Last Updated on September 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1543
On July 4, 1776, fifty-six delegates from the Second Continental Congress met and unanimously ratified one of the most important founding documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence. The document—comprised of an introduction, list of grievances, conclusion, and representative signatures—outlines basic human rights, delineates the injustices perpetrated on the colonies by King George III, and officially absolves the thirteen colonies from allegiance to the British crown. The Declaration of Independence asserts the elemental underpinnings of the new nation, summarized by one of the most recognized and recalled clauses in the text: “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.” Thomas Jefferson’s words ring as true today as they did during the 18th century. He speaks to the timelessness and universality of democracy, freedom, and happiness. Since its institution, the Declaration of Independence has spurred countless reiterations, inspiring peoples and colonies oppressed under authoritarianism and totalitarianism to rise up and call for revolution.
SUMMARY OF THE INTRODUCTION TO THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
The introduction, or preamble, of the Declaration of Independence establishes the objectives of the document. The representatives of the thirteen colonies state that the first step toward independence is to declare independence. Thus they officially sever ties with the “powers of the earth,” or the European colonial powers, claiming that it is their natural and god-given right to demand independence from Great Britain’s oppressive rule.
Jefferson states: “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.” These hallowed words assert the importance of basic human rights. Jefferson explains that in this new nation, all citizens—regardless of race, creed, and religion—are entitled to these vital, intrinsic birthrights.
Because governments are implemented and run by men, they should accurately represent those whom they govern.
When a government becomes oppressive, “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it,” meaning it is the people’s prerogative to either change or destroy it. It is the right of the people to implement a new government, one which will more accurately reflect their ideals and values.
Jefferson encourages the new nation to show “prudence,” or caution, as they venture into revolution. As history has demonstrated, would-be rebels are better off leaving governments as they are instead of changing them for “transient causes.” However, Jefferson and the Continental Congress believe that due to a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” the new nation must secede from the crown and must organize a new government.
The British crown has become despotic and tyrannical, and thus the new nation is permitted to sever ties. Doing so has become a “necessity.”
To prove their point through logic, Jefferson and the Continental Congress provide a list of grievances that demonstrate how King George III has ruled with “absolute tyranny over these states.”
SUMMARY OF THE LIST OF TWENTY-SEVEN GRIEVANCES
- Thomas Jefferson directs his attacks towards “he,” implicitly understood to be King George III of England. The first grievance states that the king has forbidden the passage of laws in the colonies, which were “necessary for the public good.” He alludes to colonial laws that needed British Parliamentary support but were denied, including the law to tax the slave trade and to print their own colonial money.
- The King has failed to pass important legislation and often postpones pending legislation by months or even years.
- The British crown prohibited the growth of large legislative bodies, which the monarch deemed tyrannical. This order resulted in poor colonial representation in assemblies.
- As punishment for resistance to the British crown, the assemblies of Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina were forced to relocate to “unusual [and] uncomfortable” new meeting locations.
- All “Representative Houses” or colonial assemblies had been dissolved by 1776 because they resisted British rule.
- After the colonial assemblies were disbanded, the British crown refused to elect others, leaving the “State remaining … exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.”
- The British crown failed to meet the “Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners” by preventing emigration into the colonies. Americans, however, understood the importance of growth and immigration, and wanted to increase the number of independent settlers coming to the colonies.
- Jefferson alludes to the period between 1773 and 1776 when North Carolina did not have a superior court. The assembly and the governor could not agree on the law to seize debtor’s property, a stalemate which “obstructed the Administration of Justice.”
- Judges were now paid by the Crown instead of by the colonial assemblies. Without this law, assemblies had very little control over governors, judges, and officials, who were now indebted to the British crown.
- This grievance preempted the Fourth Amendment of the 1789 Bill of Rights, which banned “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Jefferson complains that British customs agents were now given authority to conduct random searches of homes and ships.
- Even in “times of peace,” the British crown kept “standing armies.” In 1768, British soldiers arrived in the colonies to enforce British authority over Boston, inciting such violence as the Boston Massacre of 1770.
- The British crown attempted to blur the positions between military and civil powers. Specifically, the colonists were upset when in 1774 British officials appointed General Thomas Gage as civil governor of Massachusetts.
- The British crown subjected Patriots to “jurisdiction foreign to our constitution,” which many believed were illegitimate.
- This grievance preempts the Third Amendment to the Bill of Rights. The 1764 Parliament enacted an order dictating that assemblies could quarter “large bodies of armed troops” by providing food, drink, and housing.
- British soldiers accused of murder were sent back to Britain for a “mock trial” instead of being tried in the colonies.
- The British Parliament officially closed the port of Boston and blockaded shipping in 1775.
- This grievance directly speaks to one of the major tenets of the American Revolution: “Taxation without representation.” Jefferson and other Patriots were enraged when in 1765 Parliament began imposing direct taxes on the colonies “without our consent” and without providing them representation in Parliament.
- This grievance preempted the Sixth Amendment of the 1789 Bill of Rights, which guarantees trial by jury and due process. Jefferson complains that colonial courts in 1768 removed the “benefits of Trial by Jury.”
- After the Patriots attacked a British ship patrolling for smugglers in 1772, the British crown threatened colonists with an order claiming that criminals could be transported back “beyond Seas” to Britain for trial.
- When British officials allowed Roman Catholicism to spread from Quebec to the Ohio River Valley, the Patriots were enraged “for introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies.”
- Jefferson alludes to the 1774 Parliamentary act that removed the colonial government of Massachusetts, which, as they claim, “alter[ed] fundamentally the Forms of Our Government.”
- The Declaratory Act of 1766 declared the British crown the authoritative legislative body “in all cases whatsoever.”
- King George III failed to protect the colonists by “waging War against us.”
- Using evocative language, Jefferson decries that the British crown has “plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” After the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775, Norfolk, Virginia, and Charlestown, Massachusetts, had been destroyed.
- King George was, “at this time,” transporting soldiers to the colonies to fight for the British.
- The British crown took “captive on the high seas,” imprisoning Patriots, and forcing them to fight against themselves as part of the British Navy.
- King George “excited domestic insurrections amongst us” by offering slaves freedom for fighting with the British during the American Revolution.
SUMMARY OF THE CONCLUSION TO THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
Jefferson and the Continental Congress reiterate the key points of the preamble: that they have frequently asked for recognition and dignity but have been continually snuffed by the British crown.
The “Prince” is a character “thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant,” and the colonies can no longer tolerate his rule. The British crown has been “deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.”
Their hand forced, the colonies must “acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” This paragraph officially severs ties with the British Crown.
The Continental Congress, now declaring themselves “Free and Independence States,” sign into action the “full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acs and Things which Independent States may of right do.”
The Continental Congress pledge their lives and honor to the revolutionary cause.
All 56 members of the thirteen colonies (Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut) signed the declaration into effect. The signers’ names are arranged geographically from north to south, except for the infamous signature of President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, who inked his at the top.
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