Text Commentary of the Declaration of Independence ‘THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE OF THE THIRTEEN COLONIES’ (July4, 1776) This is a text commentary about ‘The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America’. The Declaration of Independence is a juridical and legal document written sometime between June 11 and June 28, 1776.
The reason for that lapse of time is because a draft of the declaration was asked to a group of five delegates of the Continental Congress on June 11, called ‘The Committee of Five’, consisting of John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert R.
Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut, but it remains unknown when exactly was it drafted. Anyway, the draft was presented to the Continental Congress on June 28, so it was written down in only seventeen days.
What is sure known is that that committee decided that Jefferson would be the man in charge of writing the first draft. So it’s possible to venture that it was written down in Thomas Jefferson’s dwelling while in Pennsylvania, although some passages of the text were corrected or varied by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams days before it’s final presentation on June 28, somewhere in Pennsylvania (maybe also in Jefferson’s).
On the other side, it remains unknown whether Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston participated in the drafting or not, although they were appointed to.
This document was made to put an end to the bad political relations between the United Kingdom and its colonies in America, which started to deteriorate since the end of the so-called ‘Seven Years’ War’ (known in the States as the French And Indian War) in 1763, a war between Great Britain and France in North America fighting for virgin territories between what’s now Canada and the USA. This war nearly doubled Britain’s national debt. The Crown, seeking sources of revenue to pay off the debt, attempted to impose new taxes on its colonies, which we will enumerate later on in this commentary text.
These attempts were met with increasingly stiff resistance, until troops were called in so that representatives of the Crown could safely perform their duties. These acts ultimately led to the start of the American Revolutionary War, a year before the signing of the Declaration, in 1775. This document is based basically in two documents written that very same 1776: the preamble of the Constitution of Virginia, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights, this late one written by George Mason, who’s considered the Father of the Bill of Rights, and, therefore, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
After taking a look at those legendary documents of the state of Virginia, one can read and extract ideas that later would appear in the Declaration of Independence, both of which pointing directly to the influential English Declaration of Rights of 1689 (so we can understand why the American Revolution is called a revolution, because many of the basic ideals came from the Glorious Revolution). The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence explains that independence itself must be followed by reasons, and that these reasons must be reasonable and, therefore, explicable.
This same paragraph also refers to a “Natural law”, which is responsible for the rights every human should be born with, as a kind of recognizable right to decide and assume political independence when these natural facts are endangered. What Thomas Jefferson meant was that Americans had tolerated too many aggressions from the United Kingdom’s Parliament, to which they had asked so many times to have representation and the right to vote in the subjects related to them.
Being scorned from the Parliament and from King George III again and again, Americans felt in need to separate in order to win equal station, and explain to the world in this document the reasons why they decided to separate to secure decent respect from other nations towards their homeland America. The second and, under my point of view, most important paragraph of the document, enumerates a series of these self-evident and unalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Americans living in the British colonies didn’t feel like living in liberty being under the tyranny of King George III. Their happiness (the one they once thought they’d find leaving the Old World) was far from being achieved under so many taxes. Jefferson defended the idea that these rights must be secured by governments instituted by men, and that when these governments become destructive of these rights, the people have the right to abolish those institutions and to create new ones in order to secure their principles.
Further in this same long second paragraph, Jefferson accuses King George III (he doesn’t name him directly, but it is obvious that he makes him responsible because King George III was the person holding the highest position in the British Government at that moment) of despotism, and of having established a tyranny over the States. Thomas Jefferson enumerates a series of facts to prove the right to dissolve the political bands with the mother country.
Summing up some of the next paragraphs Jefferson refers to the lack of Colonial representation in the governing British Parliament, and many colonists considered some of the laws of the British Government to be illegitimate and a violation of their rights as Englishmen, due to the fact that the British Crown adopted the policy that the colonies should pay an increased proportion of the costs associated with keeping them in the Empire. The expenses of defending the continental colonies were estimated to be approximately ? 00,000, and the British goal after the end of the war against France was that the colonies would be taxed for about 1/3rd of that amount, and that those taxes would demonstrate that Parliament was in full control. The most important slogan during the years previous to the writing of the document and to the separation from the United Kingdom was ‘No taxation without representation’, and that’s another thing that Jefferson points out in these next little paragraphs where he is submitting the facts that motivated the separation.
The tax acts that the British Parliament passed on the American colonies were the Sugar Act of 1764, imposing tax on a huge list of goods of non-British suppliers, the Quartering Act also of 1764, passed to ensure an adequate housing and provisions to British soldiers, the Currency Act of 1765, restricting the emission of paper money in the colonies, the Stamp Act also of 1765, which required that documents, newspapers, and playing cards be printed on special stamped and taxed paper, the Townshend Act, which purpose was to raise revenue in the colonies to pay the salaries of governors and judges so that they would be independent of colonial control, and to punish the province of New York for failing to comply with the Quartering Act, among other reasons, passed in 1767, and named after Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; the Tea Act of 1773, taxing the American tea. One of the most important reasons that Thomas Jefferson enumerates is that the British government cut off the colonial trade with all parts of the world by taxing their products. Jefferson refers to these last facts in the paragraph beginning “He has made Judges dependent…” In the years 1770 and 1773, there were two events that stepped the American colonists closer to the separation. The Townshend Acts of 1767 were considered a violation of the natural, charter, and constitutional rights of British subjects in the colonies, and Boston was a center of that resistance.
So unpopular were these Acts there, that customs officials requested naval and military assistance, being sent to Boston fifty-gun warships that arrived in 1768. Several newspaper articles of that time chronicled clashes between civilians and soldiers during what the colonists considered as a military occupation of Boston. In fact, one of those clashes is remembered as the Boston Massacre, an incident that led to the death of five civilians and eleven injured at the hands of British troops on March 5, 1770. That shooting is known as the main issue that ignited what would later be remembered as the American Revolution. The other event happened several weeks after passing the Tea Act of 1773. It was the culmination of the resistance movement throughout British America against that act.
The feeling that the colonists should only be taxed by their own elected representatives had grown to levels never seen before. On the eve of December 16, 1773, after officials in Boston refused to return three shiploads of taxed tea to Britain, several Boston citizens wearing customs of Native Americans (Mohawk, to be exact), boarded the three vessels and during several hours dumped more than three-hundred boxes of tea into the water. Most colonists supported that action because they considered it was the only remaining option the people had to defend their constitutional rights. The Boston Tea Party, as it is known, is the iconic movement of the main events leading to the American Revolution, and the main reason that led to the 1774 Intolerable Acts.
During several paragraphs, Thomas Jefferson (with the supposed help of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin), enumerated lots of facts that the colonists considered aggressions and violations of their rights as British citizens, among them all the facts that I’ve explained in the previous paragraph, and the most important ones as those related to the Intolerable Acts, consisting of four acts that were passed in 1774, weeks after the Boston Tea Party. The first act was the ‘Massachusetts Government Act’, passed in May of 1774, with the purpose to take away from the State of Massachusetts its ability to elect members of its executive council, being from that moment on elected by the royal governor.
Thomas Jefferson refers to that in the paragraph beginning “He has obstructed the Administration of…” The second act was the ‘Administration of Justice Act’, also passed on May 20, to assure trials more in the mood for the Crown than for the prejudices of local juries. The British could choose where to trial officials charged with a crime, in order to suppress whatever possibility of compensation, or even celebrate those trials in English soil. The paragraph starting “For transporting us beyond Seas…” refers to this matter. The third act is the ‘Boston Port Act”, closing the Port of Boston to all ships. The fourth and last of the Intolerable Acts was the Quartering Act of 1774 (a kind of revision of the Quartering Act of 1765, that had expired in 1767), which allowed royal governors to house British troops in the homes of citizens without requiring permission of the owner.
Most of the little paragraphs from Thomas Jefferson’s draft, which as I said before in this commentary are the reasons for the secession, have to be with the Intolerable Acts of 1774. We can read passages accusing the British for standing armies in times of peace, for erecting new offices and harass the colonists eating out their substance, which for me is a clear accusation towards the Quartering Act of 1774, and the accusation of having more soldiers than civilian power, blurring a democracy into a tyranny and, thus, forcing them into a jurisdiction foreign to colonists constitution. All these acts and collateral events must be taken into consideration together with the reunions and meetings that the American opposition assembled between 1765 and 1775, and that led to the First Continental Congress.
The first meeting was after the Stamp Act of 1765, called Stamp Act Congress, when delegates of nine of the thirteen colonies met in New York to discuss several issues that concluded with the adoption of a document called the ‘Declaration of Rights and Grievances’, where they declared that only the colonial assemblies had a right to tax the colonies, that trial by jury was a right, that the use of Admiralty Courts was abusive, and that the Colonists possessed all the Rights of Englishmen. As a detail, none of the delegates was convinced to sign the document. When the document arrived to the House of Commons in London, they found all kinds of reasons not to consider the petition: it had been submitted by an unconstitutional assembly, and it denied Parliament’s right to levy taxes, among others. It can be guessed that Thomas Jefferson included some of the ideas of that document in the Declaration of Independence. That gathering led to new committees.
The most iconic gathering was the one called Sons of Liberty, a group that was designed to incite change in the British government’s treatment of the Colonies. These patriots attacked the apparatus and symbols of British authority and power through both words and deeds. Some notable members of the Sons of Liberty were Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Paul Revere. They were responsible for the burning of the HMS Gaspee, in 1772. That event is remembered as the Gaspee Affair, were that British military vessel, which was a revenue schooner that was in charge of aiding in the enforcement of custom collection and inspection of cargo and had been enforcing unpopular trade regulations, was attacked, boarded, looted, and torched when they were chasing the American ship Hannah for inspection.
In Massachusetts, Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren formed the first of those dozens of committees in November 1772, just a few months after the Gaspee Affair, in response to that event, and in relation to the recent British decision to have the salaries of the royal governor and judges be paid by the Crown rather than the colonial assembly (which is another issue that Thomas Jefferson enumerates in the Declaration of Independence). Between 1772 and 1774, all the thirteen colonies instituted committees of correspondence, rallying opposition on common causes and establishing plans for collective action. These committees would be the beginning of what later was to become a formal political union among the colonies, and linked Patriots in all thirteen colonies, eventually providing the framework for a rebel government. In early 1773 Virginia, the largest colony, set up its Committee of Correspondence, on which Thomas Jefferson served.
On September 5, 1774, twelve of the thirteen colonies met at Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia, in what is known as the First Continental Congress, attended by fifty-six members appointed by the legislatures of the appearing provinces. The Congress met briefly to consider options, including an economic boycott of British trade, publish another list of rights and grievances (like the one of 1765), and petitioned King George III to redress those grievances. In the paragraph starting “In every stage of those Oppressions We Have Petitioned…”, Thomas Jefferson refers to these last events. The convention of the First Continental Congress met from September 5 to October 26, and had two primary accomplishments.
The first was a compact among the colonies to boycott British goods beginning on December 1, 1774. The Sons of Liberty formed a committee of observation and inspection in the colonies for enforcement of the Association, and, as a matter of fact, the imports from Britain dropped by more than 90%. Their pleas were ignored by the king and, in fact, British officials realized that part of their inability to control the colony was rooted in the highly independent nature of local government there. So the Intolerable Acts that had been passed early that same year 1774 became even tougher and riots exploded almost everywhere in Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson refers to those events in many of these short paragraphs.
Several days before the American Revolutionary War started, Thomas Gage, the Governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and General for the British army, received instructions from Secretary of State William Legge, Earl of Dartmouth, to disarm the rebels, that is to say, the Sons of Liberty, who were known to have hidden weapons in Concord, among other locations, and to imprison the rebel leaders Samuel Adams and John Hancock. The militias in Concord and Lexington raised in arms against the British soldiers and the war started on April 18, 1775. That first battle is called The Battle of Lexington and Concord. Several days later, the Second Continental Congress met, in May 10. They took charge of the war effort of the Patriots, who had carried on their struggle in an uncoordinated manner. That’s why the Congress approved on June 14 the Continental Army, commanded by Congressman George Washington of Virginia as the Commander in Chief.
Thomas Jefferson drafted a last opportunity to avoid the full-blown war with Great Britain, and the Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition, affirming American loyalty to Great Britain to prevent further conflict, but the petition was rejected in London and in August 1775 the colonies were formally declared in rebellion. In the paragraph starting “Nor have We been wanting in attentions…”, Thomas Jefferson refers to the fact that the colonists tried to find peace until the last moment, but that the circumstances and the British stubbornness left them no other option but the separation. On May 10, 1776, Congress passed a resolution recommending that any colony lacking an alternative government should form such, and drafted by John Adams, Congress adopted a preamble in which it advised throwing off oaths of allegiance and suppressing the authority of the Crown in any colonial government still deriving its authority from it.
The resolution of independence was delayed for several weeks, but finally ‘The Committee of Five’ put in to vote in Congress on July 2, 1776, and was approved on July 4 (twelve voting yes, with the sole abstention of New York). Once approved, the Declaration of Independence was first read in public on July 8, and the next day General George Washington was handed several copies to read them out loud to the troops. British officials in North America sent copies of the Declaration to Great Britain, and it was published in British newspapers beginning in mid-August (just a week after the document was signed by most of the delegates who approved it, on August 2, starting with the sign of the President of Congress, John Hancock).
The last section of the Declaration is very important because, although the first copies sent to Great Britain didn’t have the signs of the delegates, it says that the representatives of each and every one of the thirteen colonies decided to unite their interests and common compromises to create a new country that would have neither more nor less consideration than the country they thought of right to separate from, that is to say, Great Britain. The British captured the city of New York in 1776, soon after the Declaration reached Great Britain. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers reached the coasts of the United States and the war was fought open during two years. The Declaration found friends in France, and the French signed a treaty to help the Americans win their war against Great Britain, called Treaty of Alliance, in 1778 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, who was sent by Congress as Ambassador to France. The combined strength of the Americans and the French virtually guaranteed victory against Great Britain.
France successfully supported the American War of Independence, managing to expel the British and obtain recognition of American independence through the intervention of La Fayette and De Grasse, French military officers, among others. In Virginia, British General Cornwallis surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown, in October 19, 1781. In April 1782, the Commons voted to end the war in America. Anyway, the formal end of the war did not occur until the Treaty of Paris and Treaties of Versailles were signed on September 3, 1783. The last British troops left New York City on November 25, 1783, and the United States Congress of the Confederation ratified the Paris treaty on January 14, 1784.
The Declaration of Independence remains as one of the best-known documents of English written language, and the most potent and consequential words in American history. Some of its most famous passages, like the first and second paragraphs, hold the best clearly ever expressed ideals to promote the rights of marginalized groups, and came to represent for many people a moral standard for which the USA should strive. These words inspired people so important in political history as Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. , or Rosa Parks, and whoever read the first ten lines understands that the United States of America based its principles on solid ground.
One of the inspirers of Thomas Jefferson was the British John Locke, widely known as the Father of Liberalism, who was an English philosopher regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers; his ideas influenced the American revolutionaries, and they can be found all over the Declaration of Independence. Another one of the inspirers was Thomas Paine, who wrote a book called Common Sense, which became an immediate success (it had the largest sale and circulation of any book in Colonial American history). Common Sense presented the American colonists with a powerful argument for independence from Great Britain at a time when the question of independence was still undecided. Thomas Paine wrote and reasoned in a style that common people understood; totally different from the philosophy used by other writers of his era.
Undoubtedly, the English Bill of Right was another inspirer for Thomas Jefferson, although probably the Bill of Rights influenced first John Locke, and then him. I tend to think that very few politicians are considered philosophers nowadays, lacking the kind of respect that all those great human beings enjoyed of. Before positioning ourselves, we should first understand that these minds created a new country from its basis, and it looks like a very difficult task if we add to that that they were also fighting a war against a huge a lethal army, only compared in efficiency to the Roman army. To finish, I cannot think of a better exponent, or standard-bearer, of the Enlightenment era than this brilliant document; it should be studied in secondary school, and not just in college.
Cite this Text Commentary of the Declaration of Independence
Text Commentary of the Declaration of Independence. (2017, Feb 14). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/text-commentary-of-the-declaration-of-independence/