Thursday, 4 July 2013


“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” - Nelson Mandela

The Declaration of Independence, in U.S.A history, is the document that was approved by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, announcing the separation of 13 North American British colonies from Great Britain. It explained why the Congress on July 2 “unanimously” by the votes of 12 colonies (with New York abstaining) had resolved that “these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States.” Accordingly, the day on which final separation was officially voted was July 2, although the 4th, the day on which the Declaration of Independence was adopted, has always been celebrated in the United States as the great national holiday, the Fourth of July, or Independence Day.

On April 19, 1775, when armed conflict began between Britain and the 13 colonies (the nucleus of the future United States), the Americans claimed that they sought only their rights within the British Empire. At that time few of the colonists consciously desired to separate from Britain. As the American Revolution proceeded during 1775–76 and Britain undertook to assert its sovereignty by means of large armed forces, making only a gesture toward conciliation, the majority of Americans increasingly came to believe that they must secure their rights outside the empire.

The losses and restrictions that came from the war greatly widened the breach between the colonies and the mother country; moreover, it was necessary to assert independence in order to secure as much French aid as possible.  On April 12, 1776, the revolutionary convention of North Carolina specifically authorised its delegates in Congress to vote for independence. On May 15 the Virginia convention instructed its deputies to offer the motion, which was brought forward in the Congress by Richard Henry Lee on June 7. By that time the Congress had already taken long steps toward severing ties with Britain. It had denied Parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies as early as December 6, 1775, and it had declared on May 10, 1776, that the authority of the king ought to be “totally suppressed,” advising all the several colonies to establish governments of their own choice.

The passage of Lee’s resolution was delayed for several reasons. Some of the delegates had not yet received authorization to vote for separation; a few were opposed to taking the final step; and several men, among them John Dickinson, believed that the formation of a central government, together with attempts to secure foreign aid, should precede it. However, a committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston was promptly chosen on June 11 to prepare a statement justifying the decision to assert independence, should it be taken. The document was prepared, and on July 1 nine delegations voted for separation, despite warm opposition on the part of Dickinson. On the following day at the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia, with the New York delegation abstaining only because it lacked permission to act, the Lee resolution was voted on and endorsed.

The convention of New York gave its consent on July 9, and the New York delegates voted affirmatively on July 15. On July 19 the Congress ordered the document to be engrossed as “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America.” It was accordingly put on parchment, probably by Timothy Matlack of Philadelphia. Members of the Congress present on August 2 affixed their signatures to this parchment copy on that day, and others later. The last signer was Thomas McKean of Delaware, whose name was not placed on the document before 1777.

The Declaration of Independence was written largely by Thomas Jefferson, who had displayed talent as a political philosopher and polemicist in his “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”, published in 1774. At the request of his fellow committee members he wrote the first draft. The members of the committee made a number of merely semantic changes, and they also expanded somewhat the list of charges against the king. The Congress made more substantial changes, deleting a condemnation of the British people, a reference to “Scotch & foreign mercenaries” (there were Scots in the Congress), and a denunciation of the African slave trade (this being offensive to some Southern and New England delegates).

The Declaration of Independence has also been a source of inspiration outside the United States. It encouraged Antonio de Nariño and Francisco de Miranda to strive toward overthrowing the Spanish empire in South America, and it was quoted with enthusiasm by the Marquis de Mirabeau during the French Revolution. It remains a great historical landmark in that it contained the first formal assertion by a whole people of their right to a government of their own choice. What Locke had contended for as an individual, the Americans proclaimed as a body politic; moreover, they made good the argument by force of arms.

Happy Independence Day to all USA readers of this blog!

1 comment:

  1. It is very difficult sometimes. Almost everyone on the planet likes the fact that the Declaration of Independence was the formal assertion by a people of their right to a government of their own choice.

    But what happens if one province eg Quebec wants to be independent? Or one ethnic or religious group within a nation wants a separate government eg the Islamic Brotherhood?

    Making sure that a people have the right to a government of their own choice depends on unlimited good will by the majority. Not always in evidence.