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The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Thomas Jefferson

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Key Historical Figures

The The Declaration of Independence, completed and signed in July of 1776, marked the official separation between the 13 colonies and Great Britain. An armed struggle between the colonies and Britain had begun just over a year before, with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The formal declaration of independence established the new American revolutionary government and officially declared war against Great Britain. The primary purpose of the declaration was to assist the Second Continental Congress in obtaining aid from foreign countries. The document also clearly outlines the history of abuses the colonists had suffered under British rule since the end of the French and Indian war in 1763.

Prior to the French and Indian war, the colonists had enjoyed over a hundred years of "salutary neglect." In other words, although laws were in place to maintain the subordinate status of the colonies to Great Britain, they were usually not enforced. After the French and Indian war, which increased Britain's share of North America, King George III and Parliament sought to establish firm control over the land newly obtained from France, and to help pay war debts by taxing the colonies. They did this by enacting a number of acts that either taxed the colonists or placed stricter controls on trade. These laws included the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Tax (1765), the Townshend Acts (1767), and the Tea Act (1773). Additionally, Parliament enacted the Quartering Act (1765) which forced colonists to help pay for the British military stationed in the colonies.

Colonists initially protested these acts through peaceful means such as petition, boycott, and committees. They argued that since they had no representation in Parliament, they could not be rightfully taxed by Parliament. As their petitions were repeatedly ignored, and taxes continually added, colonists turned to increasingly more destructive actions, like the Boston Tea Party of 1774. In response to this rebellious action by the Massachusetts Colony, the King and Parliament exacted punishment through legislation referred to by colonists as the "Intolerable Acts."

The Intolerable Acts sparked the colonies to call an inter-colonial congress for the purpose of discussing a unified response to the King and Parliament. This First Continental Congress, as it was called, met in September 1774 in Philadelphia. All 13 colonies were present except for Georgia. The Congress drafted a declaration claiming that the Intolerable Acts were unconstitutional, that the colonists retained the same civil rights as English citizens, and that they would boycott all English goods until reconciliation was reached. The negotiations never happened. Instead, tensions continued to mount between the colonists and Great Britain. The First Continental Congress agreed to meet again in May 1775 if no reconciliation had been reached. At this Second Continental Congress, all thirteen colonies were present.

It took 14 months, military mobilization, persuasive pamphleteering, and the further abuse of colonial rights before all 13 colonies agreed to pursue independence. At issue were political as well as practical concerns. Upper class colonists tended to fear the lower class gaining too much power through revolution. Middle class colonists could not afford to see their businesses continue to decline due to trade restrictions. All colonists resented that the King and Parliament denied them representative government and their civil rights. However, they also doubted whether they would be strong enough to resist the British military.

Early in 1776, Thomas Paine published his pamphlet Common Sense, which won over many colonists to the cause of independence. Meanwhile, the congress had sent the King an Olive-Branch Petition as a last effort towards reconciliation. Not only did he refuse to respond to the colonists' plea, he sent an additional 20,000 troops to North America and hired mercenaries from Germany to bolster his military force. An all-out war seemed imminent and even moderate delegates realized that in order to obtain much-needed military support from France, they would have to declare themselves wholly independent from Great Britain. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed a resolution for independence in June of 1776. The Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence that consisted of John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Thomas Jefferson (VA), Robert Livingston (NY) and Roger Sherman (CT).

The job of drafting the Declaration of Independence fell to the youngest member of the committee, Thomas Jefferson. In composing the declaration, Jefferson drew on ideas from the Enlightenment, especially those of John Locke. Not only did the declaration represent a milestone in the history of the United States, it also turned the political philosophies of 18th century Europe into real political practice.

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