By May of 1775, the American Colonies had their backs to the wall. For ten years relations between England and its American colonies had been deteriorating. Now the cords were about to snap. Earlier, in August, King George III decreed that the colonies were in rebellion and must be crushed militarily. By April he had ordered General Gage to march on Concord and Lexington. The King refused to be pacified.
It had not always been this way. From the time of the first permanent settlement in Jamestown in 1607, the English kings had prized the American colonies. They nurtured and protected them. The colonies were strategically important to England. They were crucial to England's economy and made England a key player among the dominant European powers.
But by the close of the French and Indian War in 1760, some in England began to see America as a threat. Why? The population of the colonies was growing rapidly. Soon more people would be living in America than in England itself. Also, England was fast becoming dependent on American raw materials, meaning that in the future, the colonies might use their growing economic clout to affect British policy.
When America was but a wilderness, it seemed right for the king to let the colonies govern themselves. But now they were going too far. The freedom enjoyed in the American colonies was making some Englishmen jealous. England's internal politics were at stake. Neither the king nor Parliament wanted England to become like America. They wanted America to become more like England. The colonies had to be put in their place.
England had its own problems too. The King had a history of fits of insanity, and his mind had been weakened by medicines for gout. He had never fully recovered to be completely in charge of the government. This gave Parliament a chance to try to take some of the king's power for themselves. Parliament had no authority to govern the colonies because the charters were between the colonies and the king. By flexing its muscle over the colonies, Parliament could take some power from the king, thus increasing Parliament's power and decreasing the king's. And it could establish regulatory control over the colonies before they awoke to the fact of their own economic strength and before they could develop the capacity to resist militarily. It was now or never.
The plan was set. If the colonies submitted to Parliament's control—fine. If not, they would be forced to surrender their charters. And they would have to give up most of the ability of self-government, which they had already come to take for granted.
Between 1760 and 1765, Parliament placed a series of tight restrictions on colonial trade and disallowed an unusual number of colonial laws. In 1765, for the first time, it placed a direct tax on all kinds of printed matter. Knowing that the "Stamp Act" would cause a furor, Parliament had already passed the "Quartering Act." That act meant that British soldiers would live in the colonists' homes—to spy on them, and by their very presence scare the colonists into complying with the Stamp Act.
The plan backfired, leading to the "Stamp Act Crisis." The colonists knew immediately that to buy a single stamp was to surrender all claim to self-government. A colonywide boycott of English goods was declared. British merchants soon appealed to Parliament, and in 1766 the Stamp Act was repealed.
The colonists had refused the bait. They had not been tricked into gradually giving up self-government. Parliament knew it could not allow itself to lose the battle. Stronger measures must be used, and the king was compliant. The same day Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, it passed the "Declaratory Act," which claimed that the colonies were subordinate and that Parliament could pass any law it wished to bind the colonies and people of America.
The Declaratory Act struck directly at the charters. Nothing in the charters gave Parliament such control over the colonies. The charters made the king and the Americans themselves the only rulers of the colonies. Parliament's weaseling in would be nothing less than unconstitutional. To the colonists, the Parliament was usurping the sovereignty that the charters divided between the king and the people in their colonial representatives. Parliament had no more right to govern the colonies than did the ruling bodies of France or Spain.
In 1767 a series of direct taxes was levied by Lord Townshend, the chancellor of the exchequer. The taxes, bad enough in their own right, were enforced out of Boston by the Board of Customs Commissioners, who were little more than bureaucratic racketeers. Honest merchants were convicted without jury trial, so that the members of the board could themselves confiscate one-third of all seizures. England turned a deaf ear to the colonists' complaints of injustice.
Massachusetts responded by sending a "Circular Letter" throughout the colonies to determine what joint action should be taken. Lawyers in the colonies, whether loyalist or not, agreed that Parliament had no authority to tax the colonies or to legislate for the colonies.
The British secretary over the colonies answered the "Circular Letter" by ordering the governor of Massachusetts to dissolve the legislature. British troops were moved to Boston as a show of force. Tensions and agitations grew. Then in March 1770, British soldiers fired into a crowd of townspeople, and news of the "Boston Massacre" raced across the colonies.
The Townshend Acts failed, and most were repealed in April 1770. But again Parliament, refusing to allow the colonists to win, kept one small tax—a tea tax—as a token of control.
In 1773 Parliament opened another round in the sovereignty contest by sending 1,700 chests of tea to colonial ports. The colonists had already refused to buy any tea. But according to Parliament's law, the colonists could be taxed for the tea merely if the tea were unloaded and set on the docks. Lord Townshend could not have cared less if the colonies actually bought and used the tea. More than tea was at stake—it was a matter of power and control.
When the tea ships arrived, the colonists were furious. The first ships went back to England without unloading. But when the ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston in November 1773, Governor Hutchinson would not let it leave. The ship sat at anchor in the harbor for days as Hutchinson planned for the unloading of the tea. Other ships also arrived in the meantime. Since the tax could only be levied when the tea was unloaded, someone decided that the tea would never reach the dock. On the night of December 16, a group of colonists disguised as Indians boarded the vessels and threw the chests of tea overboard while cheering crowds watched.
London was filled with talk of leveling Boston with heavy artillery. Instead, a few months after the incident, Parliament passed the "Intolerable Acts." These included the "Boston Port Act," which closed the harbor until the tea tax should be paid; the "Administration of Justice Act," which allowed the governor to suspend the court system; and the "Massachusetts Government Act," which revised the colony's charter, giving the British more extensive and direct control of all internal affairs.
The other colonies could not stand by while Parliament starved Massachusetts into submission. In September of 1774 the First Continental Congress met at Philadelphia. The Congress passed a declaration condemning the actions of the British since 1763. It went further to form the "Continental Association," an organization to promote and enforce a boycott of all British goods and to stop all exports to Britain.
The king and Parliament responded with force, placing the colonies under martial law. By April 1775, British soldiers were already killing Americans. Also, the king began paying Shawnee Indians to raid frontier settlements and take scalps so that colonial militia would be moved away from the coast, making a British military invasion easier.
So in May of 1775, when the Second Continental Congress met at Philadelphia, the cheers of the tea party onlookers were gone. Now the mood was somber. The life-and-death crisis upon them was obvious to everyone. A grave pall settled over the city of Philadelphia, the mood of seriousness reflected in the drawn faces, creased brows, and low, deliberate tones in the delegates' voices. Men accustomed to laughter and lighthearted humor now exchanged customary jests only with great effort. Their ordinarily amicable greetings were now hurried and anxious, their tense smiles quickly fading as their attention turned to the brooding disaster.
Immediately, they placed George Washington in charge of the defenders of Boston. But before he could leave Philadelphia to assume command, the British attacked. Britain was a world power with the men, the guns, the finances, and the developed economy to carry on an offensive war and crush the colonies. To the men of the Second Continental Congress in 1775, a full-scale defensive war against England seemed impossible. They drafted the "Olive Branch Petition," begging Britain for an end to the use of force.
But the delegates knew from experience that they should not expect the king to restrain his troops. Assuming the worst, they drafted the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms," explaining the right of the colonists to act in self-defense if the British continued with their plan to crush the colonies. As 1775 drew to a close, the only message from England was more force.
With the new year came the British answer. On January 1, 1776, the city of Norfolk was bombed and burned to the ground. The colonists had not misjudged the king. He did not tell his troops to draw back. Instead he had hired German mercenaries to act as assault troops against the farmers in the colonies. The German mercenaries would arrive soon.
Meanwhile, imperial control of the colonial governments tightened. Soon the colonists lost any voice in the ordinary government of their colonies. In May of 1776, the Congress advised all the colonies to set up new governments because the ones already in place were firmly in the king's hands. Virginia was first, passing part one of its new constitution on June 12, 1776, a month before the colonies together declared independence.
Acting on prior instructions from the government at Williamsburg, on June 7, Delegate Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution into Congress calling for a declaration of independence. Virginia wanted the colonies to declare themselves sovereign states. Under the rules of international law, other states could then extend formal recognition and offer military support. Without such aid from the outside, the colonies would be doomed.
While the colonies drafted new constitutions as states, the Congress elected five men to prepare a document claiming nationhood and independence under international law. The five were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. After discussing what form the declaration would take, the committee appointed Jefferson to write the first draft. The committee made a few revisions to Jefferson's draft before sending it to Congress for more revisions. Congress approved the final draft and voted independence on July 2, 1776.
Jefferson's Declaration bore no hint of fear or dread, only intense resolve. Jefferson spoke simply, directly, like a lawyer laying out the points of a criminal indictment. His Declaration reflected the soul as well as the mind of America. It breathed a manly passion; it looked upward to lofty goals. And, point by deliberate point, it marked out the colonists' case.
The Declaration was about what everyone in America knew. New states can be formed; some should be, if before the court of heaven and world opinion the cause is just. Man's law cannot be arbitrary, without insulting the laws of nature and of nature's God. Truth can be known, sometimes so clearly as to be self-evident. God created men, and created them equal, endowing them with inalienable rights—rights that they could not give away and that no one could take from them.
Because God made men and gave them their rights, men create governments under God's law to protect those rights. A government that destroys inalienable rights deserts its purpose and forfeits its right to rule. Men must endure bad government but not a tyrannical one. And this king, George III, is a tyrant. He is not simply a bad ruler, he is a despot and a destroyer.
What makes him a tyrant? He is bent on destruction; the record is clear. He has done everything the political theorists have called tyranny at least since the Puritan revolution of the 1640s. Jefferson listed over thirty reasons, showing that the king was more than a bad or incompetent ruler. He was a tyrant. He had lost his right to rule.
The final paragraph declared the colonies free and independent. The deed was done. The representatives had acted. Now it was up to the people of America and Divine Providence to make the Declaration more than mere words.
Jefferson's Declaration was a masterpiece of law, government, and rights. He tied together with few words hundreds of years of English political theory. The long shadows of the Magna Carta, the common law, Catholic and Calvinist resistance theories, the English Bill of Rights, and the Petition of Right are cast within its lines.
The ideas were not Jefferson's, but the writing was. And it was magnificent. With the king's English, Jefferson parted the king from his colonies. Through the Declaration, America became the direct heir of the best of the British liberal tradition.