Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Declaration of Independence, Part I: Origins

I figured I’d start with something pretty basic.

Even if you've haven’t read it before, you've probably heard of the Declaration of Independence. You probably know that it was written by Thomas Jefferson, and you probably know that it contains the phrase “all men are created equal.” It’s an important document, perhaps one of the most important in the history of the modern world. It’s been reprinted countless times, recited again and again at 4th of July celebrations, and influenced similar declarations by such diverse countries as Venezuela, Liberia and Vietnam. But what is it exactly? And why was it written?

I’ll start by talking about what it’s not. The Declaration is not a legal document. While its text was debated by the assembled delegates to the Continental Congress, it was not a draft bill that was intended to become a law and thus it cannot be enforced. Really, it was the 18th-century equivalent to a press release. Its purpose was to announce and justify the passage of a motion for independence that Congress had been debating for months and finally voted in favour of on July 2nd, 1776.

The Declaration itself was the product of the so-called Committee of Five, which included, in addition to Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston. This group was tasked with drafting a document that would explain the need for independence, both to the population of the 13 colonies and to the world at large. Though records are fragmentary as to who contributed what to the version that was put before the assembled delegates on June 28th, it is commonly accepted that Jefferson was asked to handle the writing duties after the group had come to an agreement on the general tone they wished to pursue. After further editing by members of Congress (or “mangling” as Jefferson called it), the final draft of the Declaration was tabled on July 1st. After the motion for independence was passed on July 2nd, the draft of the Declaration was sent to be printed and distributed, and its first formal reading took place on July 4th.

 Now having said all of that, trying to understand why the Declaration was written is a bit more complicated.

See, by the beginning of the 18th century (that would be the 1700s), Great Britain had accumulated a fairly extensive colonial empire in North America. At the centre of this empire were the so-called Thirteen Colonies: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. These colonies, though not particularly large or prosperous, had growing populations and access to resources that made them potentially very valuable in the long run. They were not, however, the easiest to govern.

Look at a map of the world. See how far apart Britain is from the Eastern seaboard of the United States? Imagine trying to administer just one of those colonies from London, strictly by sending orders by boat. Now imagine a world where sea travel between New York and London takes months. Do you see the problem?

Faced with the reality of possessing a trans-Atlantic empire, British colonial authorities were forced to allow the colonies a great deal of functional autonomy. While each of them had a royal governor (appointed by the monarch), a raft of royal officials (like tax collectors) and a royal charter, they also each had local assemblies that were elected by a segment of the colonial population. These assemblies were responsible for things like taxation, passing laws that concerned land ownership and the militia, and adjudicating local disputes. As a result, over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries these assemblies accumulated certain rights and precedents which the colonists became very protective of.

When, beginning in the 1760s, the British government began to apply particularly aggressive taxes on goods being imported into the Thirteen Colonies, in a way that they hadn't ever before, the colonists reacted by claiming that their traditional rights were being violated and by organizing a series of protests. The cycle of taxation and protest continued back and forth into the early 1770s, at which point a particularly bold display of civil disobedience (the Boston Tea Party) brought about a series of harsh punishments from the British Parliament. Tensions mounted, and in April, 1775 British soldiers moved to seize a store of gunpowder in Massachusetts. Ironically this attempt to squash a potential rebellion before it started provoked an armed response, and the Revolutionary War began. However it was not until the early months of 1776, after a series of battles in Massachusetts and a failed invasion of Canada, that a significant number of Congressional delegates became convinced that formal peace and reconciliation was not on the horizon, and that independence was the only way forward.

And so, while the debate on Independence got under-way, Jefferson and his colleagues were tasked with drawing up a list of grievances and justifications to be presented to the people in the event that the motion passed. What Jefferson ultimately produced, however, was something far more profound. 

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