UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Declaration of
*Although many colonists feared that Congress and the Committees
on Safety and the reconstituted assemblies might be too radical,
they were also concerned about the loss of local control and the
increasingly intrusive British government, which many feared was
conspiring against their liberties. They saw what was
happening in Massachusetts, and feared it could happen to them
next. Consequently, boycotts were mostly followed and
militia units begin to train seriously, and the British responded
*Worried about colonial resistance, General Thomas Gage, military
governor of Massachusetts, heard of colonial powder stores in
Lexington and Concord, and decided he needed to seize them, and
also hoped to capture Samuel Adams and John Hancock who were in
Lexington at the time.
*Certain colonists heard of Gage's plan, and three of them went to
warn the towns along the projected route of the army, and
especially to warn Adams and Hancock that the regulars were
*Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Dr. Samuel Prescott together
managed to warn the militia or minutemen, and Adams and Hancock
escaped (although only Prescott completed the entire ride to
Concord, after the three were stopped and questioned by British
*Warned, the militia gathered on Lexington green on 19 April,
1775, where the British ordered them to disperse, but fired upon
as they went (because they did not also drop their weapons as they
were told to do). Eight minutemen were killed and ten
wounded. One British solider was wounded as well.
*The regulars proceeded to Concord, where they face more
determined opposition. There ‘the embattled farmers
stood/and fired the shot heard round the world.’ Despite
this resistance, the British destroyed some gun carriages,
entrenching tools, flour, and a liberty pole.
*The British then headed back toward Boston, but were fired upon
the whole way back by militiamen hiding behind trees, fences, and
buildings. 174 regulars were wounded, 73 were killed, and 26
went missing and a siege of Boston by New England militia began,
with Gage's men trapped in the city.
*As the siege entered its second month in May, 1775, the Second
Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia with delegates
eventually arrived from all thirteen colonies. This group
would ultimately lead the colonies and then the United States for
the majority of the Revolutionary War.
*Some delegates to the Congress were in favour of independence
(these included John and Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Richard Henry
Lee, Patrick Henry, who had supported raising troops in March,
1775 with the cry of 'give me liberty or give me death') while
others still wanted to reconcile with Great Britain (including
*George Washington also arrived as a delegate from Virginia, but
as a war hero from the French and Indian War, a representative of
one of the few colonies to send soldiers to New England from
outside that region, and the tallest man in the room, he was soon
made overall commander of the Continental Army and headed off for
Boston. When he arrived and proclaimed the collection of
rag-tag militia there to be the Continental Army, the flag he flew
was still based on the Union Jack, but with thirteen red and white
stripes for the thirteen colonies attached.
*During the war, Congress was made up of varying numbers of
delegates from each of the colonies. It did not matter how
many were present from a given state, as each state got one vote
regardless of size or wealth. Congress had a president, but
he was essentially a chairman running the debate rather than an
important figure in his own right.
*Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to King George III
called the Olive Branch Petition. This petition expressed
the colonies’ loyalty to the King and asked him to call for a
cease-fire until some solution could be found.
*In August, 1775, before the petition could arrive, George III
declared the colonies to be in rebellion and outside his
protection, so that further action would be treason, punishable by
*In September, 1775, George III began hiring Hessian
mercenaries. The colonists felt betrayed by the introduction
of foreign forces into what they had thought was a domestic
*In November, 1775, the Congress learnt that King George had
rejected to Olive Branch Petition. It seemed that the last
chance for peace was gone. Furthermore, Parliament passed
the Prohibitory Act, which closed all foreign trade with the
*In January, 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense.
This was a simple and compelling pamphlet that everyone could
understand. Unlike most pamphlets written at the time, it
did not refer extensively to the classical Greek and Latin
writers. Rather, as the title implies, it drew upon common
sense—is it sensible that a continent should be ruled by an
island? The book argued for (and convinced many people to
support) a break from Britain—possibly even a violent one.
Within a few months 120,000 copies were sold, making it the
best-selling publication in the colonies.
*During this time fighting continued. The only major battle
around Boston, the Battle of Bunker Hill on 14 June, 1775, was a
Pyrrhic victory for the British, as they won with terrible loss of
life, but did not actually break out of Boston.
*Canada was invaded by American forces and Montreal was captured
briefly, but the Americans were driven back after being beaten at
*American forces, primarily the Green Mountain Boys from Vermont,
went to the British fortress of Ticonderoga, caught the guards by
surprise, and seized it without a fight. The cannons seized
there were taken to Boston by Henry Knox where they were turned on
the British trapped in the city beginning on 3 March, 1776.
On 9 March a ceasefire began and on 17 March, almost exactly 11
months after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British
evacuated the city (along with hundreds of local Loyalists).
17 March is still celebrated as Evacuation Day in Boston.
*In the spring and early summer of 1776, a number of towns,
counties, and even colonies began to issue local declarations of
independence, or at least sent instructions to their legislatures
or Congressional delegates to begin working for independence.
*With the Olive Branch Petition rejected, fighting continuing, and
people increasingly inflamed by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense,
Congress decided to declare independence following its proposal by
Richard Henry Lee. Five men (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin,
Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson) are chosen
to work on this, and Mr Jefferson was selected to write it.
*On 2 July, 1776, Congress agreed to declare independence, and Mr
Jefferson’s draft was considered, debated, and modified.
*On 4 July, 1776, the modified Declaration of Independence was
officially adopted, although most delegates did not end up signing
it until later, mostly in August and September, but some even
later than that.
*Out of fear of reprisals, the finished, authenticated, signed
document was not sent out to the states until 18 January, 1777,
after the Continental armies had won a couple of victories,
although the states had heard the wording of the document already.
*The Declaration is a statement of purpose. It contains,
first, an explanation of why it is necessary to issue a
declaration; second, an explanation of the inalienable rights of
life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; third, it gives a
long list of complaints against King George, some exaggerated or
invented, but based on various real problems the colonies
experienced and meant to demonstrate that he was a tyrant to whom
they owed no loyalty any more; and finally, a concluding
resolution in which the it was declared that the colonies were,
and of right ought to be, free and independent states and the
signers agreed to support the declaration with their lives,
fortunes, and sacred honour.
*This was based on the concept of the social contract and the rule
of law, under which governments must work for the public good
rather than personal interest and derive their powers from the
consent of the governed. If a government ceases to respect
the lives, liberty, and property of its people, it is their right,
it is their duty, to throw off such a government.
*After Mr Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence,
Congress debated it and to make sure the grievances listed
expressed all infringements on their various colonies, and also
removed a few things including a criticism of slavery that was
removed at the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia’s
delegations. Some people even then saw hypocrisy in
this: English dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson said, ‘Why do
we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of
*Still, despite their flaws, the signers of the Declaration of
Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred
*Several did go on to fight in the Revolution, during which five
were captured by the British, although eventually released, many
lost their homes during the course of the war, and in theory all
could have been considered traitors and hanged, drawn, and
quartered: according to legend, Benjamin Franklin said ‘We
must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang
*There are several theories about the underlying causes of the
1. Ideological: Colonists were familiar with the works of
classical writers from the Greek democracies and the Roman
republic (such as Polybius), and were also familiar with the
modern work of John Locke, Edmund Burke, and the Baron de
Montesquieu. They truly believed in, and were affronted by
assaults on, the theories and ideas of these writers.
Taxation without representation, and all the other things of which
they complained were feared as real (even if theoretical) attacks
on their liberty. Some people even believed in equality.
2. Economic: Tax evasion and an escape from the tariffs and
trade restrictions of mercantilism really motivated the
revolutionaries. Setting their own taxes would allow
American elites to make more money and be more successful while
the poor and the debtors could get the benefits of inflationary
paper money if they wanted it. The rich, being in control,
would get richer, and perhaps even be able to escape the debts
that many of them, especially the tobacco planters of Virginia,
owed to British merchants (although in fact these debts were
mostly honoured after the war).
3. Social: Society was a pyramid with the King at the top,
then the nobility (in various grades), then large landowners,
businessmen, smaller landowners, small craftsmen, the working
class, servants, and slaves. By truncating everything above
middling sorts and minor gentry, these backwater colonial leaders
suddenly become the tops of the pyramid. Furthermore, some
historians have suggested that, at least in the South, being white
created a sense of equality, in being better than slaves (which
meant that all class of free whites organised to keep the slaves
down), and, in fact, freedom was such an important part of their
self-identity that they craved more. Likewise, the shared
culture of fairly homogenous New England was accustomed to ideas
that were quite egalitarian by the standards of the day.
*With this national Declaration of Independence, other states
begin to issue their own declarations (since they were sovereign)
and many begin to write new constitutions.
*Pennsylvania, which had the most progressive constitution
(adopted in 1776), gave the right to vote to all white males 21
years old or older who paid taxes. This was the first
(nearly) universal manhood suffrage in the US. Pennsylvania
also had a unicameral legislature and elections every year to keep
lawmakers accountable to the people.
*Liberty and equality, democracy and accountability were the
watchwords of the day.
*However, there were some complaints. Abigail Adams reminded
her husband that this Declaration did not really affect women
(because they were not fully citizens, being unable to vote,
largely unable to own property, and constrained by other
laws—under the principle of coverture, a woman was essentially an
appendage of her husbands). Slaves certainly were not
getting independence or liberty from America, although some
British leaders, such as Governor Lord Dunmore offered freedom to
any slave who would fight for the British. Even with liberal
policies like those of Pennsylvania coming into existence,
complete liberty and equality were a long way away.
*Furthermore, not every American supported the Declaration of
Independence. John Adams estimated that a third of Americans
were actually loyal to the king, while third were indifferent, and
only a third were true blue. This meant that besides being a
war for independence, the American Revolution also became a civil
war, with patriots fighting against loyalists, who were also
called Tories, and who often had their homes destroyed and their
*In 1777, the Articles of Confederation were proposed to provide a
framework for a central government for the United States, but they
were not adopted until 1781, and until then the Continental
Congress ran things on an improvisational basis.
*However, before this Declaration meant anything, the United
States had to win a war.
This page last updated 4 August, 2018.