Many of my readers can recite parts of the Declaration of Independence, and most people at all familiar with US history know the bit about “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The first two sentences of the second section are what people think about, argue over, and debate heatedly. Should Jefferson have stuck with Locke’s original “Life, Liberty, and Property?” What is liberty, anyway? What if your pursuit of happiness collides with my happiness? It’s easy to miss the next chunks, especially what comes after the right to abolish any government that infringes on inalienable rights.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
The Declaration was drawn up in June of 1776, and ratified on July 1-2.* The shooting had started on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord. The Continental Congress waited over a year before declaring independence from Great Britain. Why? The paragraph above explains why.
It wasn’t easy. People had family in England, in Germany and Holland. Ben Franklin’s son ended up on the Loyalist side. Complaints about the Crown and Parliament’s actions went back to 1765, with the Proclamation Line limiting westward expansion, and the Stamp Act. People in England had every right to want the colonists to pay for their own protection and upkeep, since the folks back home already paid some of the highest taxes in the western world. Ten years had passed from the Stamp Act to “the shot heard round the world.” In that time, the colonists had begun shifting from thirteen independent and culturally different provinces into a block with a common sense of what government ought to do, and ought not to do. Not everyone agreed on everything, and some of the people who “should” have supported independence didn’t because someone they hated did favor breaking from England. Others used the chaos of the revolution to pick up old grudges (the Regulators War in the Carolinas and then the Revolution. British officers were horrified by what the back-borderers would do to each other.)
People would – and will – put up with a lot if they thought things would get better, or if they were just to focused on survival. But once a critical mass of people agreed that enough was enough, then all Dade County broke out and armies came into being. Armies of soldiers, armies of support, armies of clergy to explain why the Scriptures did not prohibit — or even encouraged — overturning an unjust government, armies of people who just stayed as far out of the way as possible.
The next part of the Declaration lists the things the King (and Parliament) had done wrong. If you compare the accusations with the Magna Charta’s 1215 edition and the English Bill of Rights of 1689, you will see that Jefferson and Co drew straight from English history and law. They are arguing as Englishmen that the King has failed to follow the laws that bind him, and thus forced the English people to take matters into their hands to fix things. Because of that:
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. 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. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Or, translated into modern English, “Guys, we tried, we warned you, we did everything we could by the laws we share to keep this from happening. You wouldn’t listen, the king became a tyrant, and so here we are. G-d help us, because we know what’s coming even if we win. Bye.”
*John Adams famously assumed that July 2 would be the date of Independence Day, if the colonists won. Americans being Americans, we went with the Fourth instead.
Citations from the Declaration of Independence are from the National Archives: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript