By 1774, the year leading up to the American Revolution, trouble was already brewing in America. The English Parliament had been passing laws placing taxes on the American colonists. There had been the 1746 Sugar Act, the 1765 Stamp Act, and a variety of other laws that were meant to get money from the colonists for Great Britain. The American colonists did not like these laws.
After a series of events, which we will look at in this article, Congress voted to declare independence on July 2, 1776. Two days later, on July 4, 1776, it ratified the text of the Declaration.
Throughout that night, the official printer to Congress, John Dunlap worked hard to set the Declaration in print – approximately 200 copies.
What led to the Declaration of Independence?
As long as British colonies remained loyal to the British Crown, these colonies stood a chance of avoiding strict enforcement of British parliamentary laws, especially the trade laws. This policy, which was known as salutary neglect, contributed to the economic growth of their parent country, England, in the 18th century. The salutary neglect policy was employed until 1763.
With the British victory in the nine-year French and Indian War in 1763, the Parliament of Great Britain imposed a direct tax on the British colonies in America in 1765.
The Stamp Act of 1765
The parliament made it compulsory that all printed materials in the colonies were produced on stamped paper bought in London. These printed materials, like legal documents, magazines, and newspapers, had to be paid in British currency, not in colonial paper money. This decision of the British parliament was known as the Stamp Act of 1765.
Great Britain passed this Act because, after the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, it was left with a huge debt that had to be paid. That war, which had been fought in North America, for nine long years took its toll on Britain, although the war ended France’s presence as a land power. The British argued that they had fought the long and costly war to protect their American subjects from the powerful French in Canada.
Thus, according to the British Parliament, it was right to tax the American colonists to help pay the bills for the war.
The Navigation Acts
In 1651, under the Commonwealth, Britain had enacted the Navigation Acts, otherwise known in full as the Acts of Trade and Navigation.
The Navigation Acts were a long series of English laws that developed, promoted, and regulated English ships, shipping, trade, and commerce between other countries and with their own colonies.
The laws further prohibited the use of foreign ships and required the employment of English and colonial mariners for 75% of the crews. It also regulated England’s fish industry and restricted the participation of foreigners in its colonial trade.
Likewise, the Navigations Acts prohibited colonies from exporting specific products to countries other than Britain. It also mandated that those imports must be sourced only through Britain, regardless of the price obtainable elsewhere.
In general, the Navigation Acts formed the basis for British overseas trade for nearly 200 years, until they were eventually repealed in 1849.
It was on the basis of these Navigation Acts that British Prime Minister George Grenville proposed additional taxes – the 1764 Sugar and Currency Acts and the Stamp Act of 1765. These laws, known as the Grenville Acts, were promulgated to increase revenue in the colonies and stamp their authority there.
However, the Grenville Acts were unpopular among the Americans and this led to the Stamp Act riots in August 1765 and the Boston Massacre in March 1770.
The First Continental Congress
The British government then began to impose taxes. stricter laws, and more direct management in a way that deliberately provoked the American colonists. The colonists complained that the unwritten English Constitution was unfamiliar and strange to them because Americans were not represented in parliament.
However, Parliament snubbed the Americans’ protests, saying were practically represented and had no grounds for complaints.
Now, the American colonies were largely self-governing. Fifty percent of the white men in America could vote, compared to one percent in Britain.
The Americans developed their own political identities and systems which were in many ways separate from those in Britain. This new ideology was a decidedly republican political viewpoint, which rejected royalty, aristocracy, and in the name of corruption, called for sovereignty of the people and emphasized civic duty.
With the Stamp Act of 1765, disputes with London escalated. By 1772, the colonists began the transfer of political legitimacy to their own hands and started to form shadow governments built on committees of correspondence that coordinated protest and resistance.
In 1774, they called the First Continental Congress to inaugurate a trade boycott against Britain. Twelve colonies were represented at the Congress. However, Georgia was under tight British control and did not attend.
Note that this First Continental Congress did not go so far as to demand independence from Great Britain. However, it denounced taxation without representation, as well as the maintenance of the British army in the colonies without their permission.
Congress also issued a declaration of the rights due to every citizen, including life, liberty, property, assembly, and trial by jury. It then voted to meet again in May 1775 to consider further action, but by that time violence had already broken out.
The Start of the American Revolution
On the night of April 18, 1775, hundreds of British forces, then known as Redcoats, marched from Boston to nearby Concord, Massachusetts in order to seize a cache of military supplies. But some colonial militiamen began mobilising to intercept the British troops.
The next day, on April 19, these local militiamen clashed with British soldiers in the Battles of Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, and the first shot that would signify the beginning of the American Revolution was fired.
The Declaration of Independence, July 1776
With the commencement of the American Revolution in April 1775, only a few of the colonists wanted complete independence from Great Britain. As a matter of fact, they were considered radicals.
However, with the American Revolution in full swing, many American colonists had come to favour independence by mid-1776. This was due to the growing hostility against the British and the broadcast of Thomas Paine’s bestselling pamphlet, Common Sense, published in early 1776.
Because the American colonists were economically dependent on Europe, the only way, according to the colonists, that the European nations would conclude trade agreements with them was if they declared their independence.
Thus, on May 10, 1775, when the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, delegates, including new additions, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, voted to create a Continental Army, with George Washington as its commander-in-chief.
On June 7, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia, at the Pennsylvania State House, which would later be known as Independence Hall. At the meeting, the Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee moved a motion calling for independence for the colonies.
Lee’s motion caused an intense debate and Congress had little choice but to postpone it. However, it nominated a five-man committee to produce a formal statement that would justify the breakup with Britain. The five men were 29-year-old Robert Livingston of New York, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, 40-year-old John Adams of Massachusetts, 55-year-old Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.
On July 2, Congress unanimously voted in favour of Lee’s motion for independence. New York abstained at first but later voted affirmatively.
On June 28, 1776, the five-man committee presented the final draft before the Continental Congress.
On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence, which was mainly drafted by Jefferson, was formally adopted by the Continental Congress. Although the vote for the actual independence took place on July 2, the 4th of July from then on became the day that is now known as Independence Day in the United States of America.
Aftermath of the Declaration of Independence
The main diplomatic effect of the declaration was to enable friendly foreign governments to recognise the United States.
On December 20, 1777, the North African country of Morocco became the first country in the world to recognise the independence of the United States. This was only one year and five months after the American Declaration of Independence was issued.
The Netherlands followed suit in 1782.
Although Spain was fighting a war against Great Britain in 1779, it did not recognise America’s independence until the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Under the terms of the treaty, which ended the American Revolution, Great Britain officially recognised the United States of America as a sovereign nation, thereby securing its independence.
However, the Declaration of Independence document would leave out women, Native Americans, and especially, the enslaved Black people.
The entire Continental Congress indeed shared economic interest in maintaining slavery as an institution. They knew that the economy of the colonies was largely based on the labour of the enslaved black people. Many of these delegates, including Thomas Jefferson himself, held slaves and personally profited from their labour.
In fact, Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence 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.
Instead of laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery, the Continental Congress erased the controversial passage and denied these slaves, Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Slavery would thrive in the United States of America until January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that all persons held as slaves, are, and shall be, free.
Why Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation has been discussed in this article.
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