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Declaration of Independence (1776)

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This final inscription on the wall of the Goodrich Room at Wabash College needs little explanation. It is the declaration whereby the inhabitants of regions once considered the possessions of Great Britain made known to the world the causes compelling them to dissolve their political bonds to the British Empire and so "assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them." After nearly two years of considerable effort to avoid separation through various appeals and petitions to the king in Parliament, the Second Continental Congress concluded that England, against all previous precedents and customary practice, was bent on subjugating the colonists to its will. Subsequently, in the midst of America's resistance to imperial aggression, Richard Henry Lee of the state of Virginia made a motion for independence that was accepted on July 2, 1776. That motion introduced the first written declaration issued by a people proclaiming the liberty to choose their own political regime. It was given to Thomas Jefferson, also of Virginia, to compose the declaration, which, with minor alterations made by the drafting committee and by the Congress, was accepted on July 4, 1776.

The validity of the case the Declaration of Independence presents has long been a matter of dispute among revisionists on both sides of the Atlantic. Some argue that the empire expected only its just due for the support of the government's long-standing debt, exacerbated in part by the French and Indian War of the 1750s, in which the mother country had helped defend the colonies. From the American perspective, however, more was being asked than simply a provision to help reduce the empire's debt. Excessive imperial expenditure was a persistent problem in England going back more than a century. If Parliament should be successful in attaching the domestic revenues of the colonists, it would likely be a permanent yoke from which no relief through appeal would be possible.

The course of past understandings and practices appeared to be on the side of the colonies. From nearly the time of their establishment, with but few exceptions that were glaring and quickly reversed (e.g., the creation of the Dominion of New England under Governor Andros from 1684 to 1689), England's rule was hardly felt in the colonies. The colonists were left to their own devices, and indeed were expected to govern themselves in all internal matters. Precedent supported the view that the king was sovereign, reigning not through Parliament, however, but via the distinct colonial legislatures. Thus, when Charles II sought to establish a permanent revenue "for the support of the Government in Virginia, the King did not apply to the English Parliament, but to the General Assembly [of Virginia]."1  Consequently, colonial courts and legislatures took on constitutional standing as valid as any legal entity in Great Britain itself, sanctioned by long-standing practice under English constitutional law. The question remaining, then, was whether or not Parliament had the authority to institute practices rarely or never before enacted, or at least not enforced, on a people it did not directly represent. Richard Bland, a prominent member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, along with others such as John Dickinson of Philadelphia, made the important argument that Parliament could not institute internal colonial taxation for this very reason. Completely independent of the king's recognition of colonial rights, one could easily argue on the basis of leges non scriptae that Parliament's past inability, and at times unwillingness, to involve itself in the internal affairs of the colonies defined its legal position as separate from, and nonbinding on, the domestic practices of the colonists. In light of this understanding, persistent attempts to enact revenue acts after 1764 revealed a concerted effort to change the legal standing of the colonies. After repeated petitions to the king to recognize what his office had always recognized before failed to prompt him to restrain Parliament, it became apparent that the king was acting in concert with that body to subjugate colonial liberties. To Americans, this underscored the accuracy of the Declaration's assertion that the king (in Parliament) had "erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of new officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."

 

Endnotes

[1] Quotation from Richard Bland, An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies, in American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, ed. C.S. Hyneman and D.S. Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983), 1:67-87.

Bibliography

Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922).

The Becker edition is valuable because it reprints 4 different drafts of the Declaration (with changes marked). Although we have tried to replicate this in the HTML version, the facsimile PDF version shows the changes as they were printed in the original published book. The drafts are from Chapter IV.

The American Republic: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).

The Founders' Constitution, ed. Philip K. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987).

Source

The introductory material about the text originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

Last modified April 10, 2014