Today in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress. This transpired two days after the passage of the Richard Henry Lee resolution, which made all political ties with Great Britain “totally dissolved.” The document was a declaration of secession that justified the natural right to “alter or abolish” one’s government. In an enumerated list, the American states cited the causes that “impel them to the separation.”
The document professed that the only legitimate purpose of government was to protect rights, and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed – not by mandate, coercion, or assumed powers.
It affirms the sovereignty of the states, acknowledging that they hold self-ruling power over “the state of Great Britain” and all other governing entities. It enumerated 26 indictments against George III, citing these transgressions as the reasons the states dissolved their association with the British crown. Much like the parliamentary indictment against Charles Stuart in England’s Grand Remonstrance of 1641, the charges listed in the Declaration of Independence amounted to “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.”
The 56 signers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to establish severance from Great Britain. Many risked and lost considerable fortune, prestige, and livelihood to this cause.
The document noted that the states all have the power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all the others acts and things which independent states do. It noted the numerous attempts made by the colonists to petition for redress of grievances, all of which were ignored by the crown. It refused to acknowledge any connection to Parliament, a body considered as an illegitimate legislature which did not bind the colonies by its acts.
Jefferson commented that the text was an attempt to articulate an “expression of the American mind.” The document was crafted to be read to large groups and in public gatherings, with direct and succinct language that people would understand. It was also intended to secure monetary support, foreign recognition, and the basis for foreign alliances. Jefferson’s authorship of the document was not widely known until the 1790s.
A declaration does not communicate or assume new power; it acknowledges conditions which have already transpired. It may seem obvious to some that the Declaration of Independence is a “founding document,” but it was not. The writing did not institute new powers, establish any new government, or form a new political union.
This is not to say that the Declaration of Independence was not significant or momentous – I personally find it to be a masterful work of art, written by a man with a particularly deft hand. In contrast to the standard narrative, the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that the states were free and independent, had the ability to withdraw from oppressive government, and could resist palpable violations of their country’s constitutional system.
The videos below from the HBO John Adams miniseries depicts the passage of the Richard Henry Lee amendment and the original readings of the Declaration of Independence fairly accurately.