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The Declaration of Independence: America's Birthday


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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA
vgvalent@utmb.edu



From the perspective of King George and his British government, the Americans resisted the king's officials in their lawful pursuit of policies intended to benefit the British Empire as a whole. The primary reason for this resistance was the unwillingness of the Americans to pay their fair share of taxes. The rebellious spirit of the Americans rose to a level such that they refused to be governed by the authority of Parliament. This was treason. Harsh measures were taken to break the rebellion in the American colonies. Massachusetts was initially singled out as the seat of rebellion in April 1775.

Edmund Burke commented, "the great contests for freedom were, from the earliest times, chiefly upon the question of taxes."

To make Americans pay their fair share of taxes, Parliament passed a series of laws. However, the primary issue brought forth by John Adams was "taxation without representation." The Americans insisted that they must be geographically represented in Parliament. The colonial assemblies, not Parliament, were the proper legislative body for the internal affairs, including taxation, of each colony. It was in September 1775 when King George declared the American colonies to be in open rebellion and outside his protection. The Declaration of Independence was planned and created.

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Lincoln's Gettysburg Address are the three founding documents of the United States. By the skillful pen of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence was and remains a masterpiece of rhetoric on the art of persuasion. Jefferson crafted this declaration into three main parts: 1) a statement of fundamental principles on which the new nation was founded, 2) a list of specific grievances against King George that forced the Americans to declare independence and 3) an appeal for justice of the American rebellion and commitment of the signers to struggle for independence.

The United States was the only nation in history founded on principles rather than historical circumstances or ethnic identity. It began with an appeal to history: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another...". The principle of self-determination allowed the Americans to have the right to decide for themselves that they are a separate people and have a right to establish a country for themselves - distinct from the English. The declaration invoked the principle of natural law. Natural law is self-evident on which the new nation was founded and that all humans are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Also, the government must rest on the consent of the governed and have the right and duty to overthrow that government and establish a new one. It invoked a right to revolution justified by the specific actions of King George who demonstrated his intention of establishing tyranny over the Americans.

The grievances against King George were carefully organized beginning with smaller incidents to a rising crescendo of indictments against the king. Among the grievances included an indictment of the king for interfering with the laws of the colonies, interfering with legislative assemblies, attempting to destroy prosperity of his people, interfering with judicial process and attempting to establish a standing army as his vehicle of tyranny.

The conclusion of the Declaration established an attempt of the Americans and the refusal of the king to settle the rebellion peaceably. It established King George as a tyrant. It established that Americans tried to tell the British of the injustice and that the British and the king refused to listen. It called upon God as the supreme judge of the justice of their cause and declared God as the author of natural law. The final sentence forcefully declared the "mutual pledge to each other our lives, fortunes and sacred honor." Today, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most influential writings in world history with ideas that have changed history, the course of the events.

Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. At the time of the signing on July 4, 1776, the American colonies had been at war with England for 15 months. The declaration provided an explanation for the world to understand why the colonies had revolted and why they wanted to be free and independent states. Members of the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and carefully studied Jefferson's declaration to see if they agreed that these were the principles they were fighting for. They agreed, unanimously.

An official version of the declaration was embossed on parchment. In all, 56 members put their names on the document. The first to sign it was the President of the Continental Congress with his flowery and legendary "John Hancock." Hancock advised, "We must all hang together," to which Benjamin Franklin quipped, "Yes, we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." The rebellious Americans were now publicly and irreversibly enemies of the empire they had originally embraced. John Adams proclaimed, "We are in the very midst of a revolution, the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations."

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


References:

  1. Middlekauf, American Revolution
  2. David McCullough, 1776
  3. Garry Willis, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence
  4. The Declaration of Independence



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