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The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Thomas Jefferson

List of Abuses and Usurpations

Preamble

Past Actions of Colonists

Summary

The colonies have suffered 27 at the hands of the King George III. Each of these abuses has been directed at the colonies for the purpose of establishing a tyrannical government in North America. Jefferson claims that the colonists have patiently suffered these abuses and that it is now time to expose these abuses to the nations of the world.

The first 12 abuses involve King George III's establishment of a tyrannical authority in place of representative government. The foundation of representative government is the power of the people to make laws for the public good. King George III interfered with that process by rejecting legislation proposed by the colonies, dissolving colonial bodies of representation, replacing colonial governments with his appointed ministers, and interfering with the naturalization of citizens in new regions. King George III extended his tyrannical control by interfering with the objective judicial processes and the civil rights of the colonists. King George III prevented the establishment of judicial powers in the colonies and made judges dependent on him for their jobs and salaries. King George III further established tyrannical control by maintaining a strong military presence under his direct command. The King is a tyrant, because he keeps standing armies in the colonies during a time of peace, makes the military power superior to the civil government, and forces the colonists to support the military presence through increased taxes.

Abuses 13 through 22 describe the involvement of parliament in destroying the colonists' right to self-rule. The king has "combined with others" to subject the colonists to legislation passed without colonial input or consent. Legislation has been passed to quarter troops in the colonies, to shut off trade with other parts of the world, to levy taxes without the consent of colonial legislatures, to take away the right to trial by jury, and to force colonists to be tried in England. Additionally, legislation has established absolute rule in a nearby area, taken away the authority of colonial governments, and forbidden further legislation by colonial governments.

The last 5 abuses, 23 through 27, refer to specific actions that the King of Great Britain took to abandon the colonies and to wage war against them. The King has attempted to suppress the colonial rebellion through violence and military means. He sent the British military to attack colonists, burn their towns, attack their ships at sea, and destroy the lives of the people. He hired foreign mercenaries to fight against the colonies. He kidnapped American sailors to force them into British military service, refused to protect the colonies from Native American attack, and has caused colonists to fight against each other.

Commentary

The list of abuses reflects the colonists' belief that their rights as British Citizens had been slowly eroded ever since the French and Indian War ended in 1763. Although the Declaration does not name the specific legislation passed by Parliament, its listing of the abuses and usurpation effectively covers the history of the King and Parliament's attempts to gain more power and control over the colonies. The list crescendos with the most offensive actions, aimed at total suppression of the colonies, that were put into effect just prior to the signing of the Declaration.

Many of the acts that the Declaration criticizes were intended to tighten royal control over the colonies. The history of Parliament's acts unfolded over a period of 13 years during which royal attempts to squash the civil liberties of colonists met with heightened colonial resistance. Beginning with The Proclamation of 1763, Parliament stripped colonists of the right to settle in the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This meant that although many colonists had given their lives to defend that land from the French, they would not be permitted to reap the benefits. Shortly after the proclamation, Parliament decided that the colonies would help repay the war debts, and enacted laws such as the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Tax (1765), the Townshend Acts (1767) and the Tea Act (1773). When the colonists protested against these acts, the King and Parliament responded by further suppressing the rights of colonists. Legislation in 1774 referred to by colonists as the "Intolerable Acts" struck especially hard at the civil rights of the colony of Massachusetts.

The Intolerable Acts differed from previous legislation. These acts struck not only at the economic freedom of the colonies, but at their political rights and legislative independence as well. Not only was the port of Boston closed to all trade, but a military governor was also appointed and the people of Massachusetts no longer had the right to elect their representatives, select jurors, or hold town meetings. Additionally, British soldiers accused of crimes would be tried in England, not in the colony, and a new Quartering Act forced colonists in Massachusetts to feed and house British soldiers. The passage of the Intolerable Acts indicated to many colonists, even those not living in Massachusetts, that the King and Parliament were more interested in asserting unconditional control than in preserving the civil liberties of the colonists.

The basic principle upon which the Declaration rests is that colonists, as British citizens, believed they were entitled to the rights and privileges granted by the Magna Carta, and the British Bill of Rights of 1689. Among other things, these documents established that the King was not above the law, that the people, represented in parliament, had a right to endorse or reject taxation, and that citizens were entitled to a trial by jury of their peers. Additionally, the Declaration relied on precedent: most British colonies had enjoyed self-rule and had been governed through their own legislative bodies since their founding. By 1774, most of the colonists that had once protested "no taxation without representation" found themselves without any representation whatsoever, neither in Parliament nor in any colonial house of representation.

Towards the end of the list of abuses, the Declaration focuses attention on a few specific incidents that demonstrate the King's disregard for colonial life and liberty, the danger of colonists remaining divided on the issue of independence, and the preparations being made by Great Britain for an all-out war. These statements served, in many cases, to convince moderates in the Second Continental Congress to see that reconciliation was not a possibility and to cast their vote in favor of independence.

The British attack on colonists and the loss of American lives at the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775 and the Battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775 demonstrated the King's "waging war against us" and his disregard for American lives. In December of 1775, Parliament withdrew British military protection from the colonies and enacted a policy of seizure and confiscation of American ships and sailors ("...[King George] has plundered our seas...he has constrained our fellow-citizens, taken captive on the high seas..."). This action also left colonists living on the frontier, especially those in Georgia, with no military protection from Native American attacks ("...he has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages..."). Furthermore, the heightened tension between colonists and the King began to overflow into hostile relations between those colonists loyal to the king (Tories) and those seeking independence (Whigs). This tension actually erupted into an armed battle between colonists in early 1776 in the Battle at Moore's Creek Bridge ("He has excited domestic insurrections among us...").

It is interesting to note that the Declaration reserved his most scathing language to describe the King's use of mercenaries. Accusing George III's mercenaries of cruelty "scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation, "the Declaration aims to evoke support from moderates within the colonies by revealing that the British civilization in which they took pride was no more than a cruel and tyrannical monarchy.

Interestingly, Jefferson devoted approximately one-fourth of the abuses in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence to the topic of slavery. Jefferson held the King accountable for maintaining and protecting slavery as an institution in the colonies. Not surprisingly, the moderate congress, already fearful of being too radical, removed all references to slavery from the document. It remains a source of historical debate why a slave-owning man like Jefferson would have devoted so much intellectual energy to criticizing slavery and to attempting to remove it from the colonies.

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