Posted on 17 June 2019
The American Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776, announced the separation of 13 North American colonies from Great Britain’s rule.
The American Revolutionary War (1775 – 1778) was the culmination of unfair British rule over the 13 colonies that had been established in North America between 1607 (Virginia) and 1733 (Georgia).
Stamps and Tea
Prior to the war starting there had been a decade of escalating political and constitutional difficulties between the colonies and Great Britian.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain that imposed a direct tax on the colonies and required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced on stamped paper produced in London, carrying an embossed revenue stamp.
The purpose of the tax was to pay for British military troops stationed in the American colonies. However, many in the colonies felt that the troops were unnecessary and unwanted. Yet, the colonies had little political say in what taxes could and couldn’t be imposed on them.
The slogan ‘No Taxation Without Representation’ came to be used by the colonies as their first ever joint response to the overreach of British rule. Protests reached their height in 1773 with the introduction of the Tea Act, which both imposed new taxes on tea shipped from China to the colonies and forced the colonies to only buy the British imported tea. The colonies were not allowed to buy directly from China.
When the Sons of Liberty, a secretive group of would-be revolutionaries, destroyed a British shipment of tea in Boston Harbor, the war had begun.
Fight for Freedom
Even after the initial skirmishes in the American Revolutionary War had broken out, few colonists desired complete independence from Great Britain, and those who did were considered radicals. Things quickly changed, however, as Britain attempted to crush the rebels with all the force of its great army.
In his message to Parliament in October 1775, King George III railed against the rebellious colonies and ordered the enlargement of the royal army and navy. News of his words reached America in January 1776, strengthening the radicals’ cause and leading many conservatives to abandon their hopes of reconciliation.
That same month, the recent British immigrant Thomas Paine published Common Sense, in which he argued that independence was a ‘natural right’ and the only possible course for the colonies. The pamphlet sold more than 150,000 copies in its first few weeks of publication making it an instant bestseller.
Congress asked Thomas Jefferson and other leading figures to write a declaration of independence. They needed a document to declare why the colonies had to become independent of Britain. So, in mid-June 1776, a five-man committee including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin was tasked with drafting a formal statement of the colonies’ intentions.
Jefferson wrote that people have the right to live, the right to be free, and the right to seek happiness. The declaration states that people have rights that cannot be taken away, lists the complaints against the king, and argues that the colonies have to be free to protect the colonists’ rights. At the bottom of the document, the delegates signed their names.
Congress approved the declaration and 4 July is a date now celebrated as the birth of American independence. It took seven years after the declaration was signed for the British to finally admit defeat. Funding the war was proving too costly for Parliament and it lost political support in maintaining the fight against the ever-resistant colonies.
America was free to enjoy its independence.
Influence of Magna Carter
Magna Carta influenced the early Americans across the 13 original colonies because it promised many of the same provisions that they wanted in their own Declaration of Independence, such as:
- Protection of church rights
- Protection from illegal imprisonment
- The promise of a speedy trial with a jury of peers
- Limiting powers so not one person was too powerful.
- Limiting the government’s power and granted citizens fair rights
- Limitations on taxation
Magna Carta was widely held to be the people’s reassertion of rights against an oppressive ruler, a legacy that captured American distrust of concentrated political power.
Importance of the Declaration of Independence
Jefferson wrote that if a government does not protect the rights of citizens, people have the right to form a new government. This idea was not new. Jefferson used the ideas that John Locke and other English freethinkers had written about.
Jefferson listed many ways that Britain had not served the colonists. He wrote, for example, that King George had tried to take away rights and force unfair taxes on the colonies. Jefferson argued that the colonists had a right to separate from the king and have their own government.
The Declaration is still important because it says the American people believe in equal rights for all. Today we know that the words, ‘all men are created equal’ include everyone: women, men, children as well as every race, group, and ability.
But in 1776, people’s ideas were different. Only white men who owned property had the right to vote.
Laws that recognized equal rights of everyone were passed later.
Image from www.washingtonpost.com