegates would
not consent to this addition, and some Northern delegates would not compromise
their trade with merchants who were part of the slave trade. In order to
the agreement had to be unanimous. So this one paragraph was removed from the
final text. So while Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many other American
Founders continued to hold slaves, they also petitioned for the end of slavery
and worked to prepare their own slaves for a free life in the future.
indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed
for light and transient causes;”
It was not for “light and transient causes”
that a revolution should take place; the Founders understood what a serious undertaking
it would be to defy the most powerful King in the world. They understood that
they were literally risking their lives. It would be considered treason, but it
was a daring feat for a weighty matter: INDEPENDENCE.
They also understood the human mind:
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 are accustomed.”
This has proven true all throughout history.
Just like the slow boiling of a frog in a pot, the American colonists had been
gradually subjected to tyranny, at first almost unrecognizable, and then at the
end, as blatant disregard for any rights of their own.
How did they go from respecting the
authority of Britain
to wanting a Revolution? In a nutshell, Britain was a conquering nation,
and had its armies spread all over the world. Colonization takes funds, and the
British coffers were running low. The King’s solution to this was to make the
Colonies pay the cost of having the British rule over them. Taxes rose, British
soldiers exerted more and more authority, and the Colonists lost more and more
rights. The Colonists felt it only proper that if they were to be taxed, they
should also be represented in Parliament. King George was appalled at such a
That infamous independent spirit first bred
by their Puritan fathers combined with increasingly heavy-handed British
regulations on trade, taxes, and laws awakened the Colonists to the realization
that they had reached a turning point.
“But when a
long train of abuses and usurpations, 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, and to provide new Guards for
their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies;
and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former
Systems of Government.”
can almost see Thomas Jefferson furiously writing with passion at the thought
that “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government!”
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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid
He has refused
his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
The Colonists submitted various laws for
the good of the Colonies, to which the King refused to agree, denying their
right to “consent of the governed” and a right to representation in Parliament.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass
Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till
his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected
to attend to them.
Each colony was ruled by a
British-appointed Governor, and for the most part, this was okay. Remember: the
Colonists were once loyal subjects to the crown, so this was normal. But as the
King imposed harsher laws on the Colonists, they became more rebellious. When
the Colonial assemblies passed laws, they had to await the approval of the
Governor by the King’s permission, which oftentimes was not given, or was
postponed for YEARS.
He has refused to pass other Laws for
the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would
relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable
to them and formidable to tyrants only.
this case, the Colonists were asking for representation IN THEIR OWN Colonies.
As population in creased, New York, New Hampshire, and South Carolina asked for
additional delegates to their own assemblies, and King George would not even
A representation of the first colonial assembly in Virginia in 1619: colored engraving, English, 19th century.
He has called together legislative
bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of
their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance
with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly
firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
In several Colonies, the colonial
Governor would change the official meeting place of legislators too far for
normal travel and away from where official records and documents were housed.
It was a childish game, intended to confuse and frustrate the Americans.
He has refused for a long time, after
such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative
powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for
their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers
of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
Freedom of Speech was now becoming
non-existent in the Colonies. If a Colonial Assembly met to declare the wrongs
of King or Parliament, the King ordered that Assembly to be dissolved. His sole
intent was to crush opposition. This is typical of a Monarchy, and typical
throughout the history of the world.
The Founders were not even close to
being finished with the King’s “establishment of Tyranny.”
HE HAS ENDEAVOURED TO PREVENT
THE POPULATION OF THESE STATES; FOR THAT PURPOSE OBSTRUCTING THE LAWS FOR
NATURALIZATION OF FOREIGNERS; REFUSING TO PASS OTHERS TO ENCOURAGE THEIR
MIGRATIONS HITHER, AND RAISING THE CONDITIONS OF NEW APPROPRIATIONS OF LANDS.
This is a perfect example of
Tyranny at its finest: preventing the settlement of people on unused lands and
preventing new immigrants from settling in the American colonies. As we know,
pioneers are the backbone of America’s
settling; yet King George wanted to control everything about that land.
HE HAS OBSTRUCTED THE
ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE, BY REFUSING HIS ASSENT TO LAWS FOR ESTABLISHING
Several states were left
without local courts because the King felt that this was for him alone to
govern. You can see that there were MANY reasons for the phrase “consent of the
governed.” There was no way to protect life and property without a court of
HE HAS MADE JUDGES DEPENDENT ON
HIS WILL ALONE, FOR THE TENURE OF THEIR OFFICES, AND THE AMOUNT AND PAYMENT OF
Here are more glimpses into the
future of the U.S. Constitution. The English King took firm control over
colonial judges, both removing them from their office when he saw fit, and
demanding that they refuse to bow to the local legislature. A true abuse of
power resulted from judges being ruled solely by a tyrant King.
HE HAS ERECTED A MULTITUDE OF
NEW OFFICES, AND SENT HITHER SWARMS OF OFFICERS TO HARRASS OUR PEOPLE, AND EAT
OUT THEIR SUBSTANCE.
The Colonies were in a constant
battle to direct the laws of their own land, while the King set up new and
ingenious offices to prevent any self-government. In this case, military courts
became his method of enforcing his tyrannical trade laws.
HE HAS KEPT AMONG US, IN TIMES
OF PEACE, STANDING ARMIES WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF OUR LEGISLATURES.
When the French and Indian War
ended, British troops never went back to England. Further, the Quartering
Act of 1765 required the colonies to be financially liable for the British
troops. A standing army was viewed as a threat to any freedom the Colonists
might have, and rightly so. With the continual tightening of British rule, the
Colonists had much to fear if they resisted.
HE HAS AFFECTED TO RENDER THE
MILITARY INDEPENDENT OF AND SUPERIOR
TO THE CIVIL POWER.
General Thomas Gage
In 1774, British General Gage
was also appointed as Governor of Massachusetts. He was not elected. The
following year he declared martial law. The Colonists knew that an appointed
military commander and executive had no reprisals to fear, and therefore could
rule in any form he wished. This became one of a list of Intolerable Acts by
the British crown. Others included closing the port of Boston to all trade, and
establishing the Catholic Church as the official church of Quebec (which the
British determined extended down into the Ohio Valley, thereby denying freedom
of worship in the American colonies).
The U.S. Constitution would similarly declare
the President to be Commander in Chief of the U.S. Military, but the difference
is that the President is elected to limited terms. Now follows a complete list of
the Intolerable Acts, mentioned above. He has
combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our
constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts
of pretended Legislation:
The Colonists, up to this
point, recognized England
as their “homeland” and the King as their authority under the British
constitution (‘our constitution”). However, the Parliament was not included in
this constitutional authority, but the King increasingly gave Parliament
legislative powers over the Colonies.
For Quartering large bodies of armed
troops among us:
By proclamation of the King, colonists
were required to provide housing for British soldiers. Unspeakable abuses of
individual citizens accompanied this “quartering.” The 3rd Amendment
to the Constitution would prevent this kind of abuse of freedom.
For protecting them, by a mock Trial,
from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of
If a British soldier was accused of
murder, he was protected from any real punishment by being removed from the
place (in this case, Massachussetts) where the crime was committed, to a
territory outside that colony’s legal authority, and the trial was a sham.
For cutting off our Trade with all parts
of the world:
After the Boston Tea Party, the King was
so angry that he intended to punish the citizens of Boston by closing their port. His purpose was
to deprive the Massachusetts
colony of much needed trade from around the world.
For imposing Taxes on us without our
we go back to the main point of this whole Declaration: consent of the
governed. The Stamp Act was the first of many that would require American
colonists to pay taxes to the British government. Every time the colonies cried
foul, the King would issue more. They petitioned for fair treatment, and were
rewarded with even more regulations.
For depriving us in many cases, of the
benefits of Trial by Jury:
As more taxes were imposed, instances of
smuggling increased. The British government handled these cases swiftly in
British military courts with no jury present. The 6th and 7th
Amendments to the Constitution were born from this experience.
For transporting us beyond Seas to be
tried for pretended offences
Charges of murder against a colonist
could result in a trial that might (and often did) take place in England
or other British colonies. Remember, a sea voyage could take weeks or months,
essentially removing a person from their homeland for a very extended period,
possibly with no hope of returning.
British War Ship
For abolishing the free System of
English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary
government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example
and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
This refers to the Quebec Act, mentioned
in Part 5. The British government declared Catholicism the official religion of
and ADDED that the Province now extended well into American territories, such
as Michigan, Wisconsin,
Illinois, and Indiana. This was also an effort to prevent
For taking away our Charters, abolishing
our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our
Since the Pilgrims first settled in Plymouth, charters of one kind or another had been in
existence in Massachusetts.
The charters outlined the government of the colony allowed by the British
monarchy. The charter referred to here gave the colonists freedom of religion,
but appointed governors by the monarchy instead of elected by the people.
For suspending our own Legislatures, and
declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases
This was absolute tyranny over the
Colonies. King George unequivocally believed that he ruled supreme and that the
colonists must live by his command. Thus, consent of the governed was ignored
and absolute monarchy was imposed from across the wide Atlantic.
When the colonists insisted on electing their own local legislatures, the King
simply “suspended” them.
The long list of complaints to the King
is about to wind up…
abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War
In a vicious circle of events, the King
and Parliament implemented increased rule over the Colonists, so the Colonists
became rebellious and “independent.” This finally resulted in the King
declaring that the American Colonies were no longer under the protection of the
King, and he declared it on two separate occasions while he increased his war
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our
Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
This was all a result of the increased
warfare taking place in the Colonies since the Boston Massacre of 1770.
He is at this
time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of
death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty
& perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally
unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
The battles of Lexington
were a shock to the British Army. A disorganized band of farmers and family men
somehow employed guerilla tactics that exhausted and defeated the
well-organized British soldiers after the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The
British underestimated the fighting fury of freedom-minded settlers and,
despite their superior training, supply of arms, and reinforcements, repeatedly
failed to squash this rebellion. The King turned to paid soldiers from neighboring
European countries (“Mercenaries”) to reinforce his troops.
constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms
against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and
Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
George’s anger knew no bounds. He began authorizing the capture of any ships
trading with the Americans. Not only were they captured, cutting of trade with
the Colonies, but the crew were pressed into the service of the British
military to fight against the Colonists. In many cases, they would be forced to
fight against their own friends and kin.
He has excited
domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the
inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of
warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
King George attempted to employ the
Indian tribes in his battle against the Americans. The Americans had enough
experience with hostile Indians to know that this was a determined brutal
attack on even the women and children. The Cayuga and Seneca were among several
tribes to fight with the British.
Thus ends the list of specific injuries
of King George to the American Colonies, followed by a reminder that they had
tried very hard to be loyal subjects to the Crown.
In every stage
of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms:
Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince
whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit
to be the ruler of a free people.
As excessive taxes and regulations grew,
the Colonists attempted to reason and plead with England. One example was The Stamp
Act Congress of 1765, which resulted in an early bill of rights and a statement
of grievances, to which Parliament conceded. (The Stamp Act put a tax on every
form of printed paper in the Colonies; the Colonists feared that this would
soon lead to the loss of free speech.) The Colonists sent various versions of
pleas to the King, asking for peace and fairness in exchange for their loyalty.
He either ignored these or responded with more heavy-handed measures. So they
declared him openly to be a Tyrant.
wraps up the resolution:
Nor have we
been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from
time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction
over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and
settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and
we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these
usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and
correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of
consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces
our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War,
in Peace Friends.
The Colonists repeatedly attempted to
appeal for justice at British citizens. They were, up to this day, subjects of
the British crown, sharing the same ancestry as British citizens and were
perfectly happy to remain so. Despite these pleas for justice and equality,
they were treated as slaves to the King, and finally “denounced our Separation”
and declared themselves citizens of a new nation, and enemies of their former
the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress,
Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our
intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these
Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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; and that
as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude
Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and
Things which Independent States may of right do.
The men who signed this document were
representatives of all thirteen colonies. The separation from Britain was a
unanimous decision. They would no longer consider themselves British subjects;
they would form their own government, fight their own wars.
And for the
support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually
pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
These signers were willfully committing
treason, and they felt the weight of it. Revolution is no small undertaking.
You can imagine being in that room in Philadelphia:
the fear of what they were about to publish, the anger at the King, the
uncertainty of the future. But each of these men knew that freedom was worth
the price they might be asked to pay.
So, what was the British response?
His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of
Parliament on Thursday, October 31, 1776
“My Lords, and Gentlemen,
Nothing could have
afforded Me so much Satisfaction as to have been able to inform you, at the
Opening of this Session, that the Troubles, which have so long distracted My
Colonies inNorth America, were at an End; and that My unhappy
People, recovered from their Delusion, had delivered themselves from the
Oppression of their Leaders, and returned to their Duty. But so daring and
desperate is the Spirit of those Leaders, whose Object has always been Dominion
and Power, that they have now openly renounced all Allegiance to the
Crown, and all political Connection with this Country. They have rejected,
with Circumstances of Indignity and Insult, the Means of Conciliation held out
to them under the Authority of Our Commission: and have presumed to set up
their rebellious Confederacies for Independent States. If their Treason be
suffered to take Root, much Mischief must grow from it, to the Safety of My
loyal Colonies, to the Commerce of My Kingdoms, and indeed to the present
System of allEurope. One great Advantage,
however, will be derived from the Object of the Rebels being openly
avowed, and clearly understood. We shall have Unanimity at Home, founded in the
general Conviction of the Justice and Necessity of Our Measures.
. . .
My Lords, and Gentlemen,in this arduous Contest I can have no
other Object but to promote the true Interests of all My Subjects. No people
ever enjoyed more Happiness, or lived under a milder Government, than those now
revolted Provinces: the Improvements in every Art, of which they boast,
declare it: their Numbers, their Wealth, their Strength by Sea and Land, which
they think sufficient to enable them to make Head against the whole Power of
the Mother Country, are irrefragable Proofs of it. My Desire is to restore to
them the Blessings of Law and Liberty,
equally enjoyed by everyBritishSubject,
which they have fatally and desperately exchanged for all the Calamities of
War, and the arbitrary Tyranny of their Chiefs.”
It is important to remember that
was declared, it was not immediate. They Continental Army would fight for 5
long years before they actually won.
On July 2, the delegates voted to adopt
the Declaration. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail how it should be
celebrated (although now we celebrate on the date it was approved – the 4th):
It “will be the most memorable Epocha, in
the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by
succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be
commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God
Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games,
Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent
to the other from this Time forward forever more.
You will think me transported with
Enthusiasm, but I am not – I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure,
that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these
States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and
Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that
Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although we should rue
it, which I trust in God we shall not.”
This Declaration makes so much sense with the context explained. Every American should read it on Independence Day. Read it with your families. Share the real and factual history of our nation and preserve it for future generations!