ADVANCE PLACEMENT
AMERICAN HISTORY

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

*Thomas Paine said ‘We have it in our power to make the world anew.’  The American Revolution was more than a change of leaders; it was a change in how people conceived of their government and their place in the world.

*Discuss old grievances against Britain from the last unit.  These include taxes, the Boston Massacre, the Intolerable Acts, Lexington and Concord.

*Explain that even at this point, the colonists still, for the most part, thought of themselves as British.  They saw themselves fighting for their traditional rights, especially the right to representation in the legislature that levies taxes upon them, and even (in colonies like Massachusetts and Virginia) the right to have a legislature at all.

*Following the battles of Lexington and Concord, and remembering the moderate but promising usefulness of the First Continental Congress, the colonies sent delegates to the Second Continental Congress in May, 1775.  This group would ultimately lead the colonies and then the United State 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) while others still wanted to reconcile with Great Britain (including John Dickinson).

*As mentioned yesterday, Washington was a delegate from Virginia, but was soon made overall commander of the Continental Army.  [Draw flag, in which the Union Jack still represents loyalty to the crown.  Later flags would replace this with stars representing the colonies in the first canton.]

*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 in rebellion, 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, in response, Britain replied with 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 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.  Canada was invaded by American forces; Montreal was captured briefly, but the Americans were driven back.  Norfolk, Virginia was burned, but the British were forced to evacuate Boston.

*In the spring and early summer of 1776, a number of towns, counties, and even colonies have begun 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 decide to declare independence.  Five men (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson) are chosen to work on this, and Mr Jefferson is selected to write it.

*2 July, 1776, Congress agree to declare independence, and Mr Jefferson’s draft is considered, debated, and modified.

*4 July, 1776, the modified Declaration is signed and adopted.

*Out of fear of reprisals, the finished, authenticated, signed document is not sent out to the states until 18 January, 1777, after the victories at Trenton and Princeton, although the states had heard the wording of the document already.

*The Declaration is a statement of purpose.  It contains, first (in the preamble), and 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 in various real problems the colonies experienced, and finally, a concluding resolution in which the it was declared that the colonies were, and of right ought to be, free and independent and the signers agreed to support the declaration with their lives, fortunes, and sacred honour.

*Read Declaration, and discuss the issues and grievances.  The students have a copy on page A31.

*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.  Governments that cease to hold up their end of the bargain may be rebelled against legitimately.

*Discuss the dropping of slavery from the Declaration.  Georgia and South Carolina wanted it out, and many Northerners consented to the continued transport of slaves, being ‘pretty considerable carriers of them to others.’

*Dicuss how the signers risked their lives, fortunes, and sacred honour.

*Mention Robert Morris in connexion with fortunes.

*Honour was not just good behaviour or chivalry, as some people conceive it to-day.  It was the public respect and credit a man had for his actions.  Trust was neccessary to do business in the personal world of the 18th century.

*Discuss theories 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 Lock, Edmund Burke, and the Baron de Montesquieu.  The 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.  Setting our own taxes would allow our elites to make more money and be more successful—the poor and the debtors get the benefits of inflationary paper money if they want it, and the rich, being in control, get richer.

3. Social:  Explain social classes, from King to slaves.  By truncating everything above middling sorts and minor gentry, these backwater colonial leaders suddenly become the cream of the crop.  Also mention theory that, at least in the south, being white creates a sense of equality, in being better than slaves (and organised to keep them down).

*With this declaration, other states begin to issue their own (since they’re 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 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 are the words 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 and constrained by other laws).  Slaves certainly are not getting independence or liberty.  Even with liberal policies like those of Pennsylvania coming into existence, complete liberty and equality are a long way away.

*In 1777, the Articles of Confederation were proposed, but they were not adopted until 1781.

*However, before this Declaration means anything, the colonies have to win a war.
 

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This page last updated 3 September, 2003.