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.