On this day in 1776, our forefathers — for they were our spiritual fathers, even if our blood was still barefoot in peat bogs, hayfields, grape arbors, cotton fields, and various other places of agricultural toil — published their signature of a unilateral Declaration of Independence, and fired a shot across the bow of the most powerful man in the world, George III.
The American rebels would have been middle-class artisans and gentry in Georgian England. If even one had the taint or tincture of noble blood, he kept that fact to himself; instead of being known by the ranks to which they were born, Americans then were known by their accomplishments: professions, mostly.
Some were distinguished lawyers, in a time when that was not a risible phrase. Some were artisans who had grown from being the man who made useful things, to being the employer of men who made useful things to their design. Some were traders; some were planters; one was an internationally-renowned polymath, a man without peer in his age — or any other.
In England, they would have been expected to bow to George III, and many of them would have been expected to tug their forelocks and avert their eyes from various of his inbred vassals.
In England, to defy that one man was a crime without equal, and the punishments prescribed for it were barbarous, and, indeed, cruel and unusual. Not only would the disrespector of George’s august personage be subject to a brutal and inhumane form of killing, but the crime would be visited upon his entire family by Writ of Attainder: titles, if any, attainted and forfeit; real estate forfeit to the Crown; any other property expropriated for the benefit of the King; the children of the malefactor forever to wear their parent’s disgrace like an indelible Mark of Cain through “corruption of blood,” leaving the traitor’s descendants forever unfit to own real property, sign contracts, or better their station in any way: it reduced his progeny to penury in perpetuity. (In practice, this usually drove such disinherited and ruined offspring out of England to seek their fortune elsewhere).
Needless to say, not many in England chose to defy George III.
Many consequences follow from the fact that many in England’s colonies did. By and large, they did not originally seek “independence”: while rebels had been fighting the King’s governors off and on for years, they argued that it was because they were trying to secure for themselves the Rights of Englishmen.
That sounded perfectly reasonable, unless and until one did the math. And George III could do math. And he understood, as Franklin had earlier written, that given the expected normal growth in the New World, the time would come when there were more Englishmen in the Colonies than in England. And that meant that Britain could never admit colonial representatives into Parliament, without running the risk that one day, the balance of power in Britain would be — outside Britain.
George III, like his predecessors and most of the other members of the British ruling class, was unwilling to accept this risk. In 150 years of English colonization, no American districts had been drawn for Commons, and no American had been ennobled to sit in the House of Lords.
The Colonies had been very lucrative for British industry, but defending them on land and sea was a ruinous drain upon the treasury, and in recent years attempts to impose taxation had been met with resistance. The British thought their position eminently reasonable, and they were shocked when the resistance coalesced into armed resistance. But even such examples of armed resistance as the Colonial militia seizing the Crown’s Court House in Worcester (September, 1774), the two-time seizure and looting of the armory at Fort William and Mary (December, 1774), essentially bloodless defeats for the British Army, and the Battles of Lexington and Concord (April, 1775), which was anything but bloodless, didn’t really shock the complacent, global British empire. After all, they had dealt with fractious colonial subjects worldwide for centuries.
England was not at war, yet. A few regiments of Redcoats were the only ones who knew there was a war. (Sound familiar, fellow GWOT vets?)
But the powerful language of the Declaration of Independence, its tone, alternately sorrowful and magisterial, and the irreparable split it heralded with the Crown and its institutions? That got the King’s, the Government’s, attention.
The Declaration’s text is posted below. Please read it, including especially the litany of “injuries and usurpations” that follows the 2nd paragraph. (We’ve rendered those as bulleted, but of course they’re not in the original. Source).
IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 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.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
- He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
- He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
- He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
- He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
- He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
- He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
- He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
- He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
- He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
- He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
- He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
- He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
- He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
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 abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
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 abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
- He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
- He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
- He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
- He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
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.
The 56 signatures on the Declaration appear in the positions indicated:
Thomas Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Richard Henry Lee
Thomas Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Robert Treat Paine