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The Declaration of Independence (1776)

List of Abuses and Usurpations

Summary List of Abuses and Usurpations

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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