AnAnalysis of the Declaration of Independence of the USA
The Declaration of Independence is undoubtedly one of the most famous and influential political documents in modern history. It was the genesis of the United States of America, which became the greatest force for good followed the decline of the British Empire in the 1940s. 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness' (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101) is up there with 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité' and 'Your Country Needs You' in the list of great political slogan. The Declaration of Independence is viewed as a statement of republican democracy against imperial dictatorship. American farmers against a foreign king and empire. This is a common but misleading reading of the Declaration of Independence. As will be shown in this essay, the meaning of the document is not this. It is a statement that demands traditional rights, not revolutionary change.
The background of the Declaration is as important as the influences on it. From the Declaration itself, you would imagine the Colonists were under the heel of a police state headed by a foreign dictator:
'But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism…' (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101)
However, the reality was very different. In the Seven Years War (1757 to 1763), much of New France (Situated in the middle of modern day Canada and the American Mid-west) was a part of the British Empire and this weakened the French power in the Americas. During the War, the British had been fighting on five difference continents and local militias were raised. The Thirteen Colonies raised their own military forces which took part in the North American theatre of the War (Known more commonly as the French & Indian War). This war gave colonists a taste for expansion. The British Government on the other hand was not in the mood for another war with the French after 1763, because of Britain wanted to consolidate their gains and was also heavily in debt. To secure this, the British signed treaties with the Indians on the borders to act as a buff zone against the French. After the war, the British began to take on the smuggling in a serious way and raised taxes to pay for the troops stationed in colonies to enforce the Indian treaties and the colonies themselves. The Colonists viewed this as undue inference and un-English. And this is important, the colonists viewed themselves as Englishmen as well as Americans and the identity of the colony they lived in. The acts of the British government were depriving hem of the their traditional rights. The Declaration was based on the colonists view of the British Constitution. The orthodox view was that Parliament had supremacy across all British territories whether they elected members of Parliament or not. The Colonist view was that Parliament only governed Great Britain and therefore could not impose tax on the thirteen colonies. This is defined in the Declaration as (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101):
'For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent'
This interpretation of the British Constitution comes directly from John Locke's 'The Second Treatise of Government'. In Chapter 13-Of the subordination of the powers of the commonwealth (Liberal Arts Press, New York, 1952, page 84), Locke writes:
'the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or altar when they find them contrary to the trust reposed in them…'
Locke's view of government and politics were heavily influential on the Declaration and latterly the Constitution. The references to traditional rights and the historical bonds with Great Britain are prominent in the second to last paragraph (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101):
'We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence.'
Throughout the declaration, the references to traditional rights and the historical bonds are numerous. This was an attempt to bring the loyalists or Tories who were opposed independence and supported the British crown.
In the descriptions of King George III's abuses are reminiscent of line from Magna Carta. For Example, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights' from the Declaration (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101) is similar to 'TO ALL FREE MEN OF OUR KINGDOM we have also granted, for us and our heirs for ever, all the liberties written out below, to have and to keep for them and their heirs, of us and our heirs', from clause one of Magna Carta (http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10000/pg10000.txt). Magna Carta was a major influence on boththe signatories and John Locke. The colonists could see a parallel between the Barons forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta and themselves declaring independence from King George. There is another parallel with the Barons and the signatories is that their words were taken and used by people who they were never intended for. The words of 'To all free men of our Kingdom' (http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10000/pg10000.txt) from the Magna Carta and the line from the declaration 'all men are created equal' (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101) were taken out of context by people. The idea that the signatories to the Declaration meant that they believed that men of all colour and creed were equal is wrong. A third of the 56 signatories were slave owners including two of the authors of the declaration itself, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson's view was that blacks were inferior to whites, therefore he did not believe all men are equal. The following phrase is probably the most famous in the whole Declaration:
'…certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness' (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101).
For all it's fame, people cannot generally explain it, especially when it comes to the 'pursuit of Happiness'. Life as an unalienable right is generally accepted today as the first and foremost human right, now known as the right to life. Liberty is slightly more difficult, but can be explained with ease. At www.thefreedictionary.com, Liberty is defined in a number of ways, but the definition that the signatories would have understood as 'Freedom from unjust or undue governmental control' and 'The right and power to act, believe, or express oneself in a manner of one's own choosing' (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/liberty). So Liberty to the signatories was not to be taxed without representation. However, 'the pursuit of Happiness' does not seem to make any sense what so ever. It's well and good to give people the right to find happiness, but how do you define it. To the signatories, the pursuit of happiness would have most likely have been the right not to be overtaxed and to be involved in their own government.
In the list of 'King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations' (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101), there are references to the war which had begun in April 1775. There were references to the Hessian mercenaries serving in the British army:
'He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny…' (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101)
And a reference to the warfare itself:
'He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country…' (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101)
Again there is a stark difference between the view given in the declaration and reality. By the signing of the Declaration (4th July 1776), the British force in Massachusetts had been defeated in their Boston Campaign (18th April 1775 to 17th March 1776) and withdrawn to New York and New Jersey where the British were beginning a disastrous counter-offensive. The Continental forces had only one major defeat at Bunker Hill, during which the British lost more men than the Continentals did. The Hessian mercenaries hadn't only been deployed in the colonies at the time of the Declaration's writing and signing. The Hessians first arrived in the colonies on 15th August 1776 and their first major engagement was at the Battle of Long Island on 27th August 1776, over a month after the signing of the Declaration. The question of the Indians is also a mooted point. It is true that the Indian tribes on the borders had predominately sided with the British and the frontier theatre of the war was extreme brutal. However, the Continental force had numerous Indian allies and they indulged in acts of unimaginable cruelty as much as the Pro-British Indian tribes did.
The signatories seemed to be using the Declaration as a statement of American independence and piece of propaganda to gain support among Britain's enemies such as France, Spain and the Netherlands. And going on the fact that those three countries did enter the war on the side of the colonists, it seemed to have worked. In end, the Declaration was the foundation stone of the US Constitution and used as a template for various secessionists as disparate such as Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and President Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States of America.
- History of the American Revolution: Britain and the Loss of the Thirteen Colonies by John R. Alden. Published: MACDONALD & Co., London, 1969.
- The Second Treatise of Government by John Locke and edited with an introduction by Thomas P Peardon. Published: Liberal Arts Press, New York, 1952.
- The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All by Peter Linebaugh. Published: University of California Ltd (London, England) 2008.
- Don't Vote! It Just Encourages The Bastards by P.J. O'Rourke. Published: Grove Press, Grove/Atlantic Inc., 2010.
- The debate on the American Revolution by Gwenda Morgan. Published: Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007.
- Declaration of Independence: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/bdsdcc:@field(DOCID+@lit(bdsdcc02101 (24/4/2012).
- Gutenberg Project: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10000/pg10000.txt (24/4/2012).
- Free Dictionary: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/liberty (25/4/2012).