Declaration of Independence Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.”

Summary Overview

The Declaration of Independence was the first formal statement by the American colonists of their intention to become independent from British rule. In the decades that preceded the American Revolution, anti-British fervor had been growing, catalyzed by such laws passed by Parliament as the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts. The document was published and distributed as the British military stepped up its efforts to quell growing anti-British activity in the colonies. The Declaration took issue specifically with King George III and stated that the colonies had a right to declare independence if their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were to be denied by the British government. The Declaration served as a landmark document, accelerating the American Revolution, fostering the notion of democratic government, and inspiring other revolutions around the world, most notably the French Revolution.

Defining Moment

In many ways, the Declaration of Independence may be seen as a mere formality after decades of growing secessionist sentiment in the American colonies. This anti-British fervor had roots in the Enlightenment that took shape in Europe during the eighteenth century. The philosophical notions proffered by philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau, François-Marie Arouet Voltaire, the Baron de Montesquieu, and John Locke heavily influenced the political convictions of colonial leaders such as John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. The “revolutionary” idea that circulated during this era was that government should derive its power from the people it rules and that only through the will of the people can a government make decisions. Further, all citizens of a nation have the right to life to life, liberty, and property, and should any government try to suppress these rights, it is the right of the people to throw off that government for a new one.

Although the American Revolution could look to the Enlightenment for its inspiration, a number of incidents pushed the colonists to revolt. During the middle of the eighteenth century, for example, in order to help finance a burdensome, seven-year war with France, the English increased taxes on the colonies, most notably on products such as molasses and sugar. Relations became even more strained in the years that followed. The British imposed even stronger sanctions on the colonies, passing laws that included increased taxes on a wide range of products, allowances for British soldiers to be housed in private residences, and restrictions on imports to Boston.

The colonial responses to these measures were increasingly overt. In 1770, a confrontation between colonists and British soldiers in Boston resulted in the soldiers firing upon the crowd, killing five and wounding six others. The Boston Massacre, as it became known, was used as a trigger event to foster more widespread support for the revolutionary cause. Five years later, the violence between the two sides had escalated, culminating in such notable battles between the colonial Minutemen and the British army at Lexington and Concord and at Bunker Hill.

In 1776, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was distributed among the colonists, using plain, simple language to widen its appeal to even the most uneducated of people. That document called upon all Americans to rise up in opposition to British rule. Later that year, the newly formed Continental Congress called for a formal declaration of the colonists’ intention to seek independence. Thomas Jefferson, who was noted for his eloquent writing style, was chosen for the task. After a few revisions, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the congress on July 4, 1776, and read aloud four days later. On August 2, fifty-six delegates from all thirteen colonies signed the document.

Author Biography

Thomas Jefferson was born in Shadwell, Virginia, on April 13, 1743. His parents were well established; his mother came from a prominent Virginia family, the Randolphs, while his father was a successful planter and surveyor. Jefferson received a formal education in the classical languages and mathematics at a prestigious private school near his home before enrolling in the College of William and Mary in 1760.

Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary and studied law with established lawyer George Wythe. After his graduation, Jefferson became a successful attorney from 1764 to 1774. During this period, Jefferson met his future wife, Martha Skelton, with whom he would have six children (only two of whom survived to adulthood). He also spent a great deal of his time working on his prized plantation, Monticello. He inherited two hundred slaves from both his father and father-in-law; he freed two of them during his lifetime and allowed for the freedom of five more in accordance with his will.

Thomas Jefferson’s political career coincided with the slowly building revolutionary fervor. In addition to his tenures as a magistrate and county lieutenant, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, the representative body in the colonial government. There, he connected with a group of so-called radicals, including fellow representatives Patrick Henry and George Washington. In 1774, he wrote his first major political document, “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which cemented his reputation as an individual who could eloquently present the colonials’ issues and agenda.

In 1775, Jefferson attended the Second Continental Congress, which assigned Jefferson’s colleague George Washington to be the commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. A year later, in light of the reception of “A Summary View,” Jefferson was asked by the congress to work with delegates John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston to draft the Declaration of Independence.

After his work with the congress, Thomas Jefferson returned to Virginia as a member of its House of Delegates, a position he held from 1776 to 1779. From 1779 until 1781, Jefferson served as Virginia’s governor, although his tenure ended when, with the British advancing on the American South, he failed (in the public eye) to show resolve and defiance against the British army. Although he desired to return to Monticello for good, his wife’s death in 1782 drew him back into public service. In 1783, he returned to the congress, which in 1785 named him the American minister to France. Upon returning to America in 1789, he was appointed George Washington’s secretary of state, a post he held until 1794. He was defeated by John Adams to succeed Washington, but in 1800, he succeeded in becoming the nation’s third president. In 1809, Jefferson returned to Monticello and founded the University of Virginia. He died in 1826, fifty years to the day after his Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress.

Document Analysis

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, as ordered by the convention of the colony of Virginia, offered a resolution to the Continental Congress that the congress declare the thirteen American colonies to be free and independent from Great Britain. After some delay and discussion, the congress agreed to form a committee (dubbed the Committee of Five) to draft such a statement. The committee consisted of John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The Committee of Five turned to Jefferson to write the statement, and although he later claimed that his initial draft was edited in some parts by Adams and Franklin, the final draft was clearly Jefferson’s verbiage.

The Declaration of Independence was written in several parts. The first, the introduction, summarizes the colonists’ position: As a result of the oppression exhibited by the British government, the colonies were left with no choice but to separate from Great Britain. The second part, the preamble, outlines the principles on which the colonies’ independence was declared. The third part, the body, was presented in two sections: first, the specific issues that existed between Great Britain and the colonies, and second, the efforts made by the colonists to address those issues prior to secession. The last part is the conclusion, stating that the colonies are no longer to be considered a part of the British Empire and that all previous relationships between these two parties were no longer valid.

Enlightenment Influence

The introduction and preamble to the Declaration of Independence echo a number of themes that were introduced during the Enlightenment. For example, Jefferson comments that men (all of whom stood on equal footing) were endowed by God with the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights, according to Jefferson, were therefore inalienable (impossible to surrender). It is the role of government, according the Declaration, to develop a system in which those tenets would be vigorously upheld and defended.

The notion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as basic human rights stems from the ideals of John Locke nearly a century earlier. Locke argued that life, liberty, and property should all be considered “natural rights.” In fact, Locke criticized the British monarch’s authority to protect the interests of the people, suggesting that the monarchy was constantly at odds with its people. Meanwhile, the legislature (in the case of Great Britain, the Parliament) was a far more effective representative for the people. Meanwhile, Charles de Montesquieu made a similar assertion in France, although he saw the monarchy as an executive, serving as a check and balance to the legislature’s activity.

Jefferson built on the ideals of Montesquieu, Locke, and other Enlightenment-era philosophers, making an argument that, if government did not uphold its responsibility to structure itself in a manner suited for the protection of those human rights, it should be replaced. According to the Declaration, the new government would replace the former regime’s intransigent elements with institutions that speak to the needs of the people. To be sure, the Declaration argued, many governments had existed and operated in their repressive ways for a long time. The decision to change long-standing political regimes and institutions should not be made lightly or in mercurial fashion, but rather based on prudent, careful consideration. After all, Jefferson acknowledged, many societies continued to experience “sufferable” hardships—to these people, simply adapting to one or two oppressive policies was more desirable than working to completely undermine the government. For those nations in which government oppression was far too egregious, however, Jefferson argued, it is the duty of the people to “throw off” those governments and replace them with new institutions that ensure the future health and well-being of the citizens.

Grievances without Redress

In the first section of the body of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson makes clear that the colonies had been subjected to such long-term oppression. The king of Great Britain, the Declaration charged, had a long history of usurpation and injurious treatment of the American colonies. The body of the Declaration next provides a long list of examples of this treatment.

Some of the allegations the Declaration makes to generate pro-revolutionary sentiment concern the political and public policy process. The king, for example, refused to agree to the introduction of laws (as approved by the colonial governments) that served the public good. If new colonies or similar entities formed, the king would refuse to provide any political protection unless these new parties relinquished authority to British rule. Furthermore, the document alleged, the king deliberately forbade his governors to pass important and pressing legislation without his consent—a pace and process that were convenient only for the king.

In addition to the Declaration’s accusations of the king’s apparent indifference, Jefferson’s document claimed that the king was in many ways deliberately stifling the growth and success of the colonies. In fact, this conscious undermining of the colonies was meant to render the colonial leaders exhausted and frustrated to the point at which they would capitulate to the king’s authority. The Declaration cites incidents in which the king called for colonial legislators to meet in locations and at times that were completely inconvenient to them. In other examples, the king was alleged to have refused to allow the election of qualified people to colonial government, thus slowing the public policy process. Furthermore, any colonial governing body that opposed the decisions of the king was quickly dissolved by the royal governors and replaced with leadership more amenable to the king’s agenda. In the meantime, the royal government in Britain frequently appointed tax commissioners and other senior officials whose tasks interfered with the efforts of colonial officials.

While the king’s sophomoric attempts to slow the colonies’ public policy process made life difficult, the Declaration of Independence stated that there were many more egregious and oppressive measures and actions undertaken by the king. For example, the judiciary, which was expected to protect the people’s rights through strict interpretation of the law, was manned by people handpicked by the king, despite any colonial laws to the contrary. In fact, the king interjected himself into the legal process, applying his own legal decisions and interpretations on a number of cases.

Some of the most confrontational decisions made by the king with regard to the colonies involved his allowance for military personnel to live among the colonists, even during peacetime. This issue was particularly evident in the years following the French and Indian War—although the campaign came to a close, British soldiers called up to take part in the effort were stationed over the long term in the colonies. These soldiers were largely protected from prosecution by the colonial judicial system as well. According to a 1774 law passed by Parliament, if a crime such as murder was committed by a British loyalist in the army or by a British official, he was sent back to Britain, given what amounted to a sham trial, and released without punishment. The presence of such personnel caused undue stress for the people of the colonies, resulting in cases of harassment and other issues. In fact, under the Quartering Act of 1765, the king allowed British troops to enter, without warning, and take up temporary residence in colonists’ private homes.

As the Declaration of Independence continued to present its list of grievances against the king, the accusations became more severe. Jefferson accuses the British government of increasing taxes on products such as sugar, molasses, paper, and tea without the input of the colonists. Additionally, the document takes issue with a 1769 law passed by Parliament that allowed for the extradition to Britain of colonists accused of treason. The Declaration accuses the king of unlawfully arresting and prosecuting colonists for fabricated crimes. Furthermore, colonists who were arrested for smuggling and other trade-related crimes would likely be tried in America, but British law permitted them to be tried without a jury of their peers present.

In another complaint, the Declaration took King George III to task for the Quebec Act of 1774. The British government had allowed for the extension of Quebec’s borders to the Ohio River, thereby allowing French law to apply in those regions. In doing so, the British could impose more severe controls over their own provinces.

By the 1760s and 1770s, it became clear to the colonists that the British government was directly pursuing total domination over the colonies. For example, Jefferson’s document cited the Declaratory Act of 1766, which declared that the royal government had the authority to make any and all laws for the colonies, rendering moot the colonial governments’ lawmaking activities. Additionally, Parliament passed a number of laws that restricted the colonies’ ability to negotiate and conduct trade with nations other than Great Britain, moves that the Declaration states are akin to cutting off the colonies’ international trade policies.

As the Revolution continued to build, the British government consistently clamped down on the institutions that fomented the liberty movement. In 1774, Parliament ordered that all town meetings in Massachusetts be restricted and that its local officials be appointed directly by the king rather than elected by the general public. Parliament did not stop at removing the charters of local communities, either; in 1767, Parliament suspended the New York Assembly (that colony’s legislative body) altogether, as that institution refused to comply with the Quartering Act.

The king’s efforts to squelch the pro-independence movement, documented in the Declaration of Independence, became more overt and confrontational as violent confrontations between the colonists and British army increased. Thomas Jefferson’s document describes how the king “abdicated government here,” an accusation that the Declaration states gave the king an opening to wage war against the colonies. This warfare was carried out on a number of fronts. For example, the Declaration accuses the British government of attempting to incite anti-independence violence from within the colonial population, thereby creating divisions and competing factions. Such factions would threaten to undermine the united front driving the Revolution.

In addition to his subversive activities, the king was accused of kidnapping American sailors while at sea and forcing them to take up arms against their fellow colonists or else face execution. The power to do so had been given to British ships by the Restraining Act of 1775. Furthermore, the British were accused of attempting to gain favor with the American Indians residing in the colonies, convincing them to take up arms against the colonists. The Declaration commented on the brutality employed by the Indians in previous colonial conflicts (as reported from King Philip’s War of 1675–76 and the aforementioned French-Indian War), citing the fact that the Indians did not respect the rules of war and demonstrated a willingness to kill women and children during such conflicts.

Furthermore, Jefferson commented on the fact that the king hired and delivered mercenaries to America to add their armies as they continued their assault on the colonists. This section spoke directly Great Britain’s hiring of entire units of Hessian soldiers from its principalities in what is now Germany. Although the British expected to defeat the colonists quickly, the battles of Bunker Hill, Lexington, and Concord gave Great Britain cause to believe that the colonists would not yield easily. The cost of raising troops in Great Britain was high, particularly in comparison to the costs of hiring Hessians, many of whom had already been relocated to New England and Canada to fight on Great Britain’s behalf during the French and Indian War. Jefferson and his contemporaries considered Hessians brutish and uncivilized barbarians brought to America by a government bent on unleashing torture and cruelty upon the colonists. Furthermore, the colonists were outraged that the British would introduce another foreign combatant into what they believed should be an internal matter between the Crown and its colonies.

Finally, the Declaration cites the fact that the British were actively engaged in the destruction of the colonies’ interests, plundering colonial ships, burning villages, and killing many citizens. This line spoke to a number of incidents, such as the capture of American vessels suspected of breaking the new trade laws. It also recalled the destruction of Falmouth, Maine; Bristol, Rhode Island; and Norfolk, Virginia, that occurred as the conflict raged.

According to the Declaration, the colonists had exhausted every resource to address these complaints in a peaceful manner. It claims that the colonists first attempted to file petitions of complaint with the king, seeking relief from such actions and policies. The response they received came in the form of “repeated injury.” In light of this oppressive policy, it became clear to the colonists that they were not serving under a benevolent monarch but a tyrant who was “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Having seen no improvement in the British attitude toward the colonies, the leaders of the independence movement deemed it appropriate to warn the king of the consequences of his actions. They reminded the king of their common heritage—the colonists may have immigrated to America but remained “brethren.” This comment appealed to what the colonists hoped would be a more respectful response, one that never came. In the absence of a response, the colonists next made clear their position that increased restrictions, surreptitious activities, and direct belligerence would ultimately be met with colonial resistance. According to the Declaration, this approach generated no response other than continued conflict.

With the British government showing no intention of halting their attacks and oppressive rule over the colonies, Jefferson and his colleagues declared that they had no choice but to secede. They asserted that this policy was the only option available to the leaders who sought a better life for the colonists. Therefore, the Declaration was as a “necessity” in the decision to consider Great Britain an enemy.

In light of the colonies’ plight, according to the conclusion of the Declaration of Independence, it was the right of the colonies to declare—not just to the king but to the entire world—that they would become “free and independent states.” In light of this status, the colonies would no longer be subject to British law or allegiance to the Crown. Additionally, any political connections between these new states and Great Britain would be immediately dissolved.

Finally, Jefferson’s document made clear to the king that, as a result of the Declaration, the independent states formed thereafter would have the full power to form their own governments and economies. The states would have the ability to enter into contracts with other states and nations, establish trade and commerce institutions, and form alliances. Furthermore, the states would have the power to wage war on their enemies (namely Great Britain) and enter into peace treaties.

The Declaration of Independence was officially adopted by the congress on July 4, 1776, although the New York Convention did not sign until July 9. Thereafter, it was distributed throughout the colonies and their respective conventions as well as to officers of the Continental Army. Fifty-six delegates would sign the document by August 2, 1776.

Declaration of Independence.

(NARA)
Essential Themes

The Declaration of Independence marked a significant change in the relationship between the American colonies and the British government. To be sure, the royal government had already acknowledged that the colonies were in a state of revolt a year before the Declaration was completed. However, the revolutionaries were, until the Declaration’s completion, fighting for their rights under the Crown. After the Declaration’s ratification, the colonies were fighting a war against a foreign power.

Like the revolutionaries who wrote and supported it, the Declaration of Independence was heavily influenced by the philosophical notions introduced during the Enlightenment. Chief among these beliefs was the notion that if the subjects of a government become oppressed or their basic rights otherwise denied, those subjects had a responsibility to change that government. The language utilized in the Declaration’s preamble, describing the basic and inalienable rights of all citizens, echoes the themes of government powered by and representative of the people as espoused by a number of philosophers from the Enlightenment era.

The Declaration made a clear case for this imperative. The document provided a long list of examples of the increasingly oppressive policies of the king and the royal government. These examples included political manipulation through laws that rendered colonial legislation ineffectual, the installation of political leaders loyal to the Crown without the vote of the colonists, the delay of the passage of useful colonial laws, and even the altering of borders to facilitate the imposition of martial law.

The Declaration also cited the Crown’s application of new taxes without colonial input—the purpose for these increased taxes was to pay for the British war effort against France—none of the new revenues were spent in the colonies. Furthermore, the British passed laws and directives for military personnel to take up residence among the colonists, including in their homes, but not be subject to many of the colonial laws. The accusations even included violence against innocent colonists, the disruption of trade, the destruction of property, and the use of Hessian troops to squelch the revolutionaries.

The Declaration claims that the colonies did everything they could to find a political solution to these issues but were either rebuffed by Great Britain or simply ignored. Lacking an amicable resolution, the document states, the colonists had no choice but to leave the British Empire. The Declaration states that this decision was not entered into lightly, as the new states would have to implement new political and economic systems for themselves while engaging their new foreign enemy, the British Empire. Nevertheless, prudence dictated that the colonies take action or else remain mired in an oppressive political system.

Bibliography
  • “Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson.” Jefferson Monticello. Montecello.org, 2012. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • “Declaration of Independence.” Charters of Freedom. US National Archives and Records Administration, 2012. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • “Declaration of Independence.” History Channel. History.com, 2012. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • “Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau on Government.” Bill of Rights in Action 20.2 (Spring 2004): n. pag. Web. 24 May 2012.
  • Lanning, Michael Lee. The American Revolution 100: The People, Battles, and Events of the American War for Independence, Ranked by the Their Significance. Naperville: Sourcebooks, 2008. Print.
  • Mintz, Steven. “Was the Revolution Justified?” DigitalHistory. Digital History, 2006. Web. 24 May 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
  • Freedman, Russell. Give Me Liberty! The Story of the Declaration of Independence. New York: Holiday, 2000. Print.
  • Maier, Pauline. American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. New York: Vintage, 1998. Print.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

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