- Introduction & Overview of The Declaration of Independence
- The Declaration of Independence | Introduction & Overview
- The Declaration of Independence
Its main objective was not to declare American independence per se for that action had been taken two days earlier , but to promulgate that decision and to clarify the causes which had impelled separation from Britain. In other words, the Declaration of Independence is not really a declaration of independence at all; it is, rather, an announcement and formal justification of that decision. The general format of the Declaration consists of three easily differentiated parts: a an introduction, consisting of a statement of purpose and a concise summary of the general political principles of democratic governments Part I, including the title and the first and second paragraphs ; b an enumeration of the specific grievances against George III Part II, comprising charges [i]—[xxviii] ; and c the concluding paragraphs, one dealing with George III, one with Parliament, and one with the formal proclamation of separation Part III, including paragraphs , , and  respectively.
Let us begin our analysis, then, by examining each of these parts separately. The title and opening paragraph of the Declaration confirm our earlier observation that the major objective or immediate purpose of the document is to announce the causes which have necessitated the separation from Britain. This is a document, in other words, whose central concern is not the rise of government, nor its maintenance, but its dissolution for good cause. Furthermore, we learn: 1 that there are two peoples involved here, presumably one the British and the other the Americans; 2 that there has been a severing of the political bands between them; and 3 that this separation does not require the concurrence of both parties, but is an act of one People.
In the final analysis, there is but one of three alternative rules available: unanimous consent, majority rule, or minority rule. That the colonists did not believe that unanimous consent was necessary to justify resistance to governmental authority is obvious, for many colonists remained loyal to George III and the British Parliament throughout the War of Independence.
This historical evidence aside, however, the Declaration itself confirms this fact, for there is no mention of unanimity anywhere in the text. The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America. It is significant, of course, that while unanimity on the issue of independence was important to the members of the Continental Congress—important enough at least to warrant a change in the title of the Declaration itself, the only change made after its adoption on July 4, —it was not required to dissolve the political bands of the body politic.
In actual fact, the decision in the Committee of the Whole was far from unanimous: Pennsylvania and South Carolina voted against independence, Delaware was divided, and New York abstained because of previous instructions to its delegates. The question arises, of course, if unanimous consent is not the decision-making rule for the altering or abolishing of government, then what is? The Declaration gives us no answer at this point but moves to an affirmation of democratic principles and beliefs to which the colonists are committed.
This brings us then to the second paragraph of the Declaration and the famous proclamation of self-evident truths. The first three of these truths are so familiar that there is hardly need to repeat them: 1 that all men are created equal; 2 that the creator has endowed all men with certain unalienable rights, and 3 that among these rights are the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead of clarifying the conditions of this natural equality or elaborating upon these natural rights, however, this single, introductory sentence continues its enumeration of self-evident truths, adding one about the institution of government and another about its dissolution: 4 that governments are instituted to secure the natural rights of man; and 5 that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of the ends for which it was instituted, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.
Of the first three self-evident truths we are told virtually nothing. By implication, however, we may assume that their application is meant to be universal, for it is not the equality and rights of Englishmen, or Americans, that is in question here, but the equality and rights of all men.
On the other hand, when the focal point of the enumerated truths shifts from each and every man to men living together in civil society, clarifying or qualifying conditions immediately surface. Thus, in addition to claiming that governments are instituted among men for securing of certain rights, the Declaration also adds that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
What constitutes just powers or consent of the governed is not clear, but what is clear is that these notions are integral factors in the institution of government itself. Furthermore, by the time we arrive at the last truth enumerated two additional tests or requirements have been established which must be met before the dissolution of government can be justified: 1 the institution of a new government; and 2 the alteration of existing conditions in such a way as is likely to maximize the safety and happiness of the people.
The first of these tests is very clear from the language of the text. In the three passages of the introductory paragraphs where the dissolving, altering, or abolishing of government is mentioned, it is always done within the context of instituting anew. Thus, the text reads:. When…it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands… and to assume …the separate and equal Station…. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations…evinces a Design…it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.
The second requirement or test is more enigmatic—for no people would knowingly and willingly change their condition from bad to worse. Presumably, the people referred to here are the same people who have the authority to alter or abolish government in the first place, and if the Declaration does not require unanimity for the dissolution of government, then obviously unanimous consent is also not required in the formulating and fixing of public policy. Who, then, are these people who have the authority to alter or abolish government and to direct its ordinary operations?
The Declaration does not say at this point, but it does tell us that these are a prudent people who will not change their government for light and transient reasons, being more willing to suffer, while the evils are sufferable, than to right themselves through force of arms.
When, however, the abuses and usurpations against their rights have been persistent, general, deliberate, and with bad motive—when, in other words, a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to bring them under an absolute despotism—then they will stir and provide new guards for their future security. Then in one succinct sentence, the Declaration links all these earlier remarks about democratic principles and democratic governments to the list of grievances against the King.
The closing sentence of the second paragraph makes it clear: 1 that the history of the present King is—has been and will continue to be—a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, and 2 that the object of all these repeated injuries and usurpations is the establishment of an absolute tyranny. The King has done more than simply wronged the colonists: He has attempted to set up a system of absolute despotism over them.
An enumeration of his acts will confirm this to all candid observers. The list of grievances is designed to show, then, that such a state of tyranny exists, not that any or even all of the grievances per se would be sufficient to justify resistance to government. At long last, we arrive at the heart of the Declaration—the enumeration of the pernicious acts of George III and his attempt to establish an absolute tyranny over the American colonies.
Now for many readers of the Declaration, of course, this list of grievances is nothing more than a tedious compendium of rhetorical charges which have quite appropriately yielded to the force and power of the language and principles of the opening paragraphs. How ironic that the list of grievances which forms the body or middle of the essay and contains more than all the rest should have fallen into historical obscurity. A preliminary analysis of the twenty-eight charges against the King is obviously no mean task. In some cases, the specific reference is unclear.
In other cases, we may be surprised at the ranking, such as the relegation of the issue of taxation, the initial cause of unrest in the colonies, to a mere seventeenth place in the list of colonial grievances. It is not important that we resolve these issues at this point but merely acknowledge the fact that—the historical validity of the charges aside—there may indeed be some critical thought buried within the language and ordering of the grievances against George III.
The twenty-eighth charge against the King is found in the first of the three concluding paragraphs. This last charge is in a real sense not only a summary of all the previous charges, but is the fulfillment of the objective of the Declaration itself. Instead of closing, however, the Declaration reiterates, in yet a second concluding paragraph, that the colonists have not been rash in their actions, but have tried repeatedly to secure redress for their grievances through channels other than separation. The colonists have not only vainly pleaded with the King, but they have also fruitlessly appealed to the British people themselves.
Introduction & Overview of The Declaration of Independence
All this has been for nought, for the British people have also been inattentive to their cries. And once again, we hear the charge of usurpation, and once again, it is evident that usurpation per se is not the cause of severance, but usurpation uncontrolled and uncontrollable. Necessity and compulsion are indeed the parents of the decision to separate from Britain. At last, in a sort of anti-climatic fashion, we arrive at the closing paragraph to hear what we knew all along: The political bands between Britain and the American colonies are hereby dissolved.
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Obviously, we have passed over innumerable inherent questions or tensions in this preliminary analysis. The most frequent source of question or controversy, of course, is the list of self-evident truths, especially those relating to the capacity and rights of individual men. And what do the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean, who is to define them, and how are conflicts between the rights of one man and those of another to be resolved?
One cannot talk meaningfully about the unalienable rights of man, the right to resist tyrannical government, consent of the governed, or the just powers of government, if one does not know who has the authority to alter or abolish the government which fails to meet its commitments. Nor can one believe the grievances against the King are more than rhetorical nonsense if the people he has injured and whose power he has usurped cannot be defined. The task of determining what the Declaration means when it refers to the people is complicated, of course, by the fact that the Declaration nowhere makes its meaning explicit.
Nevertheless, if the single reference in paragraph two to the natural rights of man is excluded for the moment, it becomes obvious that all references to either the people or the colonists are in collective terms. Thus, in the text:. As we have already indicated in our preliminary analysis, there are only three collective decision—making rules available to a people: unanimous consent, majority rule, or minority rule.
These alternatives are best conceptualized in a matrix such as this:.
The Declaration of Independence | Introduction & Overview
Government Operation of. Government X Dissolution of. Let us examine each of the sections of this matrix separately, beginning with the dissolution of government—for the dissolution of government for just cause was, as has been noted, the central concern of the Declaration.
backprepabunak.tk A Congress unwilling to claim such authority for themselves would certainly be unlikely to acknowledge the claims of any lesser minority. Time and again, the American pamphlets argued that while each man has a right to decide for himself when his own preservation is called into question, only the majority can decide if political society has been dissolved. Thus, to cite just one example, Samuel West argued not only did the right of exercising political power belong to a majority, but also the minority must, of necessity and right, submit to the decisions of that majority.
It is the major part of the community that have the sole right of establishing a constitution, and authorizing the magistrates; and consequently it is the major part of a community that can claim the right of altering the constitution, and displacing the magistrates. When the issue is to alter or abolish the government, the minority is absolutely bound by the wishes of the majority.
This position that the right to alter or abolish government is a right of the community as a whole is consistent not only with the antecedent thought of the Declaration, however, but with the language and thought of many of the state constitutions and bills of rights written during this same period as well. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection and security of the people, nation or community; and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or sett of men, who are a part only of that community ; And that the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal.
The Declaration of Independence
Or in the words of the Massachusetts Constitution adopted during the War of Independence:. Government is instituted for the common good ; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men : Therefore the people alone have an incontestible, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter or totally change the same , when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.
Much of the confusion of what constitutes a people could well have been avoided, of course, had those who drafted and signed the American Declaration of Independence used the language found in the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted by the Virginia Convention on June 12, Even if Thomas Jefferson had not seen the Virginia Declaration a possibility which seems highly unlikely given the fact that the Virginia document had been in circulation among the members of Congress from the very earliest days of June and had appeared in the Pennsylvania Evening Post of June 6 and in the Pennsylvania Gazette of June 12 , it is significant that no member of Congress who had seen that document insisted upon a clarification of what constitutes the people, for the Virginia Declaration of Rights, unlike the Declaration of Independence, is most explicit—a majority alone has the right to alter or abolish government.
There are many reasons which could be advanced as to why Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence did not adopt the language of the Virginia document. Let us return to our analytic matrix focusing our attention this time on the ordinary operation of government. Government X X Although this commitment to the doctrine of majority rule in the ordinary operations of government may not appear revolutionary to Americans today, this concept—the concept of a sovereign people—provides another link in the integration of the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration and the grievances against George III.
In that the natural rights doctrine is also a central concern in the institution of government, however, it seems appropriate to complete our analytic matrix prior to our discussion of a sovereign people. Although the fourth and fifth self-evident truths of the Declaration specifically refer to the institution of government, as has been shown the focal point of concern of the fifth is actually the dissolution of governments and rights and powers of a sovereign people.
As was indicated earlier, just powers and consent of the governed are clearly integral factors in the institution of government. Although the majority may have the right to decide whether to alter or abolish an existing government, each and every man would seem to have an individual right to decide for himself whether to join with others under a new government, for once government is dissolved each man returns to the state of nature and is at liberty to give or withhold his consent to any new government.
For when any number of Men have, by the consent of every individual , made a Community , they have thereby made that Community one Body, with the Power to Act as one Body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority. For that which acts, any Community being only the consent of the individuals of it, and it being necessary to that which is one body to move one way; it is necessary the Body should move that way whither the greater force carries it, which is the consent of the majority : or else it is impossible it should act or continue one body, one Community , which the consent of every individual united into it, agreed that it should.
If unanimous consent alone can make a government just and obligate the individual to the dictates of law, then under no pretense of right could those Americans who remained loyal to George III be bound by the directives of the Continental Congress and the other provincial assemblies.
The declaration of independency proceeded upon a supposition, that the constitution under which we before lived was actualy dissolved, and the British government, as such, totally annihilated here. Upon this principle, I conceive that we were reduced to a state of nature, in which the powers of government reverted to the people, who had undoubtedly a right to establish any new form of government they thought proper; that portion of his natural liberty which each individual had before surrendered to the government, being now resumed, and to which no one in society could make any claim until he incorporated himself in it.
That the signers of the Declaration of Independence were unconvinced by the claims of Van Schaack and the other loyalists is, of course, evident in the penalties imposed by the Continental Congress upon those who did not support the American cause. Similarly, the good people of Massachusetts refused to grant the arguments of the western towns of the county of Berkshire that the disruption of the political connections with Britain had terminated all legitimate authority within the colony and returned men to the state of nature where each man was at liberty to give or withhold his consent as he saw fit.
The provincial assembly of Massachusetts not only proclaimed themselves the legitimate heirs of political power, but roundly denounced the inhabitants of Berkshire as rebels. The grounds on which the leaders of the Revolutionary movement rejected the claims that men were at liberty to give or withhold their individual consent to new governments—a claim that would make unanimous consent necessary for the institution of government—was founded upon a fundamental distinction between government on the one hand, and society on the other. Society was primary and did indeed require unanimous consent to come into being; government, on the other hand, was created by a simple majority of those united together into society.
Society remains intact. Locke claimed:. When the Government is dissolved, the People are at liberty to provide for themselves by erecting a new Legislative, differing from the other, by the change of Persons, or Form, or both as they shall find it most for their safety and good. For the Society can never, by fault of another, lose the Native and Original Right it has to preserve itself, which can only be done by a settled Legislative, and a fair and impartial execution of the Laws made by it. In his refutation of the Berkshire claims, Whiting argued that although the Declaration of Independence had destroyed the political connections with Britain, the people of Massachusetts had not returned to the state of nature, but had found it necessary to place the legislative power anew.