“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,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Few words have rung with such undiminished clarity across time. Few words have possessed such power to awaken the yearning for liberty among peoples across generations and cultures.
Had the British shown a degree of magnanimity when confronted with crisis in the American colonies, such words might never have been put to paper. Perhaps then, a scenario to similar to Canada’s gradual evolution to sovereignty might have played out. Both history and humanity would have been worse for that outcome.
Far from showing moderation in the face of crisis, the British grew ever more vindictive. As a rebellion gathered force in the American colonies, the British Parliament adopted the American Prohibitory Act on December 22, 1775. That Act, might well have been the tipping point that pushed the Colonies on a course that would lead toward their pursuit of independence. The Prohibitory Act declared “that all manner of trade and commerce is and shall be prohibited with the colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the three lower counties on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia…” (Yourthomasjefferson.tumlr.com)
Four weeks later, on January 19, 1776, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony issued a Proclamation that laid a foundation for much of the substantive thought that would subsequently be expressed in the Declaration of Independence. That Proclamation read (Digitalcommonwealth.org):
The frailty of human Nature, the Wants of Individuals, and the numerous Dangers which surround them, through the Course of Life, have in all Ages, and in every Country impelled them to form Societies, and establish Governments.
As the Happiness of the People is the sole End of Government, So the Consent of the People is the only Foundation of it, in Reason, Morality, and the natural Fitness of things: and therefore every Act of Government, every Exercise of Sovereignty, against, or without, the Consent of the People, is Injustice, Usurpation, and Tyranny.
It is a Maxim, that in every Government, there must exist Somewhere, a Supreme, Sovereign, absolute, and uncontrollable Power: But this power resides always in the Body of the People, and it never was, or can be delegated, to one Man, or a few, the great Creator having never given to Men a right to vest others with Authority over them, unlimited either in Duration or Degree.
When Kings, Ministers, Governors, or Legislators therefore, instead of exercising the Powers entrusted with them according to the Principles, Forms and Proportions stated by the Constitution, and established by the original Compact, prostitute those Powers to the Purposes of Oppression; to Subvert, instead of Supporting a free Constitution; to destroy, instead of preserving the lives, Liberties and Properties of the People: they are no longer to be deemed Magistrates vested with a Sacred Character; but become public Enemies, and ought to be resisted.
Massachusetts was far from alone. In a letter to James Warren, John Adams wrote on March 21, 1776, “If you get a sight of the New York and Philadelphia newspapers you will see what a mighty question is before the Tribunal of the Public.” (Founders Online) That “mighty question” concerned those colonies’ responses to the Prohibitory Act.
At the same time, the Continental Congress was deeply involved in that matter. Even as the official records didn’t capture it, Members were already pushing for independence. Adams wrote in his diary entry of March 23, 1776 (Founders Online):
Here is an Instance, in addition to many others, of an extraordinary Liberty taken by the Secretary, I suppose at the Instigation of the Party against Independence, to suppress, by omitting on the Journals the many Motions that were made disagreeable to that set. These motions ought to have been inserted verbatim on the Journals, with the names of those who made them.
On May 10, 1776, the Journals of the Continental Congress (Library of Congress) reported that the Congress had agreed on a strategy for dealing with the Prohibitory Act. The Journals noted,
“Resolved, That it be recommended to the respective assemblies and conventions of the United Colonies, where no government sufficient to the exigencies of their affairs have been hitherto established, to adopt such government as shall, in the opinion of the representatives of the people, best conduce to the happiness and safety of their constituents in particular, and America in general.”
A committee comprised of John Adams, Edward Rutledge, and Richard Henry Lee was appointed to draft a preamble to that resolution. As recorded in the Journals of the Continental Congress, these three men wrote:
Whereas his Britannic Majesty, in conjunction with the lords and commons of Great Britain, has, by a late act of Parliament, excluded the inhabitants of these United Colonies from the protection of his crown; And whereas, no answer, whatever, to the humble petitions of the colonies for redress of grievances and reconciliation with Great Britain, has been or is likely to be given; but, the whole force of that kingdom, aided by foreign mercenaries, is to be exerted for the destruction of the good people of these colonies; And whereas, it appears 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, and it is necessary that the exercise of every kind of authority under the said crown should be totally suppressed, and all the powers of government exerted, under the authority of the people of the colonies, for the preservation of internal peace, virtue, and good order, as well as for the defense of their lives, liberties, and properties, against the hostile invasions and cruel depredations of their enemies; therefore, resolved, &c.
On May 15, 1776, both the preamble and the May 10 resolution were adopted by the Continental Congress. That same day, the Virginia Convention recommended that its representatives to the Continental Congress seek independence, declaring,
“Resolved unanimously, that the delegates appointed to represent this colony in General Congress be instructed to propose to that respectable body to declare the United Colonies free and independent states, absolved from all allegiance to, or dependence upon, the crown or parliament of Great Britain…”
With the adoption of the May 10 resolution, the decision for independence had largely been decided in principle. Only a formal, unequivocal declaration toward that end would have to be drafted and then approved. Events swiftly moved in that direction. The Journals of the Continental Congress for June 7, 1776 noted:
Certain resolutions [respecting independency] being moved and seconded,
Resolved, 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…
That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.
The pursuit of independence was now irreversible. The American colonies proclaimed their independence on July 4, 1776.
Now, 242 years later, the Declaration of Independence still inspires people everywhere.