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.
This single opening sentence of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence displays brilliantly the ability of the document’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson, to convey a wealth of meaning in just a few elegant words. It announces the Americans’ intention of declaring their independence, of dissolving “the political bands” that had connected them to England. The justification for this extraordinary act was to be found in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Jefferson, a deist who did not believe that God played an active hand in the affairs of mankind, nevertheless did believe that certain natural laws were God-given. This first sentence also signals Jefferson’s awareness that a compelling public statement of the reasons for the decision to seek independence from England was necessary if America’s political leaders were going to earn the support not only of the people of their own colonies but, equally important, of foreign nations like France, whose support for the American military effort against England was considered crucial. Before declaring those “causes which impel them to separation,” however, Jefferson lays out the general philosophy on which America’s quest for independence was founded.
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.
The ideas embodied in the powerful opening lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration were not Jefferson’s alone. The late seventeenth-century English political philosopher John Locke had written in his Second Treatise of Civil Government that “life, liberty, and estate” were among the “natural rights” of mankind; they were rights that existed even before governments were created, at a time when mankind was living in a “state of nature.” Jefferson’s fellow Virginian George Mason, again following Locke, had included in the preamble of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, penned just a few weeks before Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights,” which he described as “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” But Jefferson’s language has more forceful simplicity. The assertion that “all men are created equal” was in 1776 more an as-yet-unfulfilled promise than a statement of political fact, but it has helped to define some of the highest aspirations of the American nation throughout its history.
The opening lines of the second paragraph were, in fact, merely a preface to the real punch line of that paragraph: the assertion of the right to rebel against the government of England. Jefferson reminds his audience that the very purpose of government is to protect the natural rights of mankind. Since governments, at the time of their creation, base their authority on the consent of the people whom they are governing, then it is also the right of the people “to alter or to abolish” that government if its actions threaten the very liberties it was created to protect. Realizing the dangers of living in a society without government, Jefferson was quick to add that once the people had severed their connection with their government, they must move to form new governments whose principles and powers would be supportive of the people’s “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 suffer-able, 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.
The men representing their colonies in the Second Continental Congress had reached the decision to declare independence reluctantly, even painfully. They had a deep reverence for English common law and indeed for the body of law and custom that they called the “English constitution.” And nearly up to the moment of independence, many of those leaders expressed great affection for the institution of the monarchy. For all those reasons, the men who endorsed the Declaration of Independence wished to emphasize that their decision was not one arrived at rashly—that they had done everything within their power to find some alternative to the decision to revolt against the authority of the Crown, and that only the “long train of abuses” and the “repeated injuries and usurpations” committed by King George III had driven them to this final, decisive action.
Although Jefferson and those endorsing his Declaration were no doubt sincere in their protestations that independence was only a last resort after all other peaceful means of protecting their liberties had been exhausted, the Declaration’s description of the actions and motives of the English king and government is hardly an evenhanded recitation of the facts of the case. There is an element of hysteria—or perhaps of exaggeration for the purposes of propaganda—in the charge that the actions of the king and his government were deliberately designed to “reduce them [the American colonists] under absolute Despotism,” or that the entire reign of King George III, an imperfect but not evil sovereign, had been aimed at establishing an “absolute Tyranny” over the Americans. But given the purposes of the Declaration—to persuade an uncertain American public that revolution was the last and best hope and to persuade foreign nations to give their aid to that revolution—evenhandedness was not Jefferson’s highest priority. And so what followed was a long list—taking up more than two-thirds of the whole document—of the grievances that had impelled Americans to take such desperate measures.
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 until 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 meantime 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 harrass 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:
14. For quartering large bodies of troops among us;
15. For protecting them by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States;
16. For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world;
17. For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent;
18. For depriving us in many cases of the benefits of Trial by Jury;
19. For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences;
20. 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.
21. For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.
22. For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
23. He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
24. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
25. 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 and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
26. 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.
27. 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.
The opening paragraphs of the Declaration display the talents of Thomas Jefferson as a literary stylist and a political philosopher. In the list of specific grievances, we see Jefferson the lawyer at work. It is an exhaustive—and wholly one-sided—bill of indictment of British rule in America. On the one hand, there is a monotony to the recitation of each of the twenty-seven grievances, but on the other hand, as the list of grievances accumulates, Jefferson’s tone, much like that of a prosecuting attorney delivering his summation to a jury, grows steadily more belligerent, more heated in its sense of outrage at British depredations. Nor is it merely the British actions that elicit contempt; even worse is the British intent. The British government and the British king in particular are portrayed as guilty, not merely of bad policies, but also of proceeding with malevolent motives.The grievances laid out in the Declaration are not merely constitutional; they are also intensel y personal.
In the years leading up to independence, the colonists directed most of their petitions and complaints at the British parliament. They often prefaced those petitions to Parliament with expressions of their pride and loyalty as British subjects and their affection, even reverence, for both the institution of the monarchy and the person of the monarch himself, King George III. But by 1776, the Americans had reached the point where they were denying that Parliament had any authority over them whatsoever. If Parliament had no authority, then why even waste time addressing that body? Consistent with its denial of parliamentary authority, the Declaration studiously avoids any mention of Americans as British subjects. It speaks of the Americans’ fundamental rights as a “people,” and it lays the blame for the people’s travail squarely on King George III—the “He” to whom most of the grievances refer. This decision to direct their ire at the king rather than Parliament signaled the Americans’ intention to affect a fundamental shift in their allegiance, to sever altogether their relationship with their mother country, as represented by the king.
Buried in the long list of grievances—seventeenth of the twenty-seven—is the complaint with which the conflict with England ultimately began, and from which nearly all the other grievances flowed: the denunciation of the king “for imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.” The American insistence that the British parliament had no right to tax them without their consent provoked the first sustained colonial protests, beginning with the Sugar and Stamp Acts of 1764 and 1765, respectively, and continuing with the Townshend duties in 1768 and the Tea Act in 1773. That this particular grievance appears in the middle of the list suggests how far the Americans had come in their opposition to British control over their affairs. The British attempts to tax the colonies were an important catalyst for what would ultimately become a revolution, but they were only that; the real causes of the American Revolution went much deeper, to the very idea that only Americans themselves could be responsible for their own governance.
There were several grievances that emerged as a direct consequence of the British decision to tax the colonies. The tenth grievance accuses the king of sending “swarms of Officers to harrass our people,” an accusation that no doubt refers to the British government’s decision to send additional customs officers to America to attempt to collect the new taxes imposed on the Americans. The eleventh grievance condemns the king for sending “Standing Armies” to America “in times of peace.” From the British point of view, the troops were sent to aid the customs officers in carrying out their duties and to keep the peace in a situation that, from Parliament’s perspective, was growing increasingly disorderly. From the American point of view, however, the decision to send the troops was one of the most ominous, for it raised the specter of military despotism and made an already volatile situation even more so. Adding insult to injury, the decision to send troops to America was accompanied by another parliamentary act that ordered Americans to provide lodging for those troops—the subject of the fourteenth grievance. The thirteenth grievance, one of the most convoluted in the list, charges the king with combining “with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution.” Those “others” were apparently the British parliament, which in the Declaratory Act of 1766 had asserted its right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever,” and the Board of Trade, which was charged with implementing and enforcing the new taxes imposed on the Americans.
A significant number of the grievances—nine in all—deal with encroachments on the rights of the provincial legislatures of the colonies. The king is blamed for refusing to approve laws passed by those legislatures (number 1); for instructing his governors to prevent laws already passed from going into effect (number 2); for not allowing laws to go into effect unless the people give up their right to representation in the legislature (number 3); for calling the legislatures into session at times and in places that make it difficult for them to do their business (number 4); for forcing colonial legislatures to adjourn and then preventing them from doing their business, against their wishes (number 5); for refusing to call for new elections of representatives, making it impossible for new sessions of the legislatures to begin their business and leaving the colonies without functioning governments (number 6); for refusing to agree to laws establishing provincial courts, thus threatening the colonists’ control over their own judicial powers (number 8); for revoking the charters of government under which the colonies operate and, in the process, abolishing their laws (number 21); and, finally, for suspending—and in effect abolishing—some of the colonies’ legislatures, thereby depriving the colonies of their right to govern themselves (number 22).
It is not at all surprising that the Declaration of Independence would devote so much space in its list of specific grievances to encroachments on the provincial legislatures. Nearly all the members of the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration were members of those legislatures. They had taken pride in the independence and autonomy of their legislatures—they considered them to be American versions of the House of Commons. But as the conflict with England escalated, royal governors and other agents of the king not only threatened the independence and autonomy of the colonial legislatures but also the prestige and power of the provincial legislators themselves. The Americans viewed these encroachments on their legislatures therefore not merely as constitutional threats but also as intensely personal assaults on their prestige and dignity.
Several of the grievances deal with the imperial government’s interference with American judicial processes: making colonial judges dependent on the British government for their continuation in office and for their salaries (number 9); depriving the colonists of the right of trial by jury (number 18); attempting to transport some colonists accused of crimes back to Great Britain, to be tried there, rather than in colonial courts (number 19); and protecting British troops, “by mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States” (number 15). This last grievance, which most likely refers to the trial of the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre in 1770, was not wholly fair. Although the British soldiers accused of killing five Bostonians in a scuffle were acquitted, they did receive a fair trial; indeed the American patriot leader John Adams stepped forward to defend them.
If the American grievances began with taxation and gradually extended to perceived threats to colonial legislative and judicial processes, still other grievances came to the fore in the years immediately preceding independence; it was these grievances that provided much of the emotional dynamic in the American opposition to British rule. When, in response to the Boston Tea Party, Parliament passed the package of acts that came to be known as the Coercive Acts, Americans faced new, and increasingly ominous, threats to their liberties. The Massachusetts Government Act had the practical effect of replacing Massachusetts’s royal government and charter with a military government headed by General Thomas Gage, actions reported in the twelfth and twenty-first grievances, which accuse the king of rendering the military superior to civilian power and of “altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.” The sixteenth grievance, which complains of British edicts that cut off American trade “with all parts of the world,” was a response to the Boston Port Act, which closed Boston’s port to all trade until the town’s citizens paid for the tea they had thrown into the harbor. The twentieth grievance amounts to a broad-brushed, and somewhat unfair, attack on the Quebec Act. The intention of that act was to take the first steps in organizing the vast territories in Canada that England had acquired after its victory over France in the Seven Years’ War. The act made no provision for representative assemblies in that territory—a step the Americans interpreted, or perhaps misrepresented, as a prelude to an attack on all representative government in the thirteen main-land English colonies.
The final five grievances on the list build to a crescendo of outrage over British actions occurring after the outbreak of actual warfare in April of 1775. The twenty-third grievance acknowledges the reality of the state of war but places blame for that state entirely on the king. The twenty-fourth grievance, with its charge that the king has “plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people,” may have been technically true, for that is the nature of warfare, but it was certainly a one-sided depiction of the growing military conflict between the two sides. The twenty-fifth grievance, which condemns the king for sending foreign mercenaries—German Hessian soldiers—to help the British army fight its war to subdue the colonies, escalates the war of words still further with its charge that the whole aim of those foreign troops was to “compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny,” all carried out in a manner that was “scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages.” In December 1775, after reading and rejecting the so-called Olive Branch Petition from the Continental Congress, King George III declared the colonies in a state of rebellion, and in support of that declaration, Parliament passed the Prohibitory Act, effectively declaring war on American commerce on the high seas and making any sailor on an American merchant ship liable to seizure and subsequent impressment into service in the British navy. The twenty-sixth grievance, with its lament that the victimized Americans were being forced to “become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their own Hands,” once again lays the blame not at the doorstep of Parliament, but at that of the king.
The final grievance in the Declaration’s list, the twenty-seventh, is extraordinary in several ways. The immediate source of the grievance was the proclamation of Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, who promised freedom to any of Virginia’s slaves who deserted their masters to fight on the side of the British. There is considerable irony, as well as tragedy, in the fact that it was Lord Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves who joined the British cause that convinced Virginia’s slave-owning class that the British were intent on robbing them of their liberties—indeed intent on enslaving them. Nor was it the inciting of “domestic insurrections” alone that alarmed Americans. That final grievance goes on to denounce the king for inciting the “merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions” to make war against white English colonists. While the king and Parliament were hardly blameless in the matter of inciting Indian violence on the American frontier, the American colonists themselves, by their relentless move westward onto Indian lands, did most of the inciting. And the description of the “known rule of warfare” of the “merciless Indian Savages” is the most shockingly ethnocentric piece of language to appear in any of America’s founding documents. Thomas Jefferson, when he penned those words, may have thought that they would strengthen his fellow colonists’ commitment to band together to fight the English foe, but the words would bring no credit upon the author.
In his initial draft of the Declaration, Jefferson included one other item in the bill of indictment against the king. It is extraordinary both in its length relative to the other specific grievances in the Declaration and in the passion with which it is articulated. It read:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty, in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market in which MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people among whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Clearly, the American colonists were not innocent and unwilling victims of British attempts to impose the institution of slavery upon them. And of course Jefferson’s own history as a slaveholder—he owned at least one hundred, and perhaps as many as two hundred, slaves at the time he wrote those lines—raises doubts about the consistency, if not the sincerity, of his indictment of British complicity in the slave trade. As things turned out, Jefferson’s statement of principle, if that is what it was, did not survive the drafting committee’s review. As Jefferson recalled, his condemnation of the slave trade “was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it.”
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 Brittish 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 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.
Having presented its bill of indictment, the Declaration reminds its intended audience that the colonists had done everything possible to seek a peaceful resolution of their grievances, only to be rebuffed by further encroachments on their liberty. And, once again taking aim at George III, it notes that a ruler who is so deaf to the legitimate pleas of his people is nothing other than a tyrant, “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Nor was it the king alone who had turned a deaf ear to the colonists’ pleas. The Americans had warned their “British brethren” of the injustices committed upon them, but the British people as well seemed “deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity.” Reluctantly, the Americans were forced to the conclusion that “we must . . . hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.” This severance of the kinship between the British subjects of the king and the people of America represented yet another step toward an irrevocable separation between mother country and colonies.
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.