The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson
Start Free Trial

Who was the audience of the Declaration of Independence?

The audience of the Declaration of Independence was primarily composed of three separate entities. First, since it was a formal declaration of war, it was directed to King George III and the British government. Second, the document was used to unite the American colonists in the cause of revolution. Third, it was used as a plea to foreign nations, particularly England’s European enemies, for support of American independence.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A good understanding of the audience of the Declaration of Independence begins with the simple recognition that prior to the American Revolution the colonists considered themselves British citizens. They were aware of their subordinate status to Great Britain, but for the most part, they were not oppressed by the British government. The colonists supported England in the French and Indian War.

By the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British government had incurred tremendous expenses fighting their European enemies. Waging war with France in both Europe and the Americas and attempting to counter the expansion of Spain into the New World had proved financially devastating to Great Britain. To King George III, the American colonies were a ripe source for raising money to help pay England’s debts. Imposing increased taxes on English colonists became the catalyst for revolution.

The British insisted that the American colonies were too distant from England to be permitted representatives in Parliament. The colonists believed taxation without representation amounted to tyranny, and in 1775 a revolt broke out over the issue of continued oppression of the English colonists through Parliamentary Acts designed to tighten the hold over the colonists. Not all English colonists favored a revolution, since they believed themselves to be true Englishmen loyal to the Crown. However, early in 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, which proved to have a powerful influence over the colonists and persuaded many of them to join the cause of revolution.

The rebelling Americans turned to Thomas Jefferson to draft a document formally severing ties with Great Britain. The document begins,

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 separation.

This Declaration of Independence served three major purposes. First, it was necessary to demonstrate justification for the rebellion. To this end, the primary audience for the Declaration was Great Britain itself:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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. 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, 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.

This paragraph constituted the formal dissolution with England and put King George on notice of the commitment to a new, independent government.

The second audience of the Declaration consisted of the American colonists. The justification for revolution was necessary to unite the colonists around the idea of a new government that would function by the consent of the people in their quest for life without oppression and with liberty and happiness.

A third major reason for the Declaration was to attract the attention of the long-time enemies of Great Britain, especially France and Spain. Jefferson knew the chances of defeating the powerful British army were slim and drafted the Declaration with the intention of securing the support of foreign nations in the American cause.

The British, of course, were not moved by Jefferson’s outline of abuses, and the Revolutionary War expanded until the Americans were victorious. The colonists were, indeed, too far away from Great Britain to be controlled. They had learned different ways of fighting in the wilderness from Native Americans, and intervention by several European nations brought the conflict to an end. The Declaration of Independence had been successfully delivered to the proper audiences.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The colonists and soldiers of the thirteen original colonies were the primary audience of the Declaration of Independence (1776). Although a state-of-war had practically existed for an entire year, the break did not come easily. There were ties of culture, history, and blood between the colonists and England. Even though most Americans came to support independence, a significant minority—the Loyalists—remained faithful to the Crown.

Thomas Paine's Common Sense had helped pave the way for the Declaration of Independence. A best-seller, Paine's pamphlet was a boon to the patriots' cause.

By mid-1776, most Americans had come to believe that reconciliation with England was not possible. The Continental Congress, sensing the mood of the public, considered a resolution that declared the colonies to be "free and independent states." Thomas Jefferson, thought to be the best writer among colonial leaders, was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence. A modified form of Jefferson's work was ratified on July 4, 1776. General George Washington had it read to all soldiers in his Continental Army. Washington's soldiers were now fighting a foreign enemy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would note that a document such as the Declaration of Independence does not have a single audience at which it was aimed, but rather was aimed at multiple audiences, interacting with them on multiple levels.

At its core, we should note that the Declaration of Independence was a political document, declaring the intention on the part of the colonies to assert their independence and providing a defense for that decision. In this alone, it targeted at least two separate audiences: on the one hand, it would have targeted those colonists who had not yet been convinced by the cause of independence, by advocating for the Revolution's necessity. At the same time, it would also have been aimed at the governments of Europe, advocating for the Revolution as a legitimate political action. From this perspective, the goal would have been to try to build support for the Revolution abroad.

To this, we must also note that the Declaration of Independence provided intellectual coherency to the cause of the Revolution itself, along with a justification for it. From this perspective, its impact would have also extended to the Revolution's own adherents, so as to further strengthen their own pro-revolutionary convictions.

To conclude, the Declaration of Independence would have a variety of functions, for a variety of different audiences.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Declaration of Independence had two main audiences.  One was the American colonists.  The other was people in Europe (particularly in England and France) who might be inclined to support the American cause. 

The first audience was in the American colonies.  While we might not realize this today, not all colonists were very interested in gaining their independence from Great Britain.  It was important for the Patriots to gain as much support as possible from among the colonists.  Therefore, the Declaration was meant in part to convince the undecided colonists that they ought to break from England.

However, it was clear to those who wanted independence that they could not do it alone.  It was clear that they would have a better chance if there were people in Europe, particularly in England and France, who would support them.  The English support would help to make England more likely to let the colonies go.  French support might come in the form of arms, money, and even soldiers.  For these reasons, the colonists wanted to explain to the English and French elites their reasons for trying to break from England. 

The Declaration, then, was written with two audiences in mind.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team