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The Declaration of Independence: The Document

Background

declaration_independenceOn June 8, 1776, the Continental Congress voted to write a declaration of independence. It named a committee to do the writing. One of its members was Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer from Virginia. He had been a leader in Virginia, and Virginia had elected him to the Continental Congress. The others on the committee were too busy with the revolution to work on the declaration, so Jefferson wrote it alone. He finished the document in a week. Congress made some changes to it. On July 2, Congress voted to declare independence. And on July 4, it approved the Declaration of Independence.

Parts of the Declaration

The declaration can be divided into six major parts:

1. The Introduction

2. The Principles of Government

3. How the King Violated the Principles of Government

4. How the Colonists Patiently Tried to Stop the King’s Abuse

5. The Statement of Independence

6. The Signatures


Part 1: The Introduction

The declaration opens by saying declaring independence is a serious step. It requires Americans to explain why they are taking this step. The introduction also refers to the laws of nature and nature’s God. The declaration is based on the belief that all people have natural rights.

Here are the exact words of the introduction:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to 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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Part 2: The Principles of Government

The second part of the declaration is the most famous. It argues that people have the right to change a government when it abuses their rights. This part sets out important ideas about government. It says that “all men are created equal.” And they have “unalienable rights,” rights that no one may take away. These rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It says that governments are set up to protect these rights. And that governments get “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the people run the government. The goal of government should be to guard everyone’s freedom. The purpose of government is not to serve the rulers. It is to serve the people and uphold their rights.

This part of the declaration closes by saying that overthrowing a government is a serious matter. It should only be done for serious reasons. But when people have endured many abuses for a long time, it is their duty to overthrow the government and set up a better one. The colonists find themselves in this situation. The British king has repeatedly inflicted injuries on the American colonists.

Here are the exact words of the second part:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

1. The Introduction | 2. The Principles of Government | 3. How the King Violated the Principles of Government | 4. How the Colonists Patiently Tried to Stop the King’s Abuse | 5. The Statement of Independence | 6. The Signatures

Part 3: How the King Violated the Principles of Government 

 1.        He did not approve laws passed by colonial legislatures.

 2.        He required royal governors to suspend laws passed by colonial legislatures until he approved them, and he has ignored these laws.

 3.        He ordered that new towns not be set up unless they give away their right to have representatives in the colonial legislature.

 4.        He has forced colonial legislatures to meet at faraway places to tire legislators out and make them pass laws he wants.

 5.        He has closed down colonial legislatures when they have objected to his denying colonists their rights.  

6.         When he closed down the colonial legislatures, the legislators tried to meet on their own, but the king’s officials tried to stop them. This left the colonies without a legal government.

7.         He has tried to keep the colonies from expanding into new lands and to prevent new colonists from coming to America.

8.         He prevented courts from being set up in some colonies. 

9.         He made sure judges were not independent. Instead the king could dismiss them at any time and set their salaries.

10.       He has created many new offices to collect taxes, and tax collectors have hounded Americans.  

11.       Without bothering to ask permission from colonial legislatures, he has sent British troops to the colonies in times of peace. This violated a principle in the British Bill of Rights of 1689.

12.       He has put the British military in charge of some colonies.  

13.       He has approved illegal laws passed by Parliament, such as:

            A.        Forcing colonists to house and pay for British troops. (Quartering Act of 1774) 

            B.         Protecting British troops and officials from being tried in colonial courts. (Administration of Justice Act of 1774 

            C.         Cutting off American trade. (Boston Port Act of 1774, New England Restraining Act of 1775, American Prohibitory Act of 1775)

            D.        Taxing Americans without their consent (taxation without representation). (Stamp Act of 1765, Townshend Revenue Act of 1767) 

            E.         Denying colonists the right of trial by jury (this was done in customs cases).  

            F.         Trying colonists in Britain for certain offenses.  

            G.         Extending the borders of Canada into land claimed by colonies. (Quebec Act of 1774) 

            H.         Taking away elected governments (Massachusetts Government Act of 1774) 

            I.          Assuming the power to make whatever laws it wants for the colonies. (Declaratory Act of 1766) 

14.       He has waged war against the colonies. (Proclamation of Rebellion of 1775) 

15.       He has made war against us on the sea, attacked the coast, burned towns, and killed Americans. 

16.       He is sending large armies of paid foreigners to continue the killing and tyranny. He is not fit to rule. 

17.       He has forced Americans captured at sea to join the British navy and fight against their fellow Americans. 

18.       He has provoked uprisings and tried to get Indians to attack colonists.

Here are the exact words of the third part:

[1]        He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

[2]        He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. 

[3]        He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

[4]        He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

[5]        He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

[6]        He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

[7]        He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

[8]        He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

[9]        He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

[10]      He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

[11]      He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures. 

[12]      He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

[13]      He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation: 

            [A]      For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: 

            [B]      For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

            [C]       For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

            [D]       For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: 

            [E]       For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

            [F]        For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences: 

            [G]       For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies 

            [H]       For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments: 

            [I]        For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

[14]     He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. 

[15]     He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. 

[16]     He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. 

[17]     He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. 

[18]     He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

1. The Introduction | 2. The Principles of Government | 3. How the King Violated the Principles of Government | 4. How the Colonists Patiently Tried to Stop the King’s Abuse | 5. The Statement of Independence | 6. The Signatures

Part 4: How the Colonists Patiently Tried to Stop the King’s Abuse

declarationThis part of the declaration makes clear that Americans are not acting rashly in declaring their independence. It explains that over and over again they petitioned the king to make changes. The king ignored the petitions. The declaration repeats the charge that the king is unfit to rule a free people.

The declaration also notes that Americans appealed to the British people. But all these appeals fell on deaf ears. Therefore, the only option is for Americans to declare their independence.

Here are the exact words of the fourth part:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

Part 5: The Statement of Independence

The declaration concludes by declaring the United States’ complete break from the king and Britain. It claims the power of every independent country, such as waging war, making peace treaties, and trading with other countries. It ends by saying Americans depend on God’s protection and are willing to risk their lives, fortunes, and honor to be free of Britain. They indeed risked everything because Britain considered them traitors, but they considered freedom worth the sacrifice.

Here are the exact words of the fifth part:

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

1. The Introduction | 2. The Principles of Government | 3. How the King Violated the Principles of Government | 4. How the Colonists Patiently Tried to Stop the King’s Abuse | 5. The Statement of Independence | 6. The Signatures

Part 6: The Signatures

As the president of Congress, John Hancock signed the declaration first. He signed in big, bold letters, showing his courage and commitment.

The signers were:

New Hampshire: Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

Massachusetts: John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Connecticut: Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York: William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey: Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Pennsylvania: Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Delaware: Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Maryland: Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia: George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina: William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina: Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Georgia: Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton