In drafting the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and other members of a committee assigned to prepare this seminal document) knew that he had to present a solid legal and moral foundation upon which to build support for secession from the British Crown. Independence from Great Britain was not universally supported, and Jefferson recognized the importance of presenting the case for independence in a cogent, persuasive manner. While many Americans are familiar with the opening passages of the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, many are less familiar with the lengthy list of grievances to which Jefferson refers in arguing for the revolutionary movement taking shape among the colonies.
Jefferson prefaces his list of grievances against the British Crown by addressing the issue of independence in universal terms. It is this eloquent preface in which one finds the immortal words that most Americans remember:
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 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,
Having set forth these universal rights, Jefferson next address the issue of what should follow any government’s failure to protect such rights while emphasizing that the rationale for secession had to be grounded in serious grievances and not merely in slights or insults:
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. . . Governments long established should not be changed for light and 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 are accustomed. 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.
It is now that Jefferson presents his long list of grievances that cumulatively provide the basis for the declaration of independence he and others are advancing. Among those grievances is the Crown’s failure to abide by the rule of law, its failure to support the existence of a legislative or parliamentary body to which its subjects in the distant colonies can appeal, its insistence on imposing a repressive military presence upon these citizens of its colonies, its imposition of taxes without the consent of the governed, and its practice of "plundering our seas, ravaging our Coasts, burning our towns, and destroying the lives of our people." [Note: this last phrase is not a direct quote but a modification of a provision for grammatical purposes.] Finally, Jefferson argues that the Crown has “incited domestic insurrections amongst us.” This is not a comprehensive list of the grievances to which Jefferson refers. It does, however, capture the essence of his and his compatriots' arguments for a revolutionary movement to liberate the colonies from the tyranny of the British Crown.