3 aims of Declaration
- Directed anger & frustration at the King (list of grievances)
- Created international legitimacy for U.S. as a new nation (get foreign alliances)
- Established a political right to rebellion; it justified treason under certain very specific circumstances
The Declaration said that all men* were created equal & had equal rights. But 60 to 85% of adult white men in the colonies owned property. There was a greater proportion of voters in the colonies than anywhere in the 18th c. world.
The Declaration argued that George III had failed to protect his colonial subjects’ rights- that the King (not just Parliament) was at fault – same reasoning as Paine. Most of the Declaration is list of grievances, to prove Britain had failed to protect colonists’ liberties.
“A long train of abuses & usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.”
Independence – rebellion – was an extraordinary act, a last resort. It required an elaborate justification, abuses compiled, compounded, over years and years.
The Continental Congress did not consider independence for more than a year after the 1st shots were fired at Lexington & Concord. Many colonists did not embrace the decision to declare independence. This included some who believe the British had violated colonists’ basic rights, but that the violation was not enough to warrant rebellion or that the colonists could not possibly win such a rebellion
A Group Effort
Although Jefferson gets the lion's share of historical credit, it was a group effort, including the input of B. Franklin, J. Adams, Roger Sherman, & Robert R. Livingston. In the final stage, members of the Continental Congress offered their suggestions, which were not entirely welcomed by Jefferson.
Last on Jefferson’s list of grievances in his original draft was slavery. In his longest & angriest grievance against the King, Jefferson blamed George III for slavery.
“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.”
Jefferson further blamed King George for Lord Dunmore’s proclamation
“He is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, & to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of the 1 people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
Jefferson’s fellow delegates struck out this last grievance almost entirely. All that is left is ‘he has excited domestic insurrections among us,’ which Franklin wrote.
Abigail Adams complained to John, “I cannot but feel sorry that some of the most manly sentiments in the declaration are expunged.”
The Declaration of Independence was written by a slaveholder, and ever since it has been seen as a challenge Americans should make good on. It has also been used as a template for others declaring independence or asserting rights.