After 12 years of tension and fighting, the colonists and their leaders were ready to declare themselves a new country, independent of Great Britain. This lesson examines the motives, the text, and the legacy of America's Declaration of Independence.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Two days ago, I made a very important decision. I've got a right to be happy - to live my own life, my own way. So I am writing you this letter to let you know I don't want you to interfere in my life anymore.
For the last few years, you've been taking advantage of me and treating me like a child with your unfair rules, and I'm not gonna take it anymore! You say 'no' to every reasonable request I make and you don't give me any privacy. You won't let me pick my own job, you won't listen to my side of the story, and whenever I try to do something for myself, you say I'm being 'rebellious.' But you keep changing the rules and you won't talk to me, so how am I supposed to know what you expect?
You know I've tried to fix the problems between us, but you just won't listen. So I'm done. I'm moving out, and I no longer consider you my parents.
Your former daughter
On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress sent off a letter just like that one. They told King George III that since he refused to respect their rights as British citizens, they were going to disown him. Today, we know this letter as the Declaration of Independence. But before we talk about the document, its context, and its legacy, let's clear up a few common misconceptions. The Declaration of Independence didn't start the Revolutionary War, it didn't establish the government in the United States, and it isn't exactly a legally binding document. But it refocused the Americans' goal in the war, it identified the purpose of American government, and it altered the course of history.
The Declaration of Independence was a letter sent to King George III saying he was disowned
Deciding to Declare Independence
Tensions had been escalating between the colonies and the British government since the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. Sustained warfare broke out 12 years later, in 1775. At the beginning of the war, very few people on either side of the Atlantic thought this was a war for independence. The colonists' original goal had been to fight for the rights to which they felt they were entitled. Public opinion shifted in favor of independence following the publication of Common Sense in January 1776. And it was the King's reaction to the colonists' Olive Branch Petition and continued military action by the British that finally convinced the colonial leaders that the best course of action was to break completely with Great Britain and try to make it in the world on their own. In May 1776, the Congress endorsed overthrowing existing royal governments. Every colony that did not yet have a Patriot government established one, and they began calling themselves states. In June, a committee of five congressmen led by Thomas Jefferson met to draft the Declaration of Independence.
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, though not unanimously. Benjamin Franklin famously encouraged all of the delegates to vote in favor of independence by saying 'We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.' But there were some disagreements about the wording of the document. In particular, many delegates were disturbed by the declaration's mentioning of slavery. Jefferson himself owned hundreds of slaves, but still, the first draft of the Declaration of Independence blamed the King for 'maintaining a market where men are bought and sold.' Since South Carolina and Georgia refused to accept it as it stood, the declaration was amended to ignore slavery before being signed by Congress. So on the fourth of July, Congress approved the wording of the formal declaration, and John Hancock, president of the Congress, signed it.
The Declaration of Independence has three main sections: a preamble, a list of grievances, and the actual declaration of independence.
The preamble serves as an introduction and acknowledges that the world probably wants to know why the colonies would separate themselves. It also states the purpose of government as viewed by the Founding Fathers: '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…'
The grievances give examples of the King's tyranny and then list ways the colonists had tried to compromise. It's relevant to note that several of these grievances are addressed in our Bill of Rights. At the end, the document explicitly declares that the colonies were no longer part of Britain but a completely new and independent nation. Most members of Congress signed a copy of the Declaration of Independence a month after it was accepted. Though the text was widely reprinted by the press and read aloud throughout the States, it didn't arrive in England until mid-August.
Americans today don't always recognize how radical the Declaration was. Throughout the history of the world, people had either submitted to their rulers because of their actual power or they accepted the monarch's authority as divine right. Sure, kings were overthrown, and some people moved to other places to escape rulers with whom they disagreed, but most people had never considered the possibility that they could simply reject their leader. Then came the Enlightenment, with John Locke's theory of the consent of the governed. This outrageous concept basically means common people have to allow their rulers to have any authority over them.
The Declaration of Independence, founded on the principle of the consent of the governed, was an unthinkable insult, a feisty and defiant disrespect of established authority. The founders told the king to shove it and had the audacity to say that God was on their side. The Declaration of Independence inspired and united the colonists, who fought the war with a new purpose. It incensed the British, who were determined to make an example of the rebellious American colonies. And it initiated an era of revolution in which people around the world dared to decide for themselves how to be ruled and by whom.
Let's review. After 12 years of struggle, the American colonies decided that it was time to declare independence from Great Britain and establish themselves as a new nation. First, Congress overthrew the royal governments in May. On the fourth of July, 1776, a Declaration of Independence, drafted by a committee of five led by Thomas Jefferson, was approved and signed. The document, consisting of a preamble, a list of grievances, and a declaration of independence, stated that the purpose of American government was to defend natural rights. The Declaration of Independence was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke, especially the consent of the governed, and it kicked off an era of revolution in world history.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Summarize the intent of the Declaration of Independence and its significance
- Describe the three parts of the Declaration
- Identify John Locke and understand the importance of his consent of the governed theory