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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Declaration of Independence

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In United States history, the act (or document) by which the thirteen original states of the Union broke their colonial allegiance to Great Britain. in 1776. The controversy preceding the war (see American Independence, War Of) gradually shifted from one primarily upon economic policy to one upon issues of pure politics and sovereignty, and the acts of Congress, as viewed to-day, seem to have been carrying it, from the beginning, inevitably into revolution; but there was apparently no general and conscious drift toward independence until near the close of 1775. The first colony to give official countenance to separation as a solution of colonial grievances was North Carolina, which, on the 12th of April 1776, authorized its delegates in Congress to join with others in a declaration to that end. The first colony to instruct its delegates to take the actual initiative was Virginia, in accordance with whose instructions - voted on the 15th of May - Richard Henry Lee, on the 7th of June, moved a resolution "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." John Adams of Massachusetts seconded the motion. The conservatives could only plead the unpreparedness of public opinion, and the radicals conceded delay on condition that a committee be meanwhile at work on a declaration "to the effect of the said. .. resolution," to serve as a preamble thereto when adopted. This committee consisted of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. To Jefferson the committee entrusted the actual preparation of the paper. On the and of July, by a vote of 12 states-10 voting unanimously, New York not voting, and Pennsylvania and Delaware casting divided ballots (3 votes in the negative) - Congress adopted the resolution of independence; and on the 4th, Jefferson's "Declaration." The 4th has always been the day celebrated; 1 the decisive act of the and being quite forgotten in the memory of the day on which that act was published to the world. It should also be noted that as Congress had already, on the 6th of December 1775, formally disavowed allegiance to parliament, the Declaration recites its array of grievances against the crown, and breaks allegiance to the crown. Moreover, on the 10th of May 1776, Congress had recommended to the people of the colonies that they form such new governments as their representatives should deem desirable; and in the accompanying statement of causes, formulated on the 15th of May, had declared it to be "absolutely irreconcilable to reason and good conscience for the people of these colonies now to take the oaths and affirmations necessary for the support of any government under the crown of Great Britain," whose authority ought to be "totally suppressed" and taken over by the people - a determination which, as John Adams said, inevitably involved a struggle for absolute independence, involving as it did the extinguishment of all authority, whether of crown, parliament or nation.

Though the Declaration reads as "In Congress, July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America," New York's adhesion was in fact not voted until the 9th, nor announced to Congress until the 15th - the Declaration being unanimous, however, when it was ordered, on the 19th, to be engrossed and signed under the above title. 2 Contrary to the inference naturally to be drawn from the form of the document, no signatures were attached on the 4th. As adopted by Congress, the Declaration differs only in details from the draft prepared by Jefferson; censures of the British people and a noble denunciation of slavery were omitted, appeals to Providence were inserted, and verbal improvements made in the interest of terseness and measured statement. The document is full of Jefferson's fervent spirit and personality, and its ideals were those to which his life was consecrated. It is the best known and the noblest of American state papers. Though open to 1 "Independence Day" is a holiday in all the states and territories of the United States.

2 As read before the army meanwhile, it was headed "In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration by the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled." controversy on some issues of historical fact, not flawless in logic, necessarily partisan in tone and purpose, it is a justificatory preamble, a party manifesto and appeal, reasoned enough to carry conviction, fervent enough to inspire enthusiasm. It mingles - as in all the controversy of the time, but with a literary skill and political address elsewhere unrivalled - stale disputation with philosophy. The rights of man lend dignity to the rights of Englishmen, and the broad outlook of a world-wide appeal, and the elevation of noble principles, relieve minute criticisms of an administrative system.

Jefferson's political theory was that of Locke, whose words the Declaration echoes. Uncritical critics have repeated John Adams's assertion that its arguments were hackneyed: so they undoubtedly were - in Congress, and probably little less so without, - but that is certainly pre-eminent among its great merits. As Madison said, "The object was to assert, not to discover truths." Others have echoed Rufus Choate's phrase, that the Declaration is made up of "glittering and sounding generalities of natural right." In truth, its long array of "facts ... submitted to a candid world" had its basis in the whole development of the relations between England and the colonies; every charge had point in a definite reference to historical events, and appealed primarily to men's reason; but the history is to-day forgotten, while the fanciful basis of the "compact" theory does not appeal to a later age. It should be judged, however, by its purpose and success in its own time. The "compact" theory was always primarily a theory of political ethics, a revolutionary theory, and from the early middle ages to the French Revolution it worked with revolutionary power. It held up an ideal. Its ideal of "equality" was not realized in America in 1776 - nor in England in 1688 - but no man knew this better than Jefferson. Locke disclaimed for him in 1690 3 the shallower misunderstandings still daily put upon his words. Both Locke and Jefferson wrote simply of political equality, political freedom. Even within this limitation, the idealistic formulas of both were at variance with the actual conditions of their time. The variance would have been greater had their phrases been applied as humanitarian formulas to industrial and social conditions. The Lockian theory fitted beautifully the question of colonial dependence, and was applied to that by America with inexorable logic; it fitted the question of individual political rights, and was applied to them in 1776, but not in 1690; it did not apply to non-political conditions of individual liberty, a fact realized by many at the time - and it is true that such an application would have been more inconsistent in America in 1776 as regards the negroes than in England in 1690 as regarded freemen. Beyond this, there is no pertinence in the stricture that the Declaration is made up of glittering generalities of natural right. Its influence upon American legal and constitutional development has been profound. Locke, says Leslie Stephen, popularized "a convenient formula for enforcing the responsibility of governors" - but his theories were those of an individual philosopher - while by the Declaration a state, for the first time in history, founded its life on democratic idealism, pronouncing governments to exist for securing the happiness of the people, and to derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. It was a democratic instrument, and the revolution a democratic movement; in South Carolina and the Middle Colonies particularly, the cause of independence was bound up with popular movements against aristocratic elements. Congress was fond of appealing to "the purest maxims of representation"; it sedulously measured public opinion; took no great step without an explanatory address to the country; cast its influence with the people in local struggles as far as it could; appealed to them directly over the heads of conservative assemblies; and in general stirred up democracy. The Declaration gave the people recognition equivalent to promises, which, as fast as new governments were instituted, were converted by written constitutions into rights, which have since then steadily extended.

3 Two Treatises of Government, No. ii. § 54, as to age, abilities, virtue, &c.

Down to the end of the 18th century the former title prevailed in England, though not in America; while since then "Congregationalist" has obtained generally in both. (See CON GREGATIONALISM.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Declaration of Independence'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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