Historical Context in The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America
The American Colonies: The 15th century opened a new frontier to the kingdoms of Europe: the Americas, a vast and unexplored continent across the Atlantic. It was the start of the Age of Discovery and the Age of Sail. The European kingdoms became ever-expanding empires, racing to claim new colonies overseas and bring riches back to the royal coffers. Spain and Portugal led the charge, followed shortly by France and Britain. Some of Britain’s early colonies were in Virginia, Massachusetts, and New York, along the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States. Many of these settlers were Puritans, Christians looking to practice their own faith in a new land. After decades of slow, difficult progress, the American colonies began to thrive and expand. By the mid 18th century, there were thirteen colonies spanning over 1,000 miles of the Atlantic coast. As the power and wealth of the American colonies grew, their overseers, the British government, became concerned. In an effort to keep the the colonies subservient and in control, King George III and the British parliament placed increasing limits on Americans: higher taxes, fewer trade opportunities, and British armies and courts to keep the Americans in line. The American colonists began to imagine life without the oppressive supervision of the British. They envisioned a new model of governance: a nation ruled by the people. When the colonies gathered the first Continental Congress in 1774 to seize power from the British, the American Revolution had begun.
The Revolutionary War: The first overt conflicts between Britain and the American colonists broke out in Massachusetts, where the British enacted particularly restrictive measures. Militias formed in Boston and attempted to reclaim territory from the British, successfully flushing the occupiers out of the city in early 1776. Soon the Continental Congress had gathered together a fighting force known as the Continental Army and named George Washington its general. The same congress signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776, stating the new nation’s intentions to break free of British control. The British won a swift victory by seizing New York, but in 1777 the tide turned in the favor of the colonies. When a British general tried to capture New England from the British base of Quebec, American forces cornered his troops in Saratoga and won a decisive victory. In 1778, France joined the war on the American side, tipping the balance of power even further toward the revolutionaries. The war raged on in both the North and South until the final blow was struck to the British at the Battle of Yorktown, where combined American and French troops defeated the forces of the British General Cornwallis. By early 1782, the British Parliament voted to pull out of the war. Though the struggle continued in Europe between Britain and France, the United States had won its independence.
The Birth of Modern Democracy: The Declaration of Independence is notable as a statement of values for the budding American nation. These values—self-governance, rights and freedoms for citizens, a careful balance of power—chart the course toward a democratic system. In many ways, these values represent reactions to the monarchy from which the founders freed themselves. The Declaration of Independence lays out, point by point, the grievances felt by those founders as they struggled under an oppressive regime. From each grievance, a desire for liberty arises. Thus, the Declaration of Independence presages the numerous rights which would form the foundation of the US Constitution and, by extension, the political and legal systems of the United States. The Declaration of Independence remains the blueprint for American democracy.
Historical Context Examples in The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America:
Text of the Declaration
"Nature's God..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Many of the founders, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were greatly influenced by deism, a faith system that rejects the revelations and supernatural elements of Christianity, preferring instead to look for proof found in nature. In referring to “Nature’s God,” Jefferson is making a statement that the colonies’ cause is natural and justified, but it falls on them to go and seek independence.
"the Laws of Nature..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Jefferson and many founders were influenced by John Locke’s theory of natural rights. The “Laws of Nature” referred to here is a philosophy of natural law and not scientific law. The theory of natural law follows that the moral standards that govern humanity are directly derived from nature and endowed by God. By referencing the theory, the declaration aims to state that the claims it is making on the colonies’ independence are entitled by a higher power.
"all men are created equal..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This clause is one of the most memorable lines in the declaration and has been cited by civil rights activists and progressives throughout history. The word “men” has historically been used to refer to “humanity” in general, so this statement applies to anyone. However, many of the founders in 1776 were slave owners themselves and chose to not see slaves as equal. Despite the efforts of some, like John Adams, slavery was officially codified as legal in the original US Constitution. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln and other abolitionists fought for emancipation that slavery was declared illegal. Lincoln used this very expression in various speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address, to emphasize that the nation was founded upon a vision of equality.
"July 4, 1776..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
While Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, there is some debate on whether or not this was the intended or the actual date. Some of the founders predicted that July 2nd, 1776 would be considered Independence Day, since they declaration was drafted on the 2nd. However, the Continental Congress signed and passed the declaration on the 4th, and so July 4th was designated as American Independence Day.
"For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This grievance is related to the note, three paragraphs above, about the keeping of standing armies. These concerns about the quartering of British troops in American cities and territories likely gave rise to the Third Amendment to the Constitution, as listed in the Bill of Rights of 1791: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
"with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence,..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This is an intriguing clause because it is not clear in what sense the founders looked to “Divine Providence” for reliance. On the more literal end of the spectrum, such reliance could entail an expectation of divine insight and assistance. On the more figurative end of the spectrum, the statement could be a secular expression of faith—a sense, an optimism even, that ethical action will beget favorable outcomes. This theme of Divine Providence has appeared in the writings of more recent American politicians. One notable example is the Second Inaugural Address of Abraham Lincoln. In that speech, President Lincoln expresses a confidence that the cause of the Union in the Civil War—the eradication of slavery—is divinely mandated. It is a strong claim to say that one is performing God’s work, but in the right hands it makes for powerful rhetoric.
"Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This statement represents a reaction to King George III’s ordinance from February 27th, 1776, which declared that Britain no longer held any responsibility to protect the American colonies, thereby permitting the British army to invade. This passage essentially returns the sentiment: just as Britain no longer recognizes an allegiance, neither do the American colonies.
"appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This reference to “the Supreme Judge of the world” raises to attention one of the central paradoxes of the American political system. On the one hand, the founders strove to eliminate religious belief from governance. To further this aim, they penned a critical clause into the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The separation of church and state has remained a core American value. On the other hand, many of the founders, as well as numerous politicians and presidents since, were Christians. As a result, Christian ideas and values seeped into the intellectual ground upon which the new American nation was built. Many scholars point specifically to deism as the prevailing religious system favored by the founders. Deism acknowledges a God—“the Supreme Judge of the world”—but maintains that humankind must see to the proper stewardship of the world. So it is that the foundational documents of the United States are religious, though only in a broad sense.
"We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here...." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This sentence refers to the origins of American colonists and settlers; those origins are largely British. From as early as 1607, with the founding of Jamestown, Virginia, by English emigrants, North America had been most effectively colonized by the British. Thus, as revolution reared its head in the 1770s, the founders appealed to Britain’s sense of shared roots and blood bonds, what Jefferson refers to later as “consanguinity.” This is an example of an appeal to pathos, to the emotions of the British imperial forces.
"Indian Savages..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This statement reveals the opinions of indigenous Americans held by many British and American colonists. Since the turn of the 16th century, European colonial powers had clashed with indigenous tribes, resulting in the widespread collapse of numerous tribes as a result of disease, warfare, and genocide. Jefferson’s attitude here exemplifies the attitude of the United States government in the following century, a period of ongoing westward expansion and frequent conflict with indigenous tribes. During that time, both the US government and the American settlers who pushed westward generally looked upon indigenous peoples with some combination of fear, disdain, and disinterest.
"endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Beginning in 1775, the American colonies fought for independence on two fronts. In the Eastern Theater, they fought against the British occupiers. In the Western Theater, they fought against the indigenous tribes along the Ohio River, namely the Iroquois, Shawnee, Mingo, Delaware, and Wyandot peoples. The British had coerced the Iroquois into an alliance and sought to do the same with the other tribes, with mixed success. The British continually attempted to turn the indigenous tribes against the American colonials, which Jefferson bitterly refers to here.
"constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In this item, Jefferson refers to the British Navy’s policy of impressment, a recruiting tactic by which the navy would force the sailors on captured ships into military service. During the Revolutionary War, the British committed impressment on American naval and merchant ships, forcing the sailors to fight against their fellow Americans. For three decades, the British continued to impress American merchant ships on the Atlantic in order to recruit more sailors to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Britain’s ongoing impressment policy was one of the primary causes of the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain.
"He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people...." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
By the time of the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the American Revolutionary War was well underway. The violent acts perpetrated by the British, which Jefferson lists here, were acts of war. Jefferson presents these acts as incursions and invasions because the war was fought almost exclusively on American, rather than British, soil. Therefore the war endangered the lives and property of civilians on the American side alone. This climate of invasion spurred Jefferson to write of the British attacks in such colorful, literary language. Piratical verbs such as “plundered,” “ravaged,” “burnt,” and “destroyed” paint a barbarous portrait of the British army, thereby underscoring the Americans’ desire to revolt.
"He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us...." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Here Jefferson refers to the act of British Parliament—assented to by King George III on February 2nd, 1776—whereby the Kingdom of Great Britain effectively declared war on the American colonies. The act, triggered by clashes with revolutionary militias in Massachusetts, rescinded the King’s protection of the thirteen colonies, thereby officially permitting the British army to attack them.
"For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In 1774, King George III and the British parliament passed and enacted the Quebec Act. The act secured the loyalty of the French province of Quebec by granting its people the right to practice Catholicism, a faith generally disfavored in England since the founding of the Anglican Church in 1534. The primary purpose of the act was to expand the territory of Quebec down into the American Midwest, allowing the British to establish a forward army base in potential future conflicts with the American colonies. This move, both aggressive toward the colonists and unusually friendly toward the French, further aggravated the American colonists.
"the benefits of Trial by Jury:..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Between 1764 and 1768, the British government established a number of military courts in the American colonies in order to enforce the measures and laws of parliament. The Americans brought to trial in these courts, most of them prosecuted for illegal trading, were judged and sentenced without a jury. Americans came to understand the importance of a jury of citizens—impartial to the defendant, the plaintiff, and the court itself—in all trials. In 1789, the Sixth Amendment was added to the Constitution, stating that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed….” To this day, Americans maintain the right to a trial by jury.
"For imposing taxes on us without our Consent:..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In this item, Jefferson addresses the issue of taxation, considered by many historians to be the single most important cause of the American Revolution. In the 1760s a number of Americans began to discuss the problem that the colonies were being taxed without having any representatives in the British parliament. This state of affairs was illegal under the English Bill of Rights of 1689, according to which citizens could not be taxed without the consent of their parliamentary representatives. As a result, “No taxation without representation!” became an increasingly popular rallying cry among American revolutionaries.
"For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Here Jefferson is referring to one of the aspects of British imperial rule most loathed by the American colonists. Beginning in 1660, Britain severely restricted the American colonies’ capacity to conduct trade. Laws such as the Navigation Acts and the Staples Act forced the American colonies to trade with Britain alone. Tariffs and trade stipulations enforced a net loss of wealth for the American colonies, forcing them into an ongoing state of subservience. This trade restriction proved to be a central point of contention and encouraged the colonies to rally together in revolt.
"He has erected a multitude of New Offices..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The “multitude of New Offices” refers to the proliferation of British military courts in the American colonies. These courts were established at the command of the British government in order to more strictly enforce the trade restrictions passed down from the British parliament. Because these courts acted outside the colonial governments, the American colonies considered them fraudulent nuisances. Hence the metaphor of “swarms of Officers.”
"He has made judges dependent on his Will alone..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In 1761, the British parliament ruled that all judges in the colonies would have their tenures entirely determined by King George III. In New York, the judges went on strike, refusing to continue working unless a law was passed which ensured their continued employment under conditions of proper behavior. The British government reacted by delegitimizing any colonial laws passed with regard to the tenures of judges. After the revolution, these issues were addressed in the drafting of the US Constitution. Article III states that “Judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in Office.”
"raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands...." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In the 1760s, King George III became concerned that the American colony was growing too populous and powerful to control. The king attempted to limit migration to the American colony, from England and elsewhere. In the Royal Proclamation of 1763, the king prohibited American colonists from settling west of the Appalachians. The sole purpose of this ruling was to limit the opportunities for settlement available to the colonists, for fear they might become wealthy and independent on the vast, rich lands of the new continent. American colonists, poor and wealthy alike, were enraged by these royal limitations.
"obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
At the time of Jefferson’s writing, Britain and the American colonies held opposing views on the question of naturalization. The British, in their laws and attitudes, resisted granting citizenship to foreign-born persons. In essence, their parliamentary laws required potential new citizens to be wealthy Protestants, prepared to undergo an expensive case-by-case vetting process in court. The American colonists saw the enormous economic value of naturalizing foreigners, and fought to create a broader, more streamlined process. The Plantation Act of 1740 marked a step in this direction, allowing foreigners to easily apply for English citizenship after seven years spent living in a colony. By 1776, however, the Continental Congress realized that naturalization was but one of many irreconcilable issues between the colonies and England.
"He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This grievance refers to the occasional orders King George issued in an effort to dissolve any legislative groups that defied him. For instance, in 1768 the Massachusetts Bay colony’s house of representatives drafted an open letter addressed to the British government, accusing it of hampering the freedom of Americans. When King George III read the letter, he ordered the governor of Massachusetts to dissolve the representative assembly that had written the letter.
"unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The cause of this grievance was a series of instances in the Massachusetts Bay and Virginia colonies. In both colonies, the governors, following British orders, moved the meeting sites of the legislative assemblies to new locations. The new sites were so distant from where the public records were kept that the legislators were effectively prevented from conducting business. This made it easier for the British parliament to pass their own measures uncontested.
"the United States of America..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Despite its mention here, the United States of America had not been the name for the collected representation of colonies. Two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress formally declared the new nation’s name the “United States of America,” replacing the name “United Colonies.”
"He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This grievance states that King George III refused to pass laws unless his subjects gave up their right to be represented in the legislature. Colonies such as New Hampshire, New York, and South Carolina passed laws to establish new districts with elected representatives, all of which the king refused to confirm. The king’s refusal was likely based on the concern that the growing colonies could add more representatives that served their interests instead of Britain’s. Since Jefferson and the Continental Congress have firmly established that government serves at the consent of the governed, they consider the king’s actions as serving the needs of a tyrant.
"He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In addition to refusing to offer his “Assent to Laws,” King George III forbade his governors from approving legislation within their own jurisdictions. This grievance follows the previous one by clarifying that King George III not only refused legislation submitted to him but also that he actively forbade his governors from passing laws without his explicit approval. By sharing these two grievances in tandem, Jefferson demonstrates the poor, tyrannical statesmanship the king has exhibited towards the colonies.
"Despotism..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The noun “despotism” refers to a political system controlled by a despot, or absolute authority, and has strong, negative connotations. The founders use such language to characterize the rule of King George III, and American activists and politicians have used the word to describe institutions and government influences that have gone, or potentially could go, too far. For example, in his essay “Reconstruction,” Frederick Douglass uses “despotic” to clarify his preference for a federal government that is strong but not severe. He states his opposition to governments that abuse their power and oppress their people.
"these Colonies..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The thirteen colonies included Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, South Carolina, and Virginia. The British Government had ruled over them from 1733 through 1776, the point at which the “abuses and usurpations” of King George III’s rule led the colonies to declare independence.
"Congress..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
Today, the term “Congress” most commonly refers to the legislative branch of the United States federal government. The Declaration of Independence uses another definition: a coming together of persons for a meeting; the assembling of a group. The “Congress” referred to in the declaration was the Continental Congress, who met to sign the document. The Continental Congress was the first “Congress”—referring to a representative, governing body—in the United States’ history.
"a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In this passage, the “others,” the “jurisdiction foreign to our constitution,” and the “Acts of pretended legislation” all refer to the British parliament and its laws. The core of this grievance is that the British parliament does not, and should not, have legislative control over the American government. Though it was expected for the king to assent to the acts of parliament, the American colonists frame the king’s assent as a fraudulent move. As with many of the grievances listed here, there is an underlying assumption that the American colonies have, and deserve, a high degree of autonomy and self-governance.
"Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures...." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
From 1754 to 1763, the Kingdom of Great Britain waged war against France in the Seven Years War. One theater of the war took place in North America in what is known as the French and Indian War. When the war ended in 1763, the American colonists expected the British troops to leave the colonies and return home to Britain. To their dismay, the British troops stayed on permanently in an effort to enforce King George III’s rulings and demands. In an even more aggravating act, the king forced the American colonists to pay for the British standing armies through taxation. The situation further prompted a desire for rebellion among the overly taxed and overly monitored Americans.
"his Assent to Laws..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In the England parliamentary system of the 18th century, the king had absolute power over all legislation produced in parliament. All newly passed laws were sent to the king, who could either offer his “Assent to Laws” or refuse it, essentially vetoing the measure. Since there was no effective system of checks and balances, the king’s choice was final. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the American colonist grew disgruntled at King George’s frequent vetoing of laws they viewed as useful, particularly those proposed by American legislatures.
"To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world...." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This sentence is crucial for two reasons. First, it declares the methods by which the Continental Congress will prove the validity of the American revolt. That method is the submittal of “Facts.” True to the Enlightenment ideals which guided the deeds of the founding fathers, the Declaration of Independence represents an argument based on evidence and reason. This is the essence of the rhetorical appeal Aristotle called logos—logic is the method. Second, this sentence gestures to the audience of the declaration: neither the British Empire nor King George III himself, but rather “a Candid world”—“candid,” in this case, meaning impartial and unbiased. The founding fathers knew that, as a colony wresting their independence from imperial control, their actions were historically unprecedented. They knew the world would be watching, and they were right. The American Revolution created a new paradigm for nations breaking free from monarchy and establishing democratic self-governance.
"King of Great Britain..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The King of Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution was King George III (1738–1820). George III reigned from 1760 to 1820, the third-longest in British history. During his time as king, he oversaw the Seven Years War against France, the Revolutionary War against the American colonies, and the Napoleonic Wars against France. While many in England remember him as an effective domestic leader who contributed to the country’s wealth through agricultural expansion, he is often remembered in the United States as the quintessential tyrant, the monarch from whom America wrested its independence.
"it is their duty, to throw off such Government..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
In the history of political theory, there has long existed a dichotomy between rights and duties, two related but opposing necessities of free citizens. Governments give rights to citizens; citizens perform duties in order to properly engage in society. Rights are more a matter of legislation; duties more a matter of principle. Both are critical to the maintenance of a free, democratic state. Mahatma Gandhi once criticized “the farce of everybody wanting and insisting on his rights, nobody thinking of his duty.” The founding documents of the United States describe at length the rights of its citizens. This passage is therefore notable because it states that citizens have both the right and the duty to “throw off” despotic governments. While the governments of free states cannot delineate the duties of its citizens—at the risk of resembling a despot—here Jefferson encourages Americans to take up their duty as individuals to fight for freedom.
"Governments are instituted among Men..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This sentence sets forth a broad definition for democracy, the political system which would define and guide the creation of the American state. In a democracy, the decisions of the state are made by its citizens and the officials of the state are elected by its populace. The American democratic system is very much a reaction to the autocratic regime of Britain: the United States employs an intricate systems of “checks and balances” to ensure that no single individual, party, or entity can accumulate an unwarranted amount of power. Three quarters of a century later, President Abraham Lincoln expressed this system best when, in his legendary “Gettysburg Address,” he praised “that government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
"deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
This clause represents another influence that political philosopher John Locke had on the founders. In chapter VIII of his Second Treatise of Government, Locke writes that “no one can be put out of this estate [being free, equal, and independent], and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” The noun “consent” is of importance here and forms the foundation of democracy: consent requires voluntary agreement, or permission. This means that no one can rule without the approval of those over whom they rule.
"Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The founders were greatly influenced by the political philosophers of their time, and the listing of these three rights demonstrates this. In John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, he says “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” While the founders have changed a few words, the meaning is nearly the same: these constitute rights that everyone possesses and that no one can remove.
"the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The founders make it very clear that they believe the citizens must control the future of a country, even if that means abolishing the government to create a new one. This line sets the foundation for the United States Constitution but also sets the stage for the country’s greatest test just eighty-five years later, when the Southern states sought to secede from the Union, declare independence, and form their own Confederacy.
"the Powers of the earth..." See in text (Text of the Declaration)
The noun “power” has a multitude of meanings, but considering the political context, Jefferson’s meaning becomes clear: by “Powers,” Jefferson means the political entities, kingdoms, and nations around the world. Specifically, Jefferson was likely referring to the European colonial powers. At the time of writing, for a former colony to declare itself independent and deserving of equal status as a nation was practically unheard of.