George Washington - Ada Russell

The Declaration of Independence

The desirability of cutting the colonies adrift from the mother country was now openly mooted all over the country. Great Britain no longer seemed to be invincible and in any case as it was necessary to fight her it would be safer to do so as an independent State than as rebels. Rebels if caught were subject to every indignity of treatment, and moreover foreign countries were not likely to grant any aid unless such a severance were contemplated. This idea of obtaining aid abroad was coming to be a favourite one, and the scheme which obtained most approval was that of turning to France, whose heart was still burning to avenge the loss of India and Canada. It shocked some minds at first, but once admitted it made way.

On the 7th June, 1776, the delegates from Virginia, who had already moved for the declaration of independence, moved in Congress that measures should be taken immediately for securing the assistance of foreign powers. A committee was appointed for drawing up the Declaration of Independence, a committee composed of John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert R. Livingston and Thomas Jefferson, the great Francophile, whom the others entrusted with the work. Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" was adopted substantially as he drafted it, although it went through a fierce fire of criticism, and it is one of the most vital political documents of history. Congress ended its momentous debate on the 4th July, 1776, "Independence Day," and adopted most of the revolutionary propositions of Thomas Jefferson. We will quote, without comment, a large portion of this famous Declaration:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident," it ran, after a short introduction, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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 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.... When a long train of abuses and usurpations 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; such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present Bing 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."

Here a list of the injuries and usurpations of George III is "submitted to a candid world"—refusing his assent to wholesome and necessary laws, dissolving the Rouses of Representatives "for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people; refusing to allow other Assemblies to be elected after he had thus dissolved the old ones, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise"; discouraging immigrations and so keeping the population down; keeping up a standing army in the colonies in time of peace; and making the military power independent of and superior to the civil power. "He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitutions and unacknowledged by our laws, giving his assent to their acts a pretended legislation for quartering large bodies of armed troops among us; 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; 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 pretended offences; for abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighbouring province, 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 powers of our governments; for suspending our own legislatures and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever."

"He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us."

A list of unparental actions follows, for Great Britain had been "deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity."

Jefferson's next sentences were not adopted by Congress for the Declaration, but they are of interest t

"We must endeavour to forget our former love for them, and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have been a free and great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom, it seems, is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it! The road to happiness and to glory is open to us too. We will tread it apart from them."

The Declaration ran somewhat differently here:

"We mast 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."

The famous document thus concluded:

"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, solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent slates; 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 honour."

The news that the deed was done, and that by the action of Congress the long-talked of separation from Great Britain had become a fact, to which a large number of the colonists had engaged their honour, was carried all over Philadelphia and its suburbs by the "Bell of Liberty," a bell of English manufacture fixed in the State-House and strangely enough bearing the appropriate inscription: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."

The revolutionaries in New York, on hearing the news, gave way to various acts of jubilation, including the destruction of a leaden statue of George III on the Bowling Green. It was broken up into bullets "to be used in the cause of independence."

Washington was at New York when he received a copy of the Declaration of Independence and was informed that Congress had actually adopted it. He was extremely glad and at 6 o'clock in the evening of the 9th July, 1776, he had it read to the troops at the head of each brigade. "The General hopes," he said in the Order of the Day, "that this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his country depend, under God, solely on the successes of our arms." It was a dark and sad day for Great Britain, for many people when they came to hear of it thought that an irreparable blow had been dealt her. The Declaration of Independence was in no way accepted as ultimate, but it was realised that the mother country stood in danger of losing for ever what had come to seem of late years (in Chatham's words) the brightest jewel in the Crown.

It was some time before the news got to Great Britain, but in America it flew from town to town in a very short space of time and caused frantic excitement. The rebels at least had little doubt that a new State had started on its course, and a few of them, like Jefferson, believed that a great future lay before it, but even Jefferson, we think, would have been astounded if he could have seen his country after the course of a century. Which of the founders of the American republic would not have been amazed if he could have foreseen that in a little over a hundred years' time it would be the equal of the oldest and most famous States of Europe? What in still another hundred years will this splendid child of Great Britain have become? Through the United States of America, it may well be that the future of civilisation is to the British race.