For many Americans, the entirety of the Declaration of Independence can be summed up in Thomas Jefferson’s moving preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator of certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But in fact, the main purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to present a compelling case that King George III and the British Parliament had broken their own laws, leaving the American colonists no choice but to cut ties and to “reject” British rule. To do this, Jefferson and the Continental Congress compiled a long list of grievances – 27 in total – intended to prove to the world that King George was a “tyrant” and an outlaw.
Written as a prosecutor’s opening statement
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This “legalistic” motivation is clear from the language of the Declaration itself, which sounds like a prosecutor’s opening statement: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of name-calling and repeated usurpations, all having as their direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States. To prove it, let the facts be submitted to a candid world.
English law included provisions for dethroning a monarch who broke the law, says Don Hagist, editor of the Journal of the American Revolutionso the Statement served as a sort of “impeachment” proceeding, setting out the charges against the CEO.
“These grievances were a list of charges and charges, a legal argument as to why the king was not following the English laws that were in place at the time,” says Hagist.
The statement was not the first list of colonial grievances
A full decade before the Declaration of Independence, American colonists were infuriated by the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a direct tax on newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, dice and playing cards in an attempt to collect funds for Britain. To protest “taxation without representation”, nine of the 13 colonies convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York and issued a “Statement of Rights and Grievances”.
In this declaration of 1765, the Stamp Act Congress appealed to King George “with warmest feelings of affection” and reserved its wrath in Parliament. The Americans claimed that the Stamp Act and earlier laws like the Sugar Act and the Quartering Act “obviously are intended to overthrow the rights and freedoms of settlers” and would be “extremely burdensome and severe.”
READ MORE: 7 events that enraged the settlers and led to the American Revolution
Then, in 1774, Jefferson wrote a document called “A Summary View of the Rights of British America”, a long, sometimes acid-edged list of grievances that was published as an anonymous pamphlet. Like other colonial leaders, Jefferson was furious that Parliament dissolved several colonial legislatures (including Jefferson’s own House of Burgesses in Virginia) in response to the Boston Tea Party.
“Will these governments be dissolved, their property annihilated, and their peoples reduced to a state of nature, to the imperious breath of a body of men whom they have never seen, in whom they have never confided? ? writes Jefferson. “Can any reason be ascribed why 160,000 electors in the island of Great Britain should give law to four millions in the States of America, each individual of whom is equal to each one of them, in virtue, in intelligence and bodily strength?
Continental Congress meets to draft colonial response
Months later, in September 1774, the First Continental Congress assembled delegates from 12 of the colonies (Georgia was absent) in Philadelphia to draft a coordinated colonial response to the last punitive Acts of Parliament, collectively known as the Intolerable Acts .
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“The purpose of the First Continental Congress was to say that we all need to work together to formalize our objections to what the British government is doing,” says Hagist.
The document they signed on October 14, 1774 was also known as the “Statement of Rights and Grievances”, similar to that produced by the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, and included a list of “offences and Breaches” by Parliament and the Crown. which, in the words of Congress, “demonstrate a system formed to enslave America.”
Grievances in the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was drafted by the Second Continental Congress, which met under very different circumstances. War broke out between the British and the colonies in 1775, so many of the Declaration’s 27 grievances referred to “crimes” committed by the Crown at the outbreak of the War of Independence.
“[King George III] is at this time transporting great armies of foreign mercenaries,” Jefferson wrote in the statement, “to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleling the most barbarous epochs “.
This grievance referred to King George’s use of Hessian “mercenaries” from modern-day Germany to fight on behalf of the British during the Revolutionary War, a move that infuriated the colonists.
Another grievance accused the king of having “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our cities and destroyed the lives of our people”. It was a reference to the bombardment of Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, in 1775. On that occasion, a British naval commander, in revenge for an earlier insult, gave the 3,800 citizens of Falmouth two hours to flee the port city. before razing it with cannon fire.
Other grievances, like “cutting off our trade with all parts of the world”, were long-standing colonial beef with the British. Merchants and traders were the backbone of the colonial economy, but beginning with the Navigation Acts of the 1650s, Parliament sought to control colonial maritime trade. First, goods could only be shipped on British ships. Then they could only be traded with England. And finally, in 1775, all American trade was banned with the outbreak of war.
The colonists sought allies to fight England
The Declaration of Independence was not really written for King George III or Parliament. The Revolutionary War was well underway in the summer of 1776, so England certainly knew where the Americans stood in their demands for independence. Instead, the Declaration and its 27 grievances were intended to prove “to a sincere world”—particularly France and Spain—that “these united colonies are, and by right ought to be, free and independent states”.
For this reason, says Hagist, it was really important that the text of the Declaration of Independence be published abroad. “Of course it would be very high profile to try to get support from anywhere in the world to get support.”
One of the first places the Founders wanted to issue the Declaration of Independence was in France, England’s traditional enemy which had just lost the Seven Years’ War (called the French and Indian War in the United States). The Americans even created a “Committee on Secret Correspondence”, headed by Benjamin Franklin, to send agents to France and other European countries to try to win support for the Revolution.
On July 8, 1776, less than a week after the Declaration was signed, Franklin and his secret committee sent a copy of the document to Silas Deane, an American agent in France, with instructions to translate the Declaration and share it with the royal courts in both France and Spain. But the package for Deane never arrived.
Instead, the first foreign newspapers to print the Declaration of Independence were two London newspapers on August 16, 1776 – “It was very fast by the standards of the day”, says Hagist – followed by newspapers in Scotland, in Germany and Ireland. On August 30, a French-language newspaper in the Netherlands was the first to print the Declaration of Independence in French.
France was instrumental in the American victory in the Revolutionary War, providing around 12,000 troops and 32,000 sailors. France was the first to recognize the United States as an independent nation, and the two countries formed a formal alliance in 1778.