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


Heidemarie Anderlik, Hans-Martin Hinz, Christoph Stölzl *

»We hold these truths to be self-evident...«


The Declaration of Independence proclaimed by the thirteen United States of America on the 4th of July 1776 is one of the most significant documents of modern times. In it the unalienable rights of man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined as the basis of all political action. The document, written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, reflects the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment as well as a home grown American self-consciousness whose roots can be traced back to the Reformation.

The great emancipatory movement of the 16th century, the Reformation, brought forth groups of people who felt the church reforms in their own countries did not go far enough. They were looking for a sanctuary where they would be free to worship in their own way; they found it in the British colonies in North America.

Under Elizabeth I. Britain had become a strong and expanding naval power. This circumstance offered the Puritans, a strict Calvinist religious community, an outlet through which they could find social and religious self-realization. At the time, the Crown granted land and jurisdiction in America to British trading companies and corporations in the form of Royal Charters, thus providing an opportunity for emigration to these territories and at the same time allowing the colonists to take possession of the Eastern coast of America that lay between the French and Spanish colonies in the north and south.

The foundations of political self-determination that were later to shape American society were already laid down in the "Company of Massachusetts-Bay in New England". It was here that the puritans settled. Under the leadership of John Winthrop they began arriving at Massachusetts Bay in 1630 and founded here a community along strict religious lines. The shareholders in the company, freemen who were also church members, elected their representatives to a council, the General Court, which issued its own laws governing such matters as the protection of property or a tax exemption for people not eligible to vote, thus creating the basis for legislative actions. The General Court was later divided into a legislative (Governor's Council) and a judicial branch (Supreme Court), which laid the ground for the separation of powers as it is practiced today. Another factor that made it easier for the colonists to act autonomously and with relative independence from the crown was that the governor of the company was at the same time governor of the colony (the executive branch), because it had been established in the Royal Charter that the seat of the company was to be Massachusetts, not London as with the other trade companies.

Signs of democratic self-government could also be found in another early British settlement in Virginia. The Virginia Company of London, technically a "shareholding by Royal deed of enfeoffment", sent colonists to Virginia who founded Jamestown in 1607. All freemen of 16 years and older were entitled to vote in elections for the colony's house of representatives, the House of Burgesses. Each community sent two representatives. The House of Burgesses determined, for instance, the level of taxation. Nowhere in the world was there comparable participation in political decisions.

The colonies' ability to act independently was augmented as a result of the civil wars that ravaged England from time to time during this period (the Puritan Revolution began in 1642). In the northern colony of Massachusetts the colonists had a freer hand than those in Virginia, who supplied raw materials (tobacco, rice, indigo) to Britain. The Boston area was made up of communities marked by the doctrine of predestination; to them their virtuous life would contribute to creating the kingdom of God on earth and they interpreted the success of their work as a sign of divine approval. In this atmosphere they were able to develop a very successful independent economic system of trade, cultivating lucrative commercial ties with the neighboring colonies and as far away as the Caribbean, for the most part undisturbed by British control or intervention. At the same time, the strict religious way of life required in Massachusetts also contributed in its own way to the founding of more liberal and tolerant colonies such as Pennsylvania, the principal destination of the early German emigrants to America.

As the political situation in England began to stabilize in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89, the conflict between Britain and its American colonies again picked up strength. London tried to restrict the role of the colonies to that of suppliers of raw materials and saw in them little more than a market outlet for British merchandise. To facilitate this aim, the Crown deprived the colonies of self-government.

The outcome of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which sealed Britain's victory over France in the colonial wars in North America, led in the following years to a breach with the motherland. The resulting consolidation of England's power and consequent increased intervention in the economic affairs of the colonies ran contrary to their conception of themselves. The revolutionaries came to see the rebellious act of secession as a prerequisite for their ability to act in freedom. In the Declaration of Independence, appealing to truths held to be self-evident, they declared the claim to power of the old authorities to be null and void, proclaimed the sovereignty of the people and elevated the rights of man to the credo of American democracy, as it were. The Declaration of Independence approved on the 4th of July 1776 served as a guideline for the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" during the French Revolution of 1789 and formed thereafter the foundation for democratic movements in Europe and throughout the world.




*Editors for the Deutsches Historisches Museum



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