Why Was the Declaration of Independence Written?
The Declaration of Independence was written to announce to the world that the American colonies had chosen to form their own country rather than remain under British rule. Equally important, the document explained exactly why.
By listing their grievances against the British crown, the founding fathers explained that their decision was not one made lightly. The Declaration of Independence was a chance to present the colonies’ case on the world stage and rally support within the colonies and from foreign allies.
The Road to Revolution
By 1775, Great Britain had laid claim to much of America’s east coast through the founding of the 13 original colonies. Millions of people had crossed the Atlantic to pursue the promises of the new world as colonial British citizens.
So what made them decide to cut ties with the crown and establish their own country? The bold move was far from sudden and was actually the culmination of a series of events, some dating back to over a decade before the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
- 1765: The Stamp Act
Seeking to recoup some of its losses from the Seven Years’ War, Britain attempted to impose the first internal tax on American colonists.
- 1767: The Townshend Acts
Britain once more attempted to tax British imports to the colonies, which the colonists argued wasn’t fair since they were not entitled to representation in Parliament.
- 1770: The Boston Massacre
The heightening tensions between the colonists and occupying British troops boiled over on March 5, 1770, when the British forces opened fire on a rowdy group of colonial protestors. John Adams would later write, “On that night, the foundation of American Independence was laid.” Crispus Attucks, a sailor of Black and Native American descent, perished during the altercation, hence why he’s called the “First Martyr of Liberty”.
- 1773: The Tea Act
In 1773, the British government granted the East India Company a monopoly on the sale of tea in the colonies, which did not go over well. On December 16, 1773, a group of colonists boarded one of the company’s ships and dumped 92,000 pounds of British tea overboard during what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party.
- 1774: The Coercive Acts/Intolerable Acts
After the Boston Tea Party, Britain decided it was time to assert its dominance over the colonies by passing a series of measures known as the Coercive or Intolerable Acts.
Boston Harbor was closed until the colonists paid for the tea destroyed in the Boston Tea Party, Massachusett’s democratic government was restricted and British officials became immune to prosecution within its borders, and colonists were required to provide shelter for British troops upon demand.
The Writing of the Declaration of Independence
While the British had expected the Coercive Acts to crush the spirit of rebellion in the colonies, they were in for a nasty surprise. The power struggle between the colonies and the British government had reached epic proportions and soon escalated into violence.
The Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, would become the first in America’s War for Independence. Even as more fighting broke out at the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Boston Seige, many still assumed that the ultimate goal was for the colonies to make peace with Britain under their own terms.
But as King George III amassed more forces to crush the rebellion, it became clear that reconciliation was no longer an option. On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee made an official motion for independence before the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
Upon deciding it was time to make their break with Britain, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a formal statement. Thomas Jefferson wrote the original draft and presented it to Congress, where it was later debated and revised.
The Colonist’s Reaction to the Declaration
After the Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it was time to spread the news. Congress ordered, “That copies of the declaration be sent to several assemblies, conventions, and committees or councils of safety, and to the several commanding officers of the continental troops.”
The Declaration was taken to the shop of a printer named John Dunlap, who printed anywhere between 100- 200 copies, which came to be known as the Dunlap Broadsides. These copies were then circulated to newspapers across the colonies.
On July 9, George Washington ordered the document read aloud in various locations across New York, where the crowd met it with cheers. Later that day, a group of colonists tore down a nearby statue of George III, which was later melted down into musket balls for colonial troops.
With the Revolutionary War already underway, the Declaration of Independence went a long way toward both legitimizing the colonists’ struggle and uniting them under a common cause.
Pivotal Concepts of the Declaration of Independence
Today, many scholars consider the Declaration of Independence “perhaps the most masterfully written state paper of Western civilization.” But Thomas Jefferson didn’t come up with the concepts it outlines on his own.
Jefferson was influenced by the ideals of contemporary political philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had developed the idea of a social contract between individuals and the governments they chose to form.
It was actually Locke who first asserted that all men had the right to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property,” which Jefferson reworded as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But as James Madison put it, “The object was to assert, not to discover truth.” In other words, the point of the Declaration wasn’t so much to uncover brilliant new philosophies about the rights of individuals but to announce to the world that the new country actually planned to act on these ideals.
The Declaration of Independence devotes a great deal of space to outlining why the colonies had chosen to denounce Britain. Equally as important as gaining the support of the colonists themselves was gaining foreign allies, which were vital to the colonies’ fight against the British military.
The Declaration of Independence would become one of the most celebrated documents in American history and a testament to the colonists who were willing to give their own lives in the pursuit of freedom.