Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
(?-1899)
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First Pub. Date
1881
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
1899
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE.

I.352.1

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. The struggle against Great Britain was begun by the English-speaking American colonies without any general idea of independence as a possible result. (See REVOLUTION.) Any such intention, however warmly favored in New England, was very distasteful to the other colonies, and was formally disavowed by congress, July 6, 1775. Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, before the spring of 1776, had enjoined upon their delegates in congress the rejection of any proposition looking to a separation, and New York, Delaware and South Carolina were so much opposed to a separation that their delegates took no prominent part in promoting it. The transfer of the war to the south in May and June, 1776, did much to advance the idea of independence there, and in May the Virginia convention instructed the delegates of that state in congress to propose a resolution declaring for independence, which was done, June 7, by Richard Henry Lee, though his resolution was not formally adopted until July 2. Before July 1, Pennsylvania. Maryland and New Jersey had rescinded the former instructions, and ordered their delegates to vote for the declaration. After debating Lee's resolution, June 8 and 10, in committee of the whole, and appointing a committee of five to draw up a declaration, the question was dropped until July 1, when the declaration, which the committee had reported June 28, was taken up and debated in committee of the whole through July 3. By this time the delegates of South Carolina, who had hitherto voted against it, came over to the majority. Delaware's two delegates were divided, and the New York delegation refused to vote, although personally in favor of the measure. July 4, Rodney, the third delegate from Delaware, was brought hurriedly about 80 miles to secure the vote of his state, and in the evening of that day the declaration of independence was passed, no state in opposition, but New York still refusing to vote. July 9, the New York convention ratified it, and it thus became "The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America." The New York delegation did not sign until July 15, nor six new Pennsylvania members until July 20. One member, from New Hampshire, did not sign until Nov. 4—The committee appointed to draft the declaration were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson, who was no speaker, but had the reputation of being an able writer, was appointed to make the draft, and his draft was accepted, with some few changes, by the committee and by congress. The changes were generally omissions rather than alterations, so that the whole document, as we have it now, contains hardly any words which were not those of Jefferson. The most noteworthy omissions were those of the last two counts of his original indictment of the king, which were as follows: "He has incited treasonable insurrections of our fellow-citizens, with the allurements of forfeiture and confiscation of our property.

I.352.2

—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, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce; and, that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

I.352.3

—The last of these two charges fully expressed Jefferson's theoretical sympathy for the negro race (see ABOLITION, I.), and it is the only place in the whole document where his draft descended to italics to express feeling. But slavery was already too delicate a subject to be rudely touched, and the matter above given was stricken out in obedience to the wish of southern delegates.

I.352.4

—The debates upon the declaration are not sufficiently preserved to give us any adequate idea of their nature, but from all the concurrent testimony of the time it is evident that, though Jefferson was the author of the declaration, to John Adams must be given the credit of its passage. His eloquence and his great influence over the northern delegates insured a hearty support to that which was originally a Virginia measure. Jefferson acknowledges that in the debates he was of necessity a passive auditor of the opinions of others, while Adams "supported the declaration with zeal and ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it." By a singular coincidence, the deaths of the two men were almost simultaneous, occurring on the same day, July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of their joint success in producing the declaration of independence.

I.352.5

—Few state papers have been drawn up with more skill, or with greater adaptation to the purposes in view, than the declaration of independence. Jefferson's first object was to impress upon the whole document the consistent character of a renunciation of future allegiance to the king, while avoiding anything that could be construed into an acknowledgment that the British parliament had ever had any rightful authority over the colonies. The skill with which this difficult path is pursued until the end is most admirable. Parliament, the head and front of the enemies of America, is not even mentioned, except by implication, and then only as a number of lawless and usurping persons with whom the king had combined and confederated to procure the passage of certain unconstitutional acts of pretended legislation. (See REVOLUTION.) Beyond this, of course, a further object was to exhibit such a catalogue of grievances as would justify every American to his own conscience in throwing off the royal authority, and this also was attained with wonderful ability. There is no unseemly violence of language in the declaration. The slow and stately scorn with which the successive counts of the dreadful indictment against the king are rehearsed, is massive in its impressiveness even to us, who have not the living and burning feeling of injury which was in the hearts of its first hearers. Even as a piece of literary workmanship, to be judged by its capacity to affect Anglo-Saxon minds and hearts, Jefferson had right to be proud of it, and it is not wonderful that his first claim to remembrance, as given upon his tomb by his own wish, is that he was the "Author of the Declaration of American Independence."

I.352.6

—The general principles with which the declaration proper begins, the equality (meaning the equality of privilege) of all men, and popular will as the true basis of government, seem to us trite enough now, and are accepted in fact by every government whose subjects have capacity enough to comprehend and assert them. In 1776 they had been asserted again and again in theory, and Jefferson was accused of having stolen them from the declaration of rights by congress in 1774, from James Otis, from Samuel Adams, or from Locke's Treatise on Government. A long list might easily be made of writers who had maintained, in the closet and on paper, sentiments identical with those of the declaration; but, with the possible exception of the English commonwealth, which, however, was sui generis, this was the first time in modern history that these ideas had appeared armed and demanding a hearing. By their successful establishment the declaration has taken, in American history, the place which Magna Charta and the death warrant of Charles I. occupy in English history.

I.352.7

—Upon the essential nature of the declaration there are two opposite opinions, which may be called the Story theory and the Calhoun theory, from their ablest supporters. The Story theory is that the colonies did not severally act for themselves and proclaim their own independence; that the declaration was the united act of all for the benefit of the whole, "by the representatives of the United States of America in congress assembled"; that it was therefore a national act, by the sovereign and paramount authority of the people at large; and that, therefore, from the moment of its passage, the united colonies must be considered a national government de facto, acting by the general consent of the people of all the colonies. The Calhoun theory is that the words "one people" in the preamble refer to the people of each colony severally, not jointly, as the source and fountain of all rightful power; that the congress which made the declaration was a congress of states only; that the delegates of each state signed and joined in the declaration by direction of the several state governments, not in deference to the decision of a majority of congress or of the people at large; that the independence of each separate colony not only of Great Britain, but also of its neighbors, was established before the declaration, by popular assumption of power; that the declaration itself was only an assignment, out of a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, of reasons for the previous exercise of independency by the states; and that the separate states, though acting in common for self-defense, were so far from being a nation in reality that they did not even form a confederation until five years afterward. (See STATE SOVEREIGNTY.)

I.352.8

—The Story theory must be taken as generally most correct. From the inception of Anglo-Saxon political organization upon this continent, growth was a certainty, and, by the circumstances of its surroundings, growth could only take place along the line which is marked out by the Story theory. If the doctrine of the declaration, that popular consent is the basis of government, be accepted, the 13 colonies were already united by their own consent, before 1774, in a common membership in the British empire, as they afterward remained united from 1774 until 1789 under two classes of revolutionary governments, and since 1789 under the present constitution. The form of the government during the interregnum period, 1774-89, which by the Calhoun theory is all-important, is in reality of no importance at all; it is the fact of union which is all-important, and against which it is useless and absurd to argue. Popular consent to union has been continuously and progressively in force from the beginnings of English colonization in America until the present time, and logic is wasted against the patent fact while the consent is not rescinded. As the declaration expressly rescinded the popular consent to further union or political connection with the rest of the British empire, its very silence as to the continuance of union between the colonies themselves is the strongest of affirmations. The union which theretofore existed, by common consent, between the 13 colonies and the rest of the British empire was dissolved by common consent as the result of civil war; but no such common consent to a further dissolution has ever been obtained, and no such common consent can ever be presumed, or arise by inference or implication. It must be express. Nor does the confederating of the states, after the declaration, alter the case, as is contended by the Calhoun theory, for the truth is (see CONTINENTAL CONGRESS) that this scheme of government was either the extra-legislative action of state legislatures, or was as essentially revolutionary as the continental congress. The union must be regarded as continuous, under the British constitution until 1774, under a revolutionary interregnum during the period of 1774-89, and since 1789 under the practical supremacy of the general popular will which had been theoretically declared in 1776 to be the true basis of government.

I.352.9

—But it would be misleading if we should leave it to be inferred, as the Story theory usually does, that the American statesmen and people of 1776 were in all points perfectly cognizant of the full scope and meaning of their action. If the Story theory had been fully explained to the congress of 1776, we would certainly never have had the declaration in exactly its present form. Some of the signers read the instrument with the light of the future upon it, but the great mass acted simply because they were in the full drift of the current which has regularly governed successful political action in this country. In that current, however, there were many strong eddies. State feeling, distrust of other commonwealths, and the strong individualistic bias of the Anglo Saxon character, were constantly prompting the delegates and their state governments to action which was entirely inconsistent with the Story theory and is usually ignored by its supporters. Such are, for example, the emphatic declaration of the Virginia convention, June 20, 1776, that the political connection between that colony and the British empire was totally dissolved; the resolutions of congress, June 24, 1776, that allegiance was due to the separate colonies (see ALLEGIANCE, I.), and that treason was an offense against the colony in which it had been committed; the title given to the declaration by order of congress, "The unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America"; and other instances given under STATE SOVEREIGNTY. All these are constantly quoted as convincing proofs of the soundness of the Calhoun theory; but the candid student, while allowing them their fair value as militating against the general current of American political history, must look upon them as only eddies. Whatever may have been the feeling of any American statesman in 1776, it must be evident that a declaration of the several as well as the joint independence of the colonies, a resolution of the American portion of the British empire into its constituent elements, could never be valid without the express action of each colony at the time, and its successful establishment by separate warfare. To assume it, to obtain it by inference or implication, or to attempt to establish it by argument, would be to erect a monstrosity in the generally orderly history of American politics. (See REVOLUTION; CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF; CONTINENTAL CONGRESS; CONSTITUTION, IV.; STATE SOVEREIGNTY; UNITED STATES.)

I.352.10

—For conditions precedent, as well as for the declaration, see 8 Bancroft's United States, 373; 4 Grahame's United States, 315; 1 J. C. Hamilton's United States, 110; Frothingham's Rise of the Republic, 245-509; 3 J. Adams' Works, 45; 4 Mass. Hist. Soc. Coll, (5th Ser.), 300; 2 Wells' Life of S. Adams, 352; 1 Randall's Life of Jefferson, 124; 1 Rives' Life of Madison, 108; Greene's Historical View of the Revolution, 58; 1 Pitkin's United States, 362. For a fac-simile of Lee's resolution, see 6 Force's American Archives (4th Ser.), 1700. For a fac-simile of the declaration in Jefferson's writing, with the alterations, see 1 Jefferson's Works (ed. 1829), 146. For a fair summing up of the conflicting statements of Jefferson and John Adams, see 1 Curtis' History of the Constitution, 81. See also 1 Lee's Life of R. H. Lee, 275; Letters of John and Abigail Adams, 190; 3, 7 Harper's Magazine; Scribner's Monthly, July, 1876: Potter's American Monthly. December, 1875; Story's Commentaries, § 205; 1 Calhoun's Works; 1 A. H. Stephen's War Between the States, 58; and in general Winson's Reader's Handbook of the Revolution, 102; and authorities under MASSACHUSETTS, and under articles above referred to.

ALEXANDER JOHNSTON.

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