The Declaration of Independence is a famous document, but without historic context, it doesn’t often make sense to us in the 21st century. Every single word of the Declaration reflected the events and feelings taking place in the American colonies in 1776. Why, after 150 years of peaceful colonization, did the Colonists decide to rebel against the King of England? What did the British do that angered them so much? What’s with the long list of offenses committed by the King? I’ll take each section a little at a time and try to give a bit of background, and hopefully bring this daring, treasonous document to life.
Our founders knew that “in the course of human events,” (or the history of the world), there had been many occasions for “one people to dissolve the political bands which ha[d] connected them with another.” History was their guide to the rights which the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” had entitled them.
You can almost see Thomas Jefferson furiously writing with passion at the thought that “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government!”
The Colonists, up to this point, recognized Englandas their “homeland” and the King as their authority under the British constitution (‘our constitution”). However, the Parliament was not included in this constitutional authority, but the King increasingly gave Parliament legislative powers over the Colonies.
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
Nothing could have afforded Me so much Satisfaction as to have been able to inform you, at the Opening of this Session, that the Troubles, which have so long distracted My Colonies in , were at an End; and that My unhappy People, recovered from their Delusion, had delivered themselves from the Oppression of their Leaders, and returned to their Duty. But so daring and desperate is the Spirit of those Leaders, whose Object has always been Dominion and Power, that they have now openly renounced all Allegiance to the Crown, and all political Connection with this Country. They have rejected, with Circumstances of Indignity and Insult, the Means of Conciliation held out to them under the Authority of Our Commission: and have presumed to set up their rebellious Confederacies for Independent States. If their Treason be suffered to take Root, much Mischief must grow from it, to the Safety of My loyal Colonies, to the Commerce of My Kingdoms, and indeed to the present System of all . One great Advantage, however, will be derived from the Object of the Rebels being openly avowed, and clearly understood. We shall have Unanimity at Home, founded in the general Conviction of the Justice and Necessity of Our Measures.
in this arduous Contest I can have no other Object but to promote the true Interests of all My Subjects. No people ever enjoyed more Happiness, or lived under a milder Government, than those now revolted Provinces: the Improvements in every Art, of which they boast, declare it: their Numbers, their Wealth, their Strength by Sea and Land, which they think sufficient to enable them to make Head against the whole Power of the Mother Country, are irrefragable Proofs of it. My Desire is to restore to them the Blessings of Law and Liberty, equally enjoyed by every Subject, which they have fatally and desperately exchanged for all the Calamities of War, and the arbitrary Tyranny of their Chiefs.”
It “will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.You will think me transported with Enthusiasm, but I am not – I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will triumph in that Days Transaction, even although we should rue it, which I trust in God we shall not.”
Download a PDF of this in my free mini-unit-study. It includes the complete text you see here, as well as additional recommendations for reading books and watching videos, as well as other posts I’ve written on studying American independence.