Preserving American Freedom

The Evolution of American Liberties in Fifty Documents

Declaration of Independence: First Newport printing by Solomon Southwick, July 4, 1776

Declaration of Independence: First Newport printing by Solomon Southwick
July 4, 1776
A DECLARATION BY THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,2 IN GENERAL CONGRESS ASSEMBLED.
WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People3 to dissolve the Political Bands4 which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth,5 the separate and equal Station, to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.
WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, 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--- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute [a] new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations,6 pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great-Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.7
HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.8
HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.9
HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them, and formidable to Tyrants only.10
HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.11
HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.12
HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise;13 the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within.14
HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.15
HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.16
HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their [Offices], and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.17
HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance.18
HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures.
HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.19
HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:20
  • FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us.21
  • FOR protecting them, by a mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
  • FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:22
  • FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.
  • FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:
  • FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretending Offences:
  • FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province,23 establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries, so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule into these Colonies:
  • FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
  • FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.24
HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.25
HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.26
HE has constrained our fellow Citizens, taken Captive on the high Seas, to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.27
HE has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.28
IN every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.
NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of Attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties or our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our Connexions and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.
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 the Authority of the good People of these Colonies,29 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 Connexion 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.
Signed by ORDER, and in BEHALF of the CONGRESS, JOHN HANCOCK, PRESIDENT.
ATTEST. CHARLES THOMSON, Secretary.30
Source Information: 
Declaration of Independence: First Newport printing by Solomon Southwick
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Treasures Collection (HSP.Treasures)
Ab-1776-36
Declaration of Independence: First Newport printing by Solomon Southwick
July 4, 1776
Declaration of Independence
July 4th 1776.
Belongs to John R. Bartlett
Providence R.I. Rhode Island
Source Information: 
Declaration of Independence: First Newport printing by Solomon Southwick
The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA
Treasures Collection (HSP.Treasures)
Ab-1776-36
About This Document: 

American independence was far from inevitable in the summer of 1776. On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia presented a resolution for independence to the Second Continental Congress. The resolution was composed as a reaction to the years of British imposition on the American colonies; in recent years, numerous laws had limited colonists' ability to influence their own government. Resistance to many of these acts led King George III to declare his North American subjects to be in a state of rebellion. Many delegates still hoped for reconciliation with Britain, however, and the vote on Lee's resolution was postponed for three weeks.

On June 11, Congress recessed and asked the Committee of Five (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman) to draft a statement that would be considered when the delegates reconvened. Jefferson wrote this draft, and Adams and Franklin edited it. On July 1, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was presented to Congress. By July 2, the Lee Resolution was passed, bolstered by the powerful message contained in Jefferson's writing. On July 4, the Declaration itself was adopted. Copies were sent to every colonial assembly, the Continental Army, King George III, and other countries throughout the world. The Declaration of Independence soon appeared in cities as distant as Warsaw and Florence.

The first printing of the Declaration of Independence took place in Philadelphia on July 4 by John Dunlop, the official printer for the Continental Congress (The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds Dunlop's original printer's proof). On July 6, a copy was sent to the Governor of Rhode Island. Using this copy, Solomon Southwick printed and distributed the first Newport edition of the Declaration. Only six original copies still exist, one of which was acquired by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and is presented in this exhibit.

The Declaration was an explanation for why American colonists believed independence from Britain was justified and a political maneuver to gain an advantage in the war against England. By most definitions, the Revolutionary War was just a rebellion, a civil war among British subjects. The founders knew that other countries would not get involved in a civil war, so they redefined the conflict as one between two sovereign nations. Americans also hoped they would be able to ally with England's enemies, such as France and Spain.

Although the Declaration promoted a sense of American patriotism among many colonists, this reaction was not universal. Tories, colonists who remained loyal to Britain, pointed out the inconsistencies between the language of the Declaration and the reality of the nation they were creating—a nation that would still have slavery. England had made slavery illegal in 1772. Many Tories believed the British had more advanced moral principles and saw no reason to separate from them.

Regardless of its inconsistencies, the ideas expressed in the Declaration were highly influential on progressive movements throughout history. Among numerous examples, the French Revolution of 1789, the Flanders movement for independence in 1790, Francisco de Miranda's revolution in Venezuela in 1810, and the Liberian independence movement of 1847 all drew inspiration from the Declaration of Independence. The 1859 "Declaration of Liberty" condemning the United States for continuing the institution of slavery meticulously echoes the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, South Carolina borrowed language from the Declaration to inspire other states to secede from the Union in 1860.

It is important to remember that the principles and ideas expressed by Jefferson were not as self-evident in 1776 as they appear today. The idea that all human beings are born with the same potential was relatively novel. America was a new nation where the founders could test these revolutionary interpretations of freedom. The United States was, in a sense, a great experiment, and the Declaration its hypothesis. We are still living in that experiment today. Among debates over civil rights, economics, and America's role in the world, the conclusion of that experiment has yet to be reached.

Sources:

David Armitage, "The Declaration of Independence in World Context," OAH Magazine of History 18, no. 3, The Atlantic World (April 2004): 61-66.

"The Declaration of Independence: A History," from The Charters of Freedom, a National Archives (NARA) online exhibit, accessed September 2012, www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_history.html.

Founding.com: A Project of the Claremont Institute, accessed September 2012, www.founding.com.

"The History of the 'First Newport Edition' of the Declaration of Independence," Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Ab-1776-36a.

William Pencak, "The Declaration of Independence: Changing Interpretations and a New Hypothesis," Pennsylvania History 57 (1990): 225-235.

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1991).