Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable.”

Summary Overview

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms was a document offered on July 6, 1775, during the Second Continental Congress. In the declaration, Jefferson and Dickinson took issue with the deterioration of the relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies, citing what they saw as examples of British efforts to subjugate and enslave the colonists. Jefferson and Dickinson identified Parliament as the primary instigators of the conflict and appealed to King George III to intervene and help bring about peace. While they sought reconciliation with the king, they also approved the use of armed force in the pursuit of ceasing all British hostilities against the colonies.

Defining Moment

By the 1770s, tensions between the British Empire and the American colonies had reached a fever pitch, hastened by the violent incident known as the Boston Massacre. Parliament had already approved a wide range of tax increases on colonial goods, including paper goods, tea, and sugar. Parliament also enacted a series of laws that impinged upon the liberties of colonial residents, including laws that permitted English soldiers to take up quarters in colonists’ homes. Furthermore, strict measures were put into place restricting colonial trade with countries other than Great Britain. The conflict spilled onto the battlefield on April 19, 1775, when American minutemen and British troops clashed in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Two months later, the two sides met again at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Although the tensions had devolved into violent confrontations, the colonies had not yet raised a formalized military force to fight the British. In fact, no official pursuit of independence been launched by the colonists. On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to address these issues. Despite the presence of pro-independence figures such as John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, not all of the delegates were in favor of complete dissolution of the Anglo–colonial relationship. In order to appease these moderate voices, the Continental Congress opted to send a final appeal to King George III, asking him to intervene on their behalf with Parliament, whom it identified as the primary source of the tensions. That document—known as the Olive Branch Petition—was sent to the King on July 14, 1775.

As the Olive Branch Petition was being finalized, however, the Congress worked on another document. The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, like the Olive Branch Petition, identifies Parliament as the main instigator of the violence and bitterness between the two parties. Written by Jefferson and John Dickinson, the declaration excludes King George III from the debate in the hope that he would order Parliament to halt its anticolonial policies as requested in the Olive Branch Petition.

Meanwhile, however, the declaration states that the Continental Congress was prepared to raise weapons and forces in defense of the colonists should England continue its policies. According to the declaration, the colonists were prepared to fight for their liberties, laying down their arms only when the English government ceased its offensive policies and operations in America.

Author Biography John Dickinson

John Dickinson was born on November 13, 1732, in Talbot County, Maryland, to a moderately wealthy family. While still a newborn, his family moved to Delaware. He was educated in Pennsylvania, where he was trained as an attorney before receiving his formal training in this field at the prestigious Temple in London. Upon his return to the colonies in 1757, he established a law practice before entering public office.

Dickinson began his political career as a member of the Delaware Assembly in 1759. In 1762, he moved over to the Pennsylvania Assembly. There, he wrote a number of articles and essays, including “Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress” in 1765. In 1767, Dickinson wrote “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” a pivotal essay and a bold statement against what he saw as increasingly oppressive governance by England. Although he was outspoken on the English treatment of the colonists, Dickinson was also opposed to launching any sort of military offensive to resist British rule, a policy that ran counter to his devout Quaker beliefs. Instead, he advocated peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience.

In 1774 and 1775, Dickinson attended the First and Second Continental Congresses. He remained a dissenter to many of the proactive policies adopted by the pro-independence camp, refusing to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (although he absented himself from the proceedings to avoid making it seem as if the declaration’s adoption was not unanimous). Later, Dickinson himself joined the Delaware militia. He was elected to be President of Delaware in 1781 and would later play a major role in the writing of the Constitution of the United States. He died on February 14, 1808.

Thomas Jefferson

Born in 1743 near Charlottesville, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson came from a well-established family. He was formally educated near his home before he enrolled at the College of William and Mary, where he studied classical languages and mathematics. After graduating, he built a successful early career as an attorney.

In addition to his tenures as a magistrate and county lieutenant, Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. There, he became connected with Patrick Henry and George Washington. In 1774, he wrote “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” which cemented his reputation as an individual who could eloquently present colonials issues and agendas.

In 1775, Jefferson attended the Second Continental Congress, which appointed Jefferson’s colleague, Washington, as the commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. A year later—in light of the reception of “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”—Jefferson (working with John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston) drafted the Declaration of Independence.

From 1776 until 1779, Jefferson served as a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates. From 1779 to 1781, Jefferson served as Virginia’s governor. He returned to the Congress in 1783 and was made the American Minister to France in 1785. Upon his 1789 return to the United States he was appointed George Washington’s Secretary of State, a post he held until 1794. He was defeated by John Adams to succeed Washington as president, but was eventually elected as the nation’s third president in 1800. In 1819, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. He died in 1826.

Document Analysis

Jefferson and Dickinson begin the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms by suggesting that, even if God had allowed for certain parties to have irresistible and total power over others, the colonies would still need validation from Great Britain’s Parliament. After all, such a power is supposed to be used out of wisdom and goodness, and it had become clear in the minds of the colonists that Parliament was not acting with either concept in mind.

Instead of proceeding with benevolence, Jefferson and Dickinson say, the Parliament seems to be driven by a pursuit of power. Indeed, their declaration accuses Parliament of demonstrating an “inordinate passion” for a type of power that was not only unjustified but, according to Jefferson and Dickinson, illegal. The declaration makes this statement to demonstrate that the actions taken by Great Britain were against the tenets of the British Constitution itself. It amplifies this tone, saying that any reasonable leader within the Parliament should remain dedicated to making policy that was right, legal, and truthful, regardless of the conditions at hand.

These conditions were the grumblings of civil war between the colonies and Britain. The relationship between the two parties had clearly devolved into distrust and open conflict. Jefferson and Dickinson’s declaration comments that Parliament has an obligation as the legislators of England, to pursue policies that would work to improve relations. However, the authors accuse Parliament of struggling to wrest control from the colonies instead. As the “contest” between Parliament and the colonies grew more intense and closer to a stalemate, the declaration says that Parliament is becoming desperate to end the conflict. In light of this desperation, Parliament was turning to the imposition of cruel and oppressive measures.

The declaration specifically cites Parliament, not King George III, for instigating and exacerbating the conflict. In fact, there was no mention of the king in this document. By purposely leaving the king out of the focus of the colonists’ grievances, the authors leave open the door for the king to intervene and perhaps direct Parliament away from its hostile stance. In its censure of Parliament, the declaration accuses the British government of being so blinded by its “intemperate rage” for domination over the colonies that it had become willing to launch a campaign of brutality and hostility against the colonies. In spite of this campaign, the document says, the colonies had remained morally upright and respectful.

Jefferson and Dickinson remind the king of the colonies’ history. More than a century earlier, the Puritans had left their native England in search of civil and religious freedom. They experienced hardships in their new home in New England, not the least of which were harsh weather and occasionally violent encounters with American Indians. They spent their personal fortunes in order to come to the New World and worked tirelessly once there in order to build a new society. They were successful, the authors say, building governmental institutions that support the colonists and, at the same time, remaining loyal to the British government.

England benefited greatly from the colonists’ success. Dickinson and Jefferson state that, once the colonies were established, the British Empire had a new base from which it could launch exploration and trade missions. Also, the goods produced in the colonies added considerably to the wealth of Great Britain’s economy. Furthermore, the contributions of the colonies (which included military personnel and supplies) greatly aided the British army in its efforts against the French in Canada during the French and Indian War.

However, the conclusion of the French and Indian War led the Parliament to refocus on subduing England’s “faithful friends”—the colonies. Jefferson and Dickinson theorize that Parliament, which enjoyed increased power over the colonies through King George III, saw the need for this subjugation based on two facts. First, the colonies had long been willing and loyal subjects of the Crown—they would not, Parliament assumed, object to further management by the British government. Second, there was a wealth of resources in New England that could be accessed by Great Britain by increasing pressure on the colonists legally. The authors dub such a policy “statuteable plunder.”

Parliament’s inflammatory policies were myriad, according to Jefferson and Dickinson. For example, the British military had been given increased liberties and protections in the colonies. Under the 1765 Quartering Act, for example, British Army soldiers were allowed to stay at colonists’ private residences. In 1774, the colonists’ faith in the acceptable behavior of British soldiers was further shaken by a law that stated that British soldiers and officials who were accused of murder in the colonies would not be tried by the colonial judiciary—rather, they would be taken back to Britain and given what the colonists saw as mock trials with minimal punishments, if any.

Additionally, Dickinson and Jefferson accuse Parliament of collecting and spending colonial money without the consent of the New England governments. This comment refers to the number of occurrences during the 1760s and 1770s in which new taxes on tea, paper, molasses, and other products were applied. The revenues from these taxes were spent at the discretion of Parliament for the benefit of the entire Empire.

Furthermore, Parliament made a number of changes to the colonial legal structure, placing officials in key positions within the judicial system, which gave Parliament enhanced oversight over the colonial legal system. These officials’ power was useful in implementing many new legal policies, such as the 1769 law that allowed colonists who were accused of treason to be extradited to Britain for prosecution and those colonists accused of smuggling and other trade-related crimes to be prosecuted in court without a jury of their peers present.

Other grievances include the accusation of political and economic manipulation, citing the 1767 suspension of the New York Assembly for refusing to comply with the Quartering Act; the extreme restrictions on the colonists’ trade relationships with other nations; and the 1774 Quebec Act, which moved the border between that colony and the Ohio River, placing one of Britain’s greatest rivals at the doorstep of its colonies.

Jefferson and Dickinson state that the Second Continental Congress chose to list these grievances because Parliament had effectively stripped away the colonial governments’ areas of authority. The 1766 Declaratory Act was the most egregious example of this fact—this law said that the royal government retained the authority to make any and all laws for the colonies. Through this act, Parliament had been able to enact the wide range of laws and policies that rendered colonial legislatures nearly powerless. For the better part of a decade, the colonists had attempted to communicate their concerns to Parliament and the king, using respectful and “decent” language, with no positive response or changes emanating from Britain.

The response the colonists did receive was one of further heavy-handedness. Parliament sent more ships and troops to New England to address what was seen as growing indignation among the colonists. Colonial delegates met twice, at the First Continental Congress in New York and again at the Second Congress in Philadelphia, in order to create a reasonable, peaceful response to Parliament’s actions. The product of the Second Congress was the Olive Branch Petition, which had been sent while the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms was being drafted. The declaration states that the colonists took every reasonable step to appeal to Great Britain.

The British response to these “reasonable” steps was, according to Jefferson and Dickinson, a combination of neglect and hostile rhetoric. First, the colonists expected the Olive Branch Petition and other appeals to be received graciously by the king and read into Parliament. Instead, the documents were lost in the bureaucracy. Meanwhile, Parliament spoke of the fact that the colonies—particularly Massachusetts Bay—were in a state of full rebellion against the king. When the legislative body relayed this charge to the king, he acted immediately, calling upon Parliament to enact and enforce any measure to halt this rebellion. Trade was restricted and more troops and ships were sent to enforce the law and maintain order in the colonies.

Britain also attempted to undermine the increasingly united front of colonies. One example of this effort was the “auctioning” of tax rates to potential supporters in colonial governments; by rewarding colonies that supported the king’s policies with lower taxes, Parliament sought to create divisions, pitting colony against colony. Jefferson and Dickinson’s declaration says that this tax policy maneuver led the colonies to closely examine the social and moral costs of accepting such proposals. The colonies, according to the document, refused to comply with such extortive.

In late 1774, General Thomas Gage, the British-installed Governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, took notice of the growing pro-liberty movement the confrontations and incidents it incited. Gage declared Massachusetts to be in a state of martial law and began a search for any weapons and supplies the rebellion might be gathering. In April of 1775, British intelligence revealed that such a depot could be found in Concord. Gage deployed his military forces to secure the supplies and arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams (two of the most outspoken critics of England). Colonial minutemen were alerted to the British force’s imminent arrival and engaged them in two major skirmishes (which would become known as the Battle of Lexington and Concord).

The declaration says that Gage’s attack was unprovoked and an “assault on the inhabitants” of that region, suggesting that not all of the targets of Gage’s campaign were military. Gage would take this approach to pursuing civilians farther two months later, declaring all colonists to be rebels and traitors. This policy, according to Jefferson and Dickinson, would further allow Gage to crack down on the colonists with martial law. The military launched attacks on Breed’s Hill in Charlestown (a battle known as the Battle of Bunker Hill) and other targets. American ships were seized and their crews forced to take up arms against the colonists, while troops also stopped inbound supply ships in order to choke the rebellion. It is at this point that Jefferson and Dickinson state the justification for formally raising arms against the British. In light of the inability of the colonies to gain the King’s favor and halt Parliament’s ongoing effort to clamp down on the colonists, the authors say that the colonies have no other recourse. Their cause, according to the document, was just. Additionally, the union that was being forged in the face of this poor treatment was strong and becoming stronger.

Furthermore, the resources that the colonists had to defend themselves were many. The Americans could obtain weapons and supplies and could even call upon the assistance of Britain’s rivals if necessary. Finally, the colonies had the benefit of divine Providence—it was the view of Jefferson and Dickinson that God would not have placed the colonists in this situation if they could not call upon their experience and tap into the resources at hand in order to defend themselves and achieve their freedom from British tyranny.

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms states a clear case for independence. The colonists, the victims of two decades of increased oppression, had reached out repeatedly to Parliament, the king, and anyone else within the British Empire who might intervene. According to the declaration, the colonists felt that they were entirely justified to respond to the Crown’s actions by taking up arms against Britain; they believed that the pursuit of independence was a reasonable pursuit under such circumstances.

However, the declaration left open the possibility for reconciliation. Jefferson and Dickinson state that the colonies do not wish to dissolve their union with Great Britain and their fellow subjects. The colonists’ situation was not irreversible—they had not yet reached so desperate a point at which open war was the only option, nor had they raised an army whose sole purpose was to achieve independence. Nevertheless, the colonists were, in the minds of Jefferson and Dickinson, a group endangered by British policies. They had every right to defend themselves and act in a spirit of self-preservation against such unprovoked attacks. Now, the document says, the colonists would need to take up arms against such oppressive actions, laying them down again when British hostilities came to an end.

The declaration comes to a conclusion by offering a prayer. The authors pray to God to protect them from the coming conflict, which despite their hopes of a lasting peace, seems to be moving closer to reality. They add that it was the hope of the colonists that God would steer the British toward reconciliation (with reasonable terms) in order to avoid sending the colonies and Great Britain into deeper into civil war.

Essential Themes

The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms served a number of important purposes during the pivotal years between 1774 and 1776 in colonial America. To serve these purposes, Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson deliberately used respectful, peaceful language, although they also showed indignation at the ongoing events and issues between the colonies and Great Britain. This dual tone was reflective of the moderate, non-contentious approach preferred by Dickinson and Jefferson’s more vehement pro-independence attitude.

The first purpose of this document was to issue one last appeal to the king to intervene with Parliament and move the country from the brink of civil war with its colonies. To be sure, according to the declaration, Parliament had done its part to instigate conflict with the colonies. The growing sense of anger among the colonies that was generated by these actions could have elicited a positive response from Parliament, said Jefferson and Dickinson, but instead the colonies’ anger was only met with more oppressive measures. Only the king, who had previously shown appreciation for the colonies—at least in terms of the strategic and economic benefits they gave to the British Empire—could intervene and reverse Parliament’s actions.

The declaration therefore served another important purpose—justifying the eventual raising of arms in self-defense against the British. It served as a sort of low-key rallying cry for the colonists and provided a clear outline of the despotic and unfair governance that Parliament demonstrated in the colonies. This document did not call for independence, but it did make a clear case for standing up against the tyranny of British government and its disruptive impact on the colonial way of life. It left open the hope that moderation and reconciliation would be offered by the British, but also made clear that the colonies would no longer be passive if reconciliation did not occur.

  • “American Political Writing, 1760–1769: A Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms”. Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes. , 2000. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
  • “Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson”. The Jefferson Monticello. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2012. Web. 21 April 2012.
  • Calvert, Jane E. “John Dickinson Biography.” John Dickinson Writings Project. University of Kentucky, 2011. Web. 21 April 2012.
  • “Congress Issues a ‘Declaration on the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.” History. A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
  • “The Declaration of Arms”. Archiving Early America. Archiving Early America, 2012. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.
  • Mintz, S. “Was the Revolution Justified?” Digital History, 2012. Web. 21 Apr.2012.
  • “Thomas Jefferson Biography.” A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Calvert, Jane E. Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.
  • Ferling, John. A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
  • Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

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