The Declaration of Independence

*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 disastrously.

*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 coming.

*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 soldiers).

*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 John Dickinson).

*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 death.

*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 matter.

*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 colonies.

*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 Quebec.

*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 Negroes?’

*Still, despite their flaws, the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honour. 

*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 separately.’ 

*There are several theories about the underlying causes of the Revolution:
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 property seized.

*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.
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