Declaration of Independence – Summary and Critical Analysis

The United States Declaration of Independence’ formally termed as ‘The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen Colonies of United States of America’, is not just a text, it makes significant intervention in determining the way of life since the date of its ratification on 4th of July 1776, is now celebrated as the American Independence Day. It is the formal announcement that the thirteen colonies will no longer be under the dominion of the crown of Great Britain. This historic event took place in the year 1776, Philadelphia and shaped the political identity of the American people. It is a document by the people, of the people and for the people in its truest sense and is exemplary of the faith of the Americans who decided to fight back tyrannical control of their colonial master. As the title suggests, it is the first 181 official document by the populace containing the demand for their rights. It gave justification to the resistance of the masses and encouraged them to come forward, secure their nation and live on their own terms. It advocated the collective power of the masses and inspired them to unite for a greater cause and prepare for the war known as the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The text has a universal appeal and cannot simply be limited to a particular time frame.

Political Background

To understand the importance of the text vis-à-vis the importance of independence of the masses, one needs to look into the political history of the land. After the ‘discovery’ of America by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, it took a couple of centuries to establish colonies which continued to be ruled by the English crown. It was in the year 1775, that the armed conflict started and further gave rise to the resistance in the masses. Attempts were made by George III, the imperial ruler, to subdue the voices of resistance. He even used force for this purpose. Within few months, the masses understood that reconciliation is unworkable and they united against the colonial power. This argument of the populace was further substantiated by the pamphlet by Thomas Paine, another eminent revolutionary figure of the time. In his pamphlet titled, ‘Common Sense’ he argued about the essentiality of basic and natural human right like freedom. The success of this pamphlet and selling of 1,50,000 copies further ensured that the fire of revolt was fanned. Individual liberty was given more importance than the power of the authority. The autonomy of the parliament was considered a threat to the happiness and liberty of the individual. The masses protested in large numbers against new bills as well hefty taxes which were imposed on them by the imperial powers. Whereas, England had absolute control over the land and policies of the thirteen colonies of America, people had none. Various political acts were initiated which were not acceptable to the public and were called the ‘Intolerable Acts’ for their crude nature. These acts were imposed to have monopoly over finances of the thirteen colonies. Even after all the hard work, masses had to pay taxes and revenues to England thus bringing prosperity to England and marginalization of the American populace. All these factors lead to the drafting of the text making people believe that they don’t have to tolerate the oppression.

Composition

In continuation of the political restlessness, five representatives were given the task of drafting an official document, containing the intention of the local masses who were suffering at the hands of the British ruler. These five men were, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson is credited for writing most of its part. He drafted it in five parts including- Introduction, Preamble, main body in two parts and the conclusion. The beginning of the text aimed at justifying the cause behind the resistance and revolution. It stated that freedom is the basic human right and no human being can be denied that. It follows the same argument throughout, stating the grievances against the rulers and the need to bring a change to the history of the nation. The inspirational language and the basic idea of equality is of utmost importance till date. The text remains to be vital for the nation and lays foundation for the ideals that the people follow today or believe in today. It paved way for American Revolutionary War and the declaration is revered, for without it, USA would not have been the nation as it is today. The expansive language and the lofty ideals are open to interpretations and translations even after centuries.

Summary

The basic aim of the declaration was to defend the actions of the colonists as well as to encourage other nations to come forward and help the colonies. The hazardous revolutionary acts were justified as well as encouraged as it provided the masses with an alternative political vision. The Declaration is based on the premise that tyranny of any sort will always end in resistance. It shows the revolutionized masses with the spirit to fight against the tyranny of George III. The main body of the Declaration consists of the allegations against the tyrannical ruler for his unjust ways. The pronoun ‘he’ has been used to put 27 allegations on the cruel ruler. He was charged of being unjust to the people, enforcing laws in favor of imperial powers, without the consent of the colonists. He was blamed to have disrupted the day-to-day life of the populace by implementing unfair policies and acts such as confiscation of American ships, heavy taxes, unfair judicial system, etc. It supports the revolution of the people because it was inevitable. The basic argument was based upon the origin of human beings. It argues that it is not the government that creates men, but vice versa. Men, being the highest of all creation are created by God and it is these men who created government in turn. Like every creation, the government also owes to its people. It has the obligation to work for the betterment of the masses and pay them back. The sacred human being needs to be happy and liberal and the authorities need to ensure this happiness and liberty of the people. Created by God, human beings have every right and reason to alter the government if it does not allow them to practice their basic human rights. The anatomy/phenomenon of life and creation has been used here in order to justify the seriousness and sanctity of the existence of human beings. Any sort of tyranny is thus intolerable because God is absolute and His creation is sacred thus tyranny of any sort is bound to culminate in revolution.

The idealistic language of the text suggests that whole purpose of the government is to ensure basic rights of its masses. It is the “right of the people to alter or abolish” the government if it fails to do so. For the times in which it was written, the text was full of revolutionary ideas as well as phrases. It was quite radical to talk about uprooting the monarchy and prioritizing people’s rights as well as powers. It definitely won the support of the people because it represented people as submissive, weak while the ruler was oppressive, unjust and harsh. The grievances and allegations are formed on the ground of basic rights of the people and the responsibility of the government towards its people and any failure will obviously be dealt with revolt and resistance. If a person is found allegedly guilty, he must be put into trial but the government has no right to impose taxes from the individuals and hamper their personal growths.

Major Characters

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is one of the founding fathers of the Independent United States of America. At the time of Declaration, he was a plantation owner and a lawyer and went as a delegate from Virginia to the second Continental Congress. He was appointed to draft the Declaration of Independence soon after Richard Henry Lee called for independence in June 1776. Although Jefferson’s draft was heavily edited by delegates of Second Continental Congress, he is still attributed as the author of the Declaration. Thomas Jefferson continued to be an eminent politician and statesman in early American politics as he served as Secretary of the State and the third President of the United States of America.

The British King

The Monarch of Great Britain and Ireland, King George III (1760-1820) was the scion of a German Royal Family, House of Hanover. King George like no other British Monarch ruled with absolute tyranny and accomplished such aims by invalidating various policies in the colonies. He also tried to weaken the strength of the parliament by repeatedly assigning new ministers to do his bidding. Such behavior led to political destabilization of the United Kingdom and also brought stringent decrees and regulations on the colonies.

John Locke

John Locke, an English Philosopher regarded as one of the most eminent personalities of the Enlightenment era. Owing to his philosophies, he is widely regarded as the ‘Father of Liberalism’. The idea in his ‘Two Treatises of Government’ (1690) criticized the institution of the divine right of the sovereigns and argued that the power of the state rested in the hands of the people. Locke firmly believed that governments should protect the natural rights of men, and it is the responsibility of people that they should uproot such a system that fails to do so. His incendiary and revolutionary ideas are invoked in documents like the Virginia Constitution (1776) and the Declaration of Independence.

Significance

Independence of a nation remains to be one of the most important episodes of its socio- political history. Years of colonization and the freedom movement is not unknown to India as well. For years, the populace was under the dominance of the colonial masters. Similarly, Americans struggled to pave their way towards independence. ‘Fourth of July’ marks the independence of thirteen colonies, now known as United States of America. The text and the political event is of utmost importance to Americans but other nations also took inspiration from this and fought against the British colonizers. The text also emphasizes the role of the populace in formation of a government or a nation. It proves that government does not make people in fact it is the people of a country that make the government. The resistance of the masses against the then government which denied them access to their natural/birth rights, proves to be revolutionary.

It lies at the very heart of the American constitution because it lays the foundation stone on which the entire political landscape American democracy is built. Not just for the colonists, but the basic argument that the government exists to serve its people who have every right to denounce and abolish it, lies at the center of any democratic nation. It does not encourage a state of anarchy, but the individual is always prioritized than the social system or the society of which he/she is an integral part. The struggle of the Americans became exemplary for other nations as well where the masses united and decided to get freedom from the colonial masters, such as in France where shortly after American independence, Louis XVI lost his power. The text also points out why independence is necessary for the prosperity of the land and its people. It is not just a document, it holds emotional values too and is close to the hearts of the masses. This was officially accepted by the Congress on 4th of July, which is accredited with the independence of the nation. It addressed the resentment of the people at the hands of the colonizers. The text made the natives believe in themselves and convinced them into believing that they don’t need to tolerate the unjust ways of the colonizer. It justified the need to seek independence and not just America but other colonized nations came forward for this.

Critical Commentary

The Declaration of Independence is an essential political document as it provided Americans with the understanding of values and ideals of their new nation. The preamble is specifically important because it is a document that bridges gap between the practical and the ideal i.e. politics and philosophy of the day. The preamble communicates the foundational ideals and also requests the nations of the world to recognize USA as an independent and new country.

The reason that the Declaration is able to serve as a link between politics and philosophy is only because of the author Thomas Jefferson and English philosopher John Locke. The preamble is heavily influenced by the philosophy of the enlightenment era from the 18th Century, especially Locke who propounded that, ideals such as health, protection of life, liberty and possession are integral to human nature. Locke also criticized the popular idea of divine right to rule and believed that law-making should rest with the people. Jefferson adopted these principals and asserted that, ‘Life, Liberty and Happiness’ are unalienable rights. Jefferson was influenced by such values, asserted and justified that people should overthrow their governments if they are not able to safeguard their basic rights. Thus in this way, a synthesis of philosophy and politics was effected by drafting of declaration.

The Declaration of Independence is a paramount document because it defines the cultural ethos of USA even as it is today. It must be noted that the Declaration is not considered as a document having any legal authority, despite that it is cited as a ‘sacred’ document that consolidates the principals of equality. The Declaration has some fair share of criticism as well, since Jefferson who asserted on ‘liberty and equality’ might not have considered the same for the African-American slaves. Ironically, Jefferson was a large plantation owner as well as a slave holder. The preamble is also a testament of Jefferson’s skill with diplomacy. In the document, arguments were laid to justify why the thirteen colonies in America should oppose the despotic rule of King George III. Jefferson was aware that European countries at the time were monarchies too. The revolutionary nature of the Declaration was bound to create similar ripples across the world. However, he also recognized that amicable bonds that the new nation had to maintain. Thus he carefully drafts and communicates that not every power must be challenged, not all monarchy must be dethroned but only those which are dictatorial, like King George’s.

Additional Notes

The Thirteen Colonies

The Thirteen British Colonies in North America comprised Pennsylvania, Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, South Carolina, Maryland, and Georgia. In May 1775 each of these colonies sent a representative to the Second Continental Congress to have a deliberation with the representatives of the Crown on the independence of the aforementioned colonies. Initially the argument seemingly shelved the path towards Independence. However, by July 2nd 1776 all thirteen colonies unequivocally agreed to fight for independence.

Second Continental Congress

The first continental Congress constituted twelve colonies which excluded Georgia. The meeting took place on 5th September 1774 and promised to meet again should the peace negotiations with the British Empire fail. Thus the Second Continental Congress, all thirteen of the original colonies, formed and took meeting in May 1775, Philadelphia. In April 1775, all the thirteen colonies were unofficially at war with Great Britain that was the undercurrent. However, the Second Continental Congress’s duty was to not only coordinate the defensive war effort against the British Empire but also debate upon the topic of independence from it.

Allegations put on George III

King George III exercised absolute control over British Colonies on the American soil. According to Thomas Jefferson the colonists silently suffered 27 abuses at the hands of the British Crown, but no more, and decided to lay bare these abuses to the entire world.

The first 12 of these 27 abuses are mainly directed towards King George’s totalitarian control instead of practicing representative government. In such a government, power is given to the people so they can make laws that are benefits all. However, King George impeded practicing such form of governance by disbanding representative colonial bodies, disallowing legislations recommended by the colonies, appointed his own ministers and inhibited with naturalization of citizens in new regions. The situation only worsened as King George encumbered with civil rights and judicial processes of the colonists. Judges were made dependent on him for their employment and revenue; colonies were not allowed to have any autonomy over their judicial powers. King George, no doubt is an authoritarian who maintains fear and submission among the colonists by placing strong military troops who report only to him. He is an oppressor who heavy levy taxes on the colonists for the standing military.

Abuses from 13 to 22 illustrate the destruction of colonists’ ‘Right to Autonomy’ by the unwelcome involvement of the British Parliament. This is validated when the King, ‘along with others’ passed legislations and laws without the colonists’ consent. These legislations severely obstructed the freedom of trade with other nations by shutting them off, imposed heavy taxes without colonists’ approval. Furthermore, the legislations passed by The Empire ensured complete reign by wresting away all the power from the colonial governments and forbid them to make any more changes.

The last 5 abuses from 23 to 27 specifically focus on King George’s movements which led to violence, bloodshed and wars. The declaration recounts how the King suppressed the voice of dissent through violence and military control. He systematically ordered the British armies to obliterate colonists’ resources, destroy their settlements, ruin their navies/ships and lay waste to their lives in general. He accomplished his nefarious schemes with the help of hired mercenaries and to intimidate the colonists. He allowed the Native Americans to attack the colonies; instigated them to fight each other and forced kidnapped American sailors to serve the British navy.

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