The Declaration of Independence: Thirteen Colonies Yearning to Be Free
What does Independence Day - the 4th of July - mean to you? Is it just a holiday to eat, drink, and light off fireworks? Do you display and wave the flag of the United States out of habit - because everyone else on the block does it? Do you cover your table with a plastic table cloth of stars and stripes and decorate your yard with red, white, and blue because that's what Target and Walmart remind you to do with its holiday displays and sales? Do you actually understand what the 4th of July signifies? Did you sleep through that lesson in American History Class? Was it even taught to you at all?
I just hope you aren't one of those Americans who thinks it's the big event of the summer to enjoy cook-out food and watch fireworks.
When I was very young, I thought Independence Day marked the day when the 13 colonies defeated the British for our independence. Then in middle school, I learned that it marked the date the Declaration of Independence was signed. That was the extent of my understanding until I did my own reading. Soon I learned that not only was the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, but that it was an act of treason against the British Crown. It was an act of treason because while the colonies were fighting for their independence, the British were fighting to quash their rebellious nature for good. Rebellion against the Crown was high treason and it would not be tolerated.
But it wasn't until I graduated law school that I was finally able to appreciate the real significance of the Declaration of Independence. First and foremost, and above all else, it was a secessionist document. It announced the separation (secession) of America's thirteen independent colonies from the (oppressive) mother country, Great Britain. Sure, the name of the document was "The Declaration of Independence," which pretty much tells the reader what it will declare. And yes, the ultimate purpose of the document was to declare the intention of the colonies - to be free and independent from Great Britain. But, the American colonies could only claim their independence if and when they had severed their bonds with Great Britain. That is, they could only claim their independence once they had seceded from her.
Amazingly, I learned all about secession and about it being a fundamental, organic right that no constitution or other compact or agreement can extinguish from reading and studying the Declaration of Independence. (I never learned about it in school, which makes complete sense. The government would never want its children to grow up having a fundamental understanding of the right of secession. Abraham Lincoln, after all, is the government's poster child, it's greatest president...... He destroyed the idea in the mind of the States and then in the minds of American citizens that there is no right of secession).
Second of all, it set out the reasons for secession, laying the primary reason on the importance of man's natural and inalienable rights and the right to have a government that secures them and protects them for the enjoyment and free exercise of the People. Simply put, as its author Thomas Jefferson explained: "The Declaration of Independence... is the declaratory charter of our rights, and of the rights of man." And in that magnificent document, Jefferson has laid out the natural order of our rights and the natural purpose and limits of government.
But before I go any further into the meaning of the Declaration, I think it's important to make clear, as Michael Maharrey makes clear in his article "The Declaration of Independence Birthed 13 Sovereign Nations," (Tenth Amendment Center, July 3, 2019), that July 4, 1776 marks the date when thirteen independent colonies, not a consolidated group of colonies, declared their independence. When the war was concluded, when Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 and then when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 4, 1783, what was birthed was NOT an independent United States of America (one nation) but rather thirteen independent States, united in their affection for one another and their willingness to work together for common goals.
Just look at the words of the Declaration and of the Treaty of Paris.
The last paragraph of the Declaration famously reads:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
One of the key points of the Treaty of Paris reads: "Britain acknowledges the United States (New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) to be free, sovereign, and independent states, and that the British Crown and all heirs and successors relinquish claims to the Government, property, and territorial rights of the same, and every part thereof."
The Declaration of Independence was almost forced on the colonies by history's happenstance. It began with the colonies' restlessness in the wake of an over-zealous King and Parliament which first sought to extract tax revenue from them (without representation) and then to oppress and subjugate them as a means of punishment. They were punished for daring to stand up for their rights as Englishmen, as Englishmen had done for over 500 years of their history. Indeed, the history of England has been a history of repeated attempts, first by the barons and then by all subjects, to assert basic human rights and to demand from the King a promise (a charter) that he will respect such. Some of the attempts were successful and some only temporary, but all of England's notable charters were signed and limited the reach of the King and Parliament, even if only for a very short time.
Some of these charters and other significant documents include: The Charter of Liberties of King Henry I (1100), the Magna Carta (1215), the Petition of Right (1628), the Grand Remonstrance (1641), and the English Bill of Right of 1689. This history is critical for the foundation for our country because all total, these documents establish the notion that government must respect boundaries on the individual, acknowledging that they have certain essential rights and liberties. The rights and liberties asserted and re-asserted in these documents are the "rights of Englishmen" that the colonists most eagerly embraced and were most eager to protect.
Author Brion McClanahan explains the significance of England's grand history in his article Rethinking the Declaration of Independence: "In 1100, King Henry I of England agreed to restrictions on his power through the Charter of Liberties. The English barons rejected absolute authority and sought to preserve traditional decentralized "government." Just over one hundred years later, in 1215, King John was forced again by the English nobles to sign the Magna Charta. The "Great Charter," as it is known in English, declared that the king was not above the law - making him essentially equal to the nobles - and it resisted the trend toward centralization in England. Though on the books, the Magna Charta was often ignored by more powerful English monarchs, but several of its provisions became the basis of English common law, most notably the writ of habeas corpus." (See the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679).
In October 1214, King John returned to England in disgrace. His mission to reconquer his lost territory in northern France had failed and other military campaigns were unsuccessful as well. He taxed England's barons heavily to finance these campaigns and they were not happy. Upon his return, he found that a group of angry barons from across the country had formed an association and were prepared renounce him as king. Over the next eight months, they made repeated demands to the King, requesting that he give them a guarantee that he would observe their rights. But the negotiations amounted to nothing. And so, on May 5 of that year, the barons gathered and agreed to declare war on King John. On May 17, 1215 they captured London, the largest town in England, without a fight. With London lost and ever more supporters flocking to the side of the barons, the King John realized he would have to address their concerns.
On June 8, he notified the barons of his willingness to negotiate. Over the next few days, the barons assembled in great numbers at Runnymede, a relatively obscure meadow just a few miles from Windsor castle, where King John was based. They arrived to repeat their demands and negotiate peace terms. On June 15, the barons presented their terms to the King and he signed the great document - The Great Charter ("Magna Carta").
In Chapter 39 of Magna Carta, one of the document's most important clauses, King John made the following promise: "No freeman shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land."
Here, it was agreed that the Crown and his administration would not arrest, outlaw, banish, or incarcerate any free man, deprive him of his rights, possessions or legal standing, or otherwise take official and forceful action against him, except in accordance with the lawful judgement of his equals or in accordance with the laws of the Kingdom. This was, in embryonic form, the principle of due process of law: The government shall not deprive any person subject to its jurisdiction of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The Magna Carta provided that justice was to be guaranteed to every person in the Kingdom, that the right of justice would not be sold, delayed, or denied to any person. Thus, this critical, historic document provided that every freeman - i.e., every Englishmen who was not a serf - was to enjoy security and protection from illegal interference by the King (ie, government) in his person and property. [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr. (Professor of Political Science), "The American System of Government...."] The terms listed in the Magna Carta would later be referred to as "the ancient rights and liberties of Englishmen" in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
King John, in giving his consent to Magna Carta, agreed that: (1) the Monarch was subject to the law of the Kingdom and (2) the law placed limits on royal authority. This reflected an early stage in the development of the central idea of English and American constitutionalism - the idea that the ruler was not above the law and therefore had to abide by the law and stay within the limits the law imposed on his power. [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.]
Under Magna Carta, the King still governed England, but he had to share with the barons one important sphere of political authority - the power of taxation. All royal requests for extraordinary taxes had to be submitted to the Common Council for its consideration and decision. When it came to the King's raising revenue by means other than collecting the feudal fees and aids in amounts due him by customary right, he had to share with the barons, the largest and most powerful bloc in the Common Council, the authority to make binding decisions. The requirement, stipulated in Magna Carta, that the King submit proposals for extraordinary taxation to an assembly of his leading subjects - the barons and the Church officers of high rank - was one small but significant step on the long road to firmly establishing as a constitutional guarantee, truly binding on the Monarch and all other officers of the government, the age old principle of English government that no subject could be taxed without his consent, given by the subject directly in person or indirectly through elected representatives in a legislative assembly. [See Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.].
When Britain began taxing the colonies without allowing them representation in Parliament, particularly with the Stamp Tax, the colonists asserted this basic right from the Magna Carta in their protest slogan "No taxation without representation." The phrase actually originated with Massachusetts attorney James Otis about 1761, who proclaimed: "Taxation without representation is tyranny!"
After the Magna Carta, the Petition of Right of 1628, which was written by Parliament, was presented to King Charles I to re-assert the civil liberties of his subjects. The Petition contained four main points: (1) No taxes could be levied without Parliament's consent; (2) No English subject could be imprisoned without cause-thus reinforcing the right of habeas corpus; (3) No quartering of soldiers in citizens' homes; and (4) No martial law may be used in peacetime. Each of these four points enumerated specific civil rights that Englishmen felt Charles I had breached throughout his reign. Although he'd never been that popular as the monarch, his abuse of power against the people escalated to an intolerable level after Parliament refused to increase taxation and finance his unpopular foreign policies. The purpose of the Petition was to seek redress for the serious grievances Charles had committed.
When Charles showed no sign of repenting, Parliament drafted an extensive list of grievances which it presented to him on December 1, 1641. The grievances included 204 instances of gross abuses of the King's power and usurpations of the rights of the people. Preceding this list of grievances were the following significant paragraphs:
For the preventing of those miserable effects which such malicious endeavours may produce, we have thought good to declare the root and the growth of these mischievous designs: the maturity and ripeness to which they have attained before the beginning of the Parliament: the effectual means which have been used for the extirpation of those dangerous evils, and the progress which hath therein been made by His Majesty's goodness and the wisdom of the Parliament: the ways of obstruction and opposition by which that progress hath been interrupted: the courses to be taken for the removing those obstacles, and for the accomplishing of our most dutiful and faithful intentions and endeavours of restoring and establishing the ancient honour, greatness and security of this Crown and nation.
The root of all this mischief we find to be a malignant and pernicious design of subverting the fundamental laws and principles of government, upon which the religion and justice of this kingdom are firmly established.
The Grand Remonstrance would help precipitate a civil war in England and eventually lead Parliament to file official charges of high treason against Charles I. He would be tried, convicted, and executed (beheaded) in 1649. His son Charles II was exiled and his other son James II was able to escape to France dressed as a girl.
When England erupted in this civil war, the Parliament asserted its authority and suspended the reign of the Monarch, and by 1688 had become the driving force behind English law and policy. From 1649 to 1660, England became a republic. At first it was ruled by Parliament, but in 1653, Oliver Cromwell, commander of the army, became Lord Protector of England and served until he died (1658; his son took over briefly). Eventually the blood line of Charles I was restored in 1660 first with Charles II (who sat on the throne at the time of the plague and the great fire of London) and then in 1665, with James II. He was terribly unpopular, and in fact, was widely hated by the people. Not only did he force his Roman Catholic faith on the British people, but he willingly allowed the persecution of Protestants. He was forced to give up the crown in the Glorious Revolution (the "Bloodless Revolution") of 1688.