Robert Kennedy's  United States History Class


Learning Objective One:

Discuss the background material leading to the Declaration of Independence.  This material breaks down into two areas of ( 1) external and (2) internal factors.

Externally, the final movement towards independence began on August 23, 1775 when King George III refused to receive the conciliatory Olive Branch Petition. This document, written by John Dickinson, for the Second Continental Congress, expressed colonial hopes of reconciliation and asked for the King's help in the restoration of peace.

The King not only rejected the petition, but issued a proclamation declaring the American colonies to be in a state of open rebellion.  At this late date the majority of colonial political leaders did not want independence as was evidenced by Dickinson's and Jefferson's Declaration of the Causes and Necessities  of Taking Up Arms of July 6, 1775. The document rejected the idea of independence, but insisted Americans would rather die than be enslaved.

On December 23, King George III issued a royal proclamation closing the American colonies to all trade and commerce, effective March 1, 1776. This action made the resolution of April 6, 1776, which opened the ports of the colonies to the trade of all nations except Great Britain, a necessity. This resolution was in essence an economic declaration of independence, an important forerunner to the political Declaration of Independence of July fourth.

In order to protect themselves and in anticipation of the Kings actions, in November, 1775 the Second Continental Congress had appointed a "Committee of Secret Correspondence" to establish relations with and seek aid from friendly European nations.  In December the colonists heard from their agents that France would consider offering her support.

By March of 1776 both France and Spain had agreed between themselves, although nothing was formalized at this time, that it was to their interest to help the American colonies in their battle against the British by supplying them with war materials.

Meanwhile, ignorant of these developments, the Second Continental Congress voted (March 3, 1776) to send Silas Deane to Europe to purchase war materials. Thus, because of King George's proclamation of December 23,1775 and the colonists' need for war materials, the April 6, 1776 resolution of economic independence became a necessity. The significance of this economic declaration  is that it would make apolitical  declaration necessary.  Six days after this economic declaration the North Carolina Provincial Assembly authorized her  delegates at the Continental Congress to support a political declaration of independence.

Virginia followed suit by mid May and on June 7th Richard Henry Lee offered a resolution to the Continental Congress that the united colonies "are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States."  On June 11, the Congress authorized a committee made up of Jefferson, Franklin, John Adams, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston to prepare a draft of a formal declaration. The job of writing the document was given to Thomas Jefferson.

On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted  12-0 for independence with New York abstaining, and on July 4 the Congress again voted  12-0 to approve the document.  New York abstained again, but on July 9 approved the declaration. Also by mid-May, the Continental Congress had issued a resolution authorizing each of the 13 colonies to form a new provincial government.

Internally, two events in January  1776 helped push the American mind to the final acceptance of independence.  First came the news that the English were sending hired German soldiers (called Hessians because many of them came from the German principalities of Hesse-Kassel and Hesse-Hanau) to fight against them. Almost 30,000 of the German mercenaries ultimately served with the British army during the war.
 The colonists associated mercenaries with looting and rape and feared that the Germans would run amok among them.

The second decisive event occurred in January  of 1776 with the publication of Common  Sense by Thomas Paine, one of the most potent pamphlets ever written. Paine, the son of a Quaker corset-maker, came to Philadelphia in 1774 and found work on the Pennsylvania  Magazine with the  help of Ben Franklin.
 In Common  Sense, he advocated the immediate declaration of independence on both practical and ideological grounds. Paine did much to push public opinion to accept what had in fact become inevitable.

In clear and persuasive prose, Paine listed the advantages the colonies would enjoy once they had formed themselves into an independent nation: free trade with other countries of the world, release from England-European  conflicts, freedom from having to appeal to a court 3,000 miles away.

"There is something very absurd," he insisted, "in supposing a Continent to be perpetually governed by an island."

Common  Sense attacked not only George III but the idea of monarchy itself.  Paine stated plainly that monarchy was a corrupt institution and called George a "Royal Brute." About 150,000 copies were sold in the critical period between January and July and total sales were over 500,000.

During the Revolutionary War, Paine continued to write and to publish his views on the patriot cause in a series of papers called American  Crisis.  In his first issue he wrote: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country."

With this eloquent patriotism the hesitation of many about the war in and out of the army were resolved.
 Washington was so impressed with the papers that he ordered them to be read to his troops at Valley Forge.

 Hence, Thomas Paine like Sam Adams was an extremely important propagandist who molded the American mind toward independence. At the end of the war Paine was penniless, having refused all profits from his writings so that _the price would be low enough for all to have access to them.

Learning Objective Two: Discuss the structure of the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence had two main parts:

The first part was called the preamble which stated the theory of natural rights and asserted the right under certain circumstances of revolution.  First, the preamble stated that governments must rest upon "the consent of the governed," for they are set up to protect certain rights--"Life , Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
 The preamble continued by stating that: "Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes." But the long list of grievances against the King was meant to prove that in THIS case the causes were oppressive and that the Americans had suffered "a long train of abuses and usurpations" which showed an intention "to reduce them under absolute Despotism ."  And finally the preamble pointed out that they had more than a right--they had a duty--to rebel.

The second part of the document was a list of Grievances or a long array of abuses of power from which the colonists felt they had suffered.  Although most of their quarrels had been with acts of Parliament, the list of Grievances was directed at "the present King of Great Britain."  Jefferson did this deliberately.  By attacking the King himself, the colonists were showing that there was NO possibility they could be persuaded to remain within the empire.  In political theory the King was the highest of the political authorities and they were making it clear that they would not accept any British authority.   

In the list of Grievances, Jefferson stressed George's interference with the functioning of representative  government in the colonies, his restrictions on civil rights, and his maintenance of troops in the colonies in time of peace and without their consent.  George was also held responsible for many actions by subordinates that he never authorized and for some things that never happened.    

 In structuring the Declaration of Independence it is apparent that the Continental Congress did not include blacks as members of society. One of the above mentioned fabricated charges against the King was Jefferson's  attempt to blame him for the existence of slavery in the colonies.   Jefferson's effort to include the .black man in the document did not meet with the approval of the Continental Congress who cut the paragraph from the document because of its economic and social implications. Thus, by its intentional omission of blacks, the Continental Congress was indicating its intention to exclude blacks from equal membership in society. Jefferson's paragraph which attacked the institution of slavery is as follows:   

 "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold...suppressing every legislative  attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce ...he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded."
Jefferson said the clause was taken out " complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."

The fact that the founding fathers did not intend to include the blacks as members of society when the Declaration was written was pointed out in the Dred Scott decision in 1857. In that case the U.S. Supreme Court held that Scott, who was a black slave and had sued for his freedom holding that he had become free because of his stay in a free state and free territory, was not a citizen of the United States or the state of Missouri, and thus was not entitled to sue in the federal courts.

In writing his opinion on the case, Chief Justice Roger Taney made reference to the Declaration of Independence. He reasoned that since blacks were not included in the document at that time it was drafted there was never any intent to recognize them as citizens and thus they had never become one.

This raises an important question. How do we interpret the Declaration of Independence: as a racist document or as a document that was reflecting the attitude of society by the standards of that time (which, by today's standards, would be considered racist). Is it sound reasoning to evaluate a document written over 200 years ago by today's values or may it be looked upon as a way of viewing society's growth?

Learning Objective Three: Discuss the function of the Declaration of Independence and its assertion of natural rights.

The Declaration of Independence  announced to mankind  WHY the colonists felt they must separate from the British Empire.  It was an appeal to the world, an attempt to win public understanding  and support both at home and abroad--  piece of political  propaganda: that was the main function of the Declaration.

The document implies that it speaks for the majority of the people in the new United States, when in actuality according to John Adams, only about one third of the American people supported the Revolutionary War.

How effective would the document have been in trying to gain support for the new government if it had stated it only represented one third of the American people?  Thus, in order to gain support for their cause, the patriots implied the document had more support than it really did.

In this manner the patriots justified a revolt by a minority, not a majority. This fact raises an interesting question: Does an oppressed minority have the right to revolt in society today?

In a speech given in 1848, Lincoln stated: "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better,  That is a most valuable, a most sacred right--a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world.  Nor is the right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it.  Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize and make their own of so much of the territory as they inhabit."

The Declaration has become a sacred document in our society and around the world to which men have appealed  when  they  have wished to make drastic reforms or to assert human equality.  In the 1960's the Black Panther party was such a group.  They even printed the preamble of the Declaration in their party platform.

 The problem with the Black Panther's argument, however, is that they were using the Declaration to advocate changes in society to bring about more social and economic equality.  When the draftsmen of the Declaration put their signatures to a parchment declaring that 11All men are created equal,11 they were not endorsing social or economic equality as it is sometimes understood today, nor were they endorsing the idea that all men are created equal in their personal endowments and talents .

 What they meant was that all men share equally in certain basic political rights which governments must not invade; and that possession of these rights puts Americans on the same level as men in England or anywhere else. Hence, the Declaration was written as a political argument and not as an argument for social or economic equality.

The Declaration was also a political justification  for events that had already taken place. The American Revolution was over by 1776 and the 13 states were fighting the war to preserve what they had accomplished by that date. England was fighting the war to gain control over the colonies she never had.  The Declaration did not advocate that changes should take place; it was an attempt to explain WHY the 13 United States had taken the action they had.

  In writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson borrowed quite heavily from the Enlightenment, Newtonian principles and, in particular, from the writings of John Locke and his natural rights doctrine.  Faith in Nature and in Reason was the common denominator of the Enlightenment.

Both Locke and Jefferson accepted the Newtonian world governed by the laws of Nature and of Nature's God.  They accepted, too, the idea that Reason could penetrate and master the laws of Nature, and that Reason could persuade men to conform to the axioms or principles of Reason in philosophy and ethics, politics, economics and the law.  In other words Reason makes things self-evident (to all educated men) if there is a commitment to freedom of the mind--freedom from religious and social superstitions.   These self-evident truths, once discovered, are not only permanent but universal. Jefferson's self-evident truths in the Declaration were no more original than were the arguments in Thomas Paine's Common Sense: the Declaration of Independence was itself simply the common sense of the matter.  This is one reason why it was so generally accepted and WHY it was such a great piece of political propaganda.

 It has also been argued that the signers of the Declaration realized that these truths discussed in the document were not evident to everybody either in America or in Europe.  That is why they said self-evident and not evident to all mankind, and they were careful to point out that it is "We" who hold them to be thus.

Reason forces one to ask if these rights were self-evident to the "Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jack-tars" that John Adams referred to who were the participants of the Boston Massacre. Or how about the poor or marginally  employed young men who participated   m the mob violence from 1765 to 1776.

We know by an act of omission that these self-evident rights did not apply to blacks. In 1688, John Locke appealed to Reason to write a justification  for the Glorious Revolution of that year against King James II for depriving the English people of their natural rights of life, liberty, and property.  What are these rights and what do we mean when we say "Life, Liberty, and Property"? Name one natural right that you have that society cannot take away through legislation and enforcement.

Why did Jefferson write about "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness," and not about "Life, Liberty, and Property"? Keep in mind that Jefferson was asserting the rights and happiness for society as a whole and not the individual