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Background Essay: The Declaration of Independence

Background Essay: Declaration of Independence

Guiding Question: What were the philosophical bases and practical purposes of the Declaration of Independence?

  • I can explain the major events that led the American colonists to question British rule.
  • I can explain how the concepts of natural rights and self-government influenced the Founders and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.

Essential Vocabulary

absolved set free
Boston Tea Party an event in which American colonists threw chests of tea belonging to the British East India Company into Boston harbor as a form of protest against British taxation
conduce to lead or contribute to a desired outcome
ceded given
Coercive Acts a series of acts passed by British Parliament designed to punish Boston after the Boston Tea Party
Common Sense a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine that expressed the desire for colonial independence from Britain
Continental Congress a conference of delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies that discussed ways to oppose the Coercive Acts
dissolved closed down
divest to take something away from someone
mercenaries foreign paid soldiers
posterity future generations of people
quartering to have soldiers live on the property of citizens
rule of law Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws must be stable and justly applied.
sovereign possessing ultimate power
Stamp Act an act passed by British Parliament that taxed all forms of paper in the American colonies, ranging from newspapers to playing cards
suppressed brought to an end
Townshend Acts a series of acts passed by British Parliament that attempted to raise taxes and punish colonial assemblies that refused to follow other laws Parliament had passed
usurpations illegal seizures of powers
Virginia Declaration of Rights a document drafted in 1776 to proclaim the natural rights that all people are entitled to


Directions: As you read the essay, highlight the events from the graphic organizer in Handout B in one color. Think about how each of these events led the American colonists further down the road to declaring independence. Highlight the impacts of those events in another color.

In 1825, Thomas Jefferson reflected on the meaning and principles of the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to a friend, Jefferson explained that the document was an “expression of the American mind.” He meant that it reflected the common sentiments shared by American colonists during the resistance against British taxes in the 1760s and 1770s The Road to Independence

After the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the British sought to increase taxes on their American colonies and passed the Stamp Act (1765) and Townshend Acts (1767). American colonists viewed the acts as British oppression that violated their traditional rights as English subjects as well as their inalienable natural rights. The colonists mostly complained of “taxation without representation,” meaning that Parliament taxed them without their consent. During this period, most colonists simply wanted to restore their rights and liberties within the British Empire. They wanted reconciliation, not independence. But they were also developing an American identity as a distinctive people, which added to the anger over their lack of representation in Parliament and self-government.

After the Boston Tea Party (1773), Parliament passed the Coercive Acts (1774), punishing Massachusetts by closing Boston Harbor and stripping away the right to self-government. As a result, the Continental Congress met in 1774 to consider a unified colonial response. The Congress issued a declaration of rights stating, “That they are entitled to life, liberty, & property, and they have never ceded [given] to any sovereign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent.” Military clashes with British forces at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill in Massachusetts showed that American colonists were willing to resort to force to vindicate their claim to their rights and liberties.

In January 1776, Thomas Paine wrote the best-selling pamphlet Common Sense which was a forceful expression of the growing desire of many colonists for independence. Paine wrote that a republican government that followed the rule of law would protect liberties better than a monarchy. The rule of law means that government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power.

The Second Continental Congress debated the question of independence that spring. On May 10, it adopted a resolution that seemed to support independence. It called on colonial assemblies and popular conventions to “adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce [lead] to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular and America in general.”

Five days later, John Adams added his own even more radical preamble calling for independence: “It is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said Crown should be totally suppressed [brought to an end].” This bold declaration was essentially a break from the British.

“Free and Independent States”

On June 7, Richard Henry Lee rose in Congress and offered a formal resolution for independence: “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved [set free] 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.” Congress appointed a committee to draft a Declaration of Independence, while states wrote constitutions and declarations of rights with similar republican and natural rights principles.

On June 12, for example, the Virginia Convention issued the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a document drafted in 1776 to proclaim the natural rights that all people are entitled to. The document was based upon the ideas of Enlightenment thinker John Locke about natural rights and republican government. It read: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights … they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest [take away] their posterity [future generations]; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

The Continental Congress’s drafting committee selected Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence because he was well-known for his writing ability. He knew the ideas of John Locke well and had a copy of the Virginia Declaration of Rights when he wrote the Declaration. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were also members of the committee and edited the document before sending it to Congress.

Still, the desire for independence was not unanimous. John Dickinson and others still wished for reconciliation. On July 1, Dickinson and Adams and their respective allies debated whether America should declare independence. The next day, Congress voted for independence by passing Lee’s resolution. Over the next two days, Congress made several edits to the document, making it a collective effort of the Congress. It adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4. The document expressed the natural rights principles of the independent American republic.

The Declaration opened by stating that the Americans were explaining the causes for separating from Great Britain and becoming an independent nation. It stated that they were entitled to the rights of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

The Declaration then asserted its universal ideals, which were closely related to the ideas of John Locke. It claimed that all human beings were created equal as a self-evident truth. They were equally “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” So whatever inequality that might exist in society (such as wealth, power, or status) does not justify one person or group getting more natural rights than anyone else. One way in which humans are equal is in possession of certain natural rights.

The equality of human beings also meant that they were equal in giving consent to their representatives to govern under a republican form of government. All authority flowed from the sovereign people equally. The purpose of that government was to protect the rights of the people. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The people had the right to overthrow a government that violated their rights in a long series of abuses.

The Declaration claimed the reign of King George III had been a “history of repeated injuries and usurpations” [illegal taking] of the colonists’ rights. The king exercised political tyranny against the American colonies. For example, he taxed them without their consent and dissolved [closed down] colonial legislatures and charters. Acts of economic tyranny included cutting off colonial trade. The colonists were denied equal justice when they lost their traditional right to a trial by jury in special courts. Acts of military tyranny included quartering, or forcing citizens to house, troops without consent; keeping standing armies in the colonies; waging war against the colonists; and hiring mercenaries, or paid foreign soldiers, to fight them. Repeated attempts by the colonists to petition king and Parliament to address their grievances were ignored or treated with disdain, so the time had come for independence.

In the final paragraph, the representatives appealed to the authority given to them by the people to declare that the united colonies were now free and independent. The new nation had the powers of a sovereign nation and could levy war, make treaties and alliances, and engage in foreign trade. The Declaration ends with the promise that “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Americans had asserted their natural rights, right to self-government, and reasons for splitting from Great Britain. They now faced a long and difficult fight against the most powerful empire in the world to preserve that liberty and independence.

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