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The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Thomas Jefferson

Past Actions of Colonists

List of Abuses and Usurpations

Conclusion and Definition of a New Government

Summary

Up until this declaration, colonists have used non-violent means, such as petitions, to protest the abuses of King George III. Each attempt to request peaceful negotiations was met by neglect and more abuse.

Additionally, colonists tried to appeal to Parliament and other British citizens for help. These attempts were ignored. Colonists appealed to British citizens' sense of justice, to their shared heritage and culture, and to their economic connection. These attempts failed, however, and the colonies have no other choice but to declare separation. In doing so, the new separate nation will view British citizens as enemies during wartime, and as friends in peacetime.

Commentary

Between 1763 and 1776, American colonists made many attempts to organize in protest against the acts of Parliament. The Declaration of Independence represents the last in a long chain of declarations that began with the declaration of the Stamp Act Congress of 1765, which stated colonists were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen. This document also affirmed that taxing the colonists without their consent was a violation of their rights as British Citizens and that Parliament had no right to tax colonists. In 1774, after the passage of the Intolerable Acts, these themes would surface again in a document written by the First Continental Congress called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. This document clarified the Stampt Act Congress declaration by stating only colonial legislatures had the right to tax the colonists. Additionally, this document declared the Intolerable Acts unconstitutional and criticized the King and Parliament for dissolving colonial assemblies, maintaining a standing army in peacetime, and for enforcing heavy taxation. Meeting again as the Second Continental Congress in May of 1775, the delegates understood that things had only worsened between the colonists and the British government. Although fighting had already broken out between minutemen and British troops, many delegates still pressed for a peaceful reconciliation. This congress issued a Declaration of Causes of Taking-up Arms and sent an Olive-Branch Petition to the King to humbly request that he negotiate a peaceful reconciliation. Once again, the King ignored the requests of the colonists and responded instead by sending an additional 20,000 troops to the colonies.

Throughout the struggle to assert their rights, colonial leaders understood the importance of maintaining unity between the 13 colonies. Samuel Adams knew that the people would have to be persuaded to view an attack on one colony as an attack on all colonies. To help maintain a unified protest, Samuel Adams organized Committees of Correspondence in 1772 to ensure that colonies could stay informed about new developments regarding the British King and Parliament. This information network proved crucial when the First Continental Congress agreed to boycott trade with Great Britain and to refuse to use British goods until a resolution was reached. During the Second Continental Congress, patriot leaders carefully waited to declare independence until all delegations unanimously supported it. Although the colonies were technically at war with Great Britain for most of the time the congress met, it took them 14 months to write the formal declaration of war. After the rejection of the Olive Branch Petition, the publication of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, and the hiring of German mercenaries, all of which took place in early 1776, the themes stated in earlier declarations were finally put to use to justify separation rather than reconciliation.

The Declaration of Independence relied on the content and claims of earlier declarations, but firmly stated that ten years of peaceful political and economic actions had failed to reach the desired effect. Therefore, as concluded in this section, the King and Parliament left the colonists no other choice but to seek separation through military means.

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