the  document in different resolutions

From the collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum:

First Printing in German of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4, 1776


Willi Paul Adams *

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America (part 3)

view Chodowiecki's engraving on the Stamp Act

III. Antecedents of the Declaration of independence 1774/75

The majority of the Continental Congress demanded more autonomy than Galloway's plan would have provided for. On October 14, 1774, the Congress decided to leave to the Westminster Parliament only "the regulation of our external commerce, for the purpose of securing the commercial advantages of the whole empire to the mother country and the commercial benefits of its respective members, excluding every idea of taxation." The crown's traditional veto over legislation was still accepted.

The Continental Congress justified this position by constitutional principles that combined the Whig principles of 1688 with the appeal to a universal principle of "all free government". The Intolerable Acts of 1774 were held to be "unconstitutional " because they violated the rights and liberties of "the people of America". Since "the people" could be read to mean either the population of America or to denote the folk or inhabitants of a separate nation, the Congress here, as later in the Declaration of lndependence left the ambiguity for the reader to decide. As the source of the rights of Americans, Congress referred to "the principles of the English constitution", whose protection emigrants from the realm had taken with them across the Atlantic ever since 1608; royal charters had meanwhile reaffirmed their enjoyment of these rights. In addition, Congress invoked "the immutable laws of nature" and insisted that the English colonists in North America "are entitled to life, liberty, and property, and they have never ceded to any sovereign power whatever, a right to dispose of either without their consent. " This core of the Whig doctrine of the origin and purpose of just government not surprisingly reappeared twenty months later in the preamble of the Declaration of lndependence. In simple and clear terms the First Continental Congress claimed that the rights of Englishmen characterize wall free government", which it saw defined by "a right in the people to participate in their legislative council. " The Congress then listed thirteen acts Parliament had passed since 1763 that violated free government in the colonies.

In order to force repeal of the 1774 Intolerable Acts, the Continental Congress on October 20, 1774 called for boycotting British goods and for non-exportation of American goods to British Ports in the Caribbean and elsewhere. The importation of slaves was also to cease as of December 1, 1774. Revolutionary Committees of inspection of towns, counties and colonies enforced substantial compliance with the boycott by threatening merchants and potential buyers and exporters.

Relatively non-violent resistance finally escalated on April 19,1775 to civil war with the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord near Boston. Rebellious militia soon besieged Boston and forced the royal navy to remove to New York. Two decisive miscalculations of the strategists in London who had advocated the tough military measures were now exposed: What was to be an exemplary punishment of Massachusetts did not isolate that colony but triggered solidarity; and fewer loyalists than expected came forth to fight with the Redcoats.

Meeting in Philadelphia in May 1775, a second and from now on permanent Continental Congress of twelve colonies coordinated resistance and negotiations. Not one of the mainland colonies to the south of Nova Scotia attempted separately to deal with the king or his army. The aphorism attributed to Pennsylvania's prominent delegate Benjamin Franklin characterized the intercolonial elite's elementary sense of nationhood at this time: "We either hang together, or separately." To provide leadership to the troops surrounding Boston the Continental Congress on June 15, 1775, appointed the tobacco and wheat planter George Washington from Virginia commander-in-chief.

In order to mobilize volunteers for the militia and the Continental army and to persuade the cautious part of politically active merchants, artisans, farmers and plantation owners, the Continental Congress on July 6, 1775 published a rousing Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Thomas Jefferson and two other members of the drafting committee could make use of this experience when they drafted the Declaration of Independence a year later. Both declarations agree in part of their argument and language because both reflect the fundamental beliefs of American Whigs in the final phase of the power struggle. The explanation of the necessity of taking up arms postulates man's God-given freedom from unlimited power, implicitly rejects colonial rule as unequal treatment of equal subjects, and assesses government by asking whether it achieved its purpose: " A reverence for our great Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common sense must convince all those who reflect upon the subject, that government was instituted to promote the welfare of mankind and ought to be administered for the attainment of that end. " Colonists were, therefore, justified in taking up arms to defend their liberty against any attempt to "enslave" them. Dozens of specific charges of infringements of the colonists' rights since 1763 are then listed. In conclusion, "unconditional submission" and "slavery" are rejected, and the possibility of war is accepted with a note of defiance: "Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable."

To close the St. Lawrence River valley as port of entry and assembly area of the British army, one thousand American troops attempted unsuccessfully from September to December 1775 to permanently occupy Montreal and Quebec. A second attempt in the spring of 1776 also failed. Without massive military aid from France to the Americans, the British army obviously could not be driven from the colonies; and the king of France would provide open military and diplomatic support only to colonies that had definitely seceded from the British Empire.

The Continental Congress took an important step in this direction on April 6, 1776, when it opened the American Ports for vessels from all countries except Britain. This economic declaration of independence preceded the political one. The ending of the government-run mercantilist system thus began as a war strategy. The Scottish enlightenment thinker Adam Smith happened to publish his comprehensive treatise on the advantages of free trade in the same year. In the economist's calmly reasoning language The Wealth of Nations also exposed the disadvantages of closely regulated colonial economies.

The change in public opinion during the spring of 1776 strengthened the pro-independence wing of the Continental Congress. A stirring pamphlet, Common Sense, in January 1776 advocated immediate separation from Britain. In rousing passionate prose, the journalist, radical Whig and republican Thomas Paine, who had only recently left England for Pennsylvania, marshaled the arguments in favor of independence now. He denounced British hereditary monarchy as incompatible with popular sovereignty and with equality. The British constitution may once have been balanced, now it was irreparably corrupted. Any colonist with common sense had to recognize that the time had come for establishing a self-governing American nation: "Under our present denomination of British subjects, we can neither be received nor heard abroad. The custom of all Courts is against us, and will be so until, by an independence, we take rank with other nations." Paine's pamphlet was excerpted in newspapers throughout the colonies and also published in German in Philadelphia. The reactions it triggered further polarized public opinion in the colonies. As late as May 15, 1776, several delegates left the Continental Congress in protest against the recommendation given to the legislatures or congresses to stop requiring oaths of allegiance to the crown from holders of public office in the colonies.

On May 15, 1776, Virginia's legislature instructed its delegates in Philadelphia to vote in favor of declaring independence. Consequently, Virginias delegate Richard Henry Lee on June 7, 1776 introduced the three resolutions cited above. Their discussion and the attempts in Philadelphia and the legislatures of the colonies to persuade and to cajole the hesitant into taking the final step lasted until July 2, 1776. Some of the preparatory resolutions by the states could very well also have inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence. Pennsylvania's legislature, for instance, resolved on June 26, 1776, that "the obligations of allegiance (being reciprocal between a King and his subjects) are now dissolved ... by the despotism" of the king. The Pennsylvanians felt obliged to explain their action to European public opinion:

"We do further call upon the nations of Europe and appeal to the great Arbiter and Governor of the Empires of the World, to witness for us that this declaration did not originate in ambition, or in an impatience of lawful authority, but that we were driven to it, in obedience to the first principles of nature, by the Oppression and cruelties of the aforesaid King and Parliament of Great Britain."

The Virginia Bill of Rights of June 12, 1776 is likely to have had a direct influence on the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had sent home a draft of his own for the Virginia constitution, and he knew George Mason's draft for a declaration of rights. The basic assumption of the Whig theory of just government - the idea of a social contract among citizens with equal rights - had been discussed in hundreds of newspaper articles and pamphlets for over a decade. It was the logical starting point of both declarations. Parallels in the sequence of the argument and similarity of phrases are, therefore, not at all surprising. To justify and explain their declaration of rights the Virginians had resolved:

  1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
  2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants, and at all times amenable to them.
  3. That government is, or ought to be instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety, and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration; and that when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.

view Chodowiecki's engraving on the protest in Boston 1773

view Chodowiecki's engraving on Lexington 1774



view Chodowiecki's engraving on the Declaration  in Congress

* professor at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerika Studien at the Freie Universität Berlin, i.a. editor of Fischer Weltgeschichtsband "Die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika" (1977) and of the dtv-Band "Die Amerikanische Revolution und die Verfassung" (1987) and together with Angela Adams translator of "Le Federaliste" by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1994)



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