The Declaration of Independence – what did it do?

The Declaration of Independence was signed on the 4th July 1776. This was the moment that the thirteen colonies confirmed that they intended to become independent sovereign states and they would break-away from the control of Great Britain.

The 13 Colonies

When the Declaration of Independence was signed the thirteen colonies had been at war with Great Britain for a year. The American Revolutionary War had started for a number of reasons, however, the most prominent was the practice of ‘taxation without representation’ – the thirteen colonies paid taxes to the British Government but had no representation in the British Parliament. This meant that the implementation of these controversial acts were done without the consent of any of the colonists. Some examples of these acts include:

The Stamp Act (1765) – This was a new tax which taxed the colonies for a large variety of printed materials, like legal documents.

The Townshend Acts (1767) – These were a series of new additional taxes that essentially charged the colonies for hosting British personnel, like the armed forces and governors.

Boston Tea Party

The Boston Tea Party was a famous event in May 1773. The protest was against the Tea Act, one of a number of Acts that raised taxes for the Thirteen Colonies.

There is no doubt that the Declaration of Independence was a key moment in the American Revolution. Representatives of all thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia to sign the document that famously proclaimed:

“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.”

However, the declaration was not the birth of the United States of America, although it is a common misconception that it was. In signing the declaration, the thirteen states were proclaiming their independence from Britain, not forming a new nation.

Although the 13 colonies were working collaboratively through the continental army and continental congress, the colonies were diverse in their make-up and outlook on the future. What followed the Declaration of Independence were the Articles of Confederation, a failed attempt to create a loose state of the thirteen colonies.

However, even though the Declaration of Independence did not lead directly to the signing of the US Constitution, it did have a number of importance influences:

  1. It provided the ideological foundation for democratic government in America

The declaration of independence clearly set out the foundations of democratic governance. It states that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. It goes on to state that when Government becomes destructive, the people have a chance to change it.

  1. It clearly outlined the notion of popular sovereignty should be

The declaration goes onto to outline that their justification for their declaration of independence is that the General Congress are the “representatives of the united States of America”.

  1. It outlined the importance of limited government in any future constitutional settlement

The declaration clearly indicates a number of transgressions that the British Government, through George III, are guilty of. It says:

“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”

“He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.”

“He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”

George III

George III was accussed of tyrannical rule over the Thirteen Colonies.

  1. It led to the Articles of Confederation being signed in November 1777.

Although the Declaration of Independence was not the declaration of a new country, it clearly led to the Articles of Confederation. The joint declaration was the starting point of greater co-operation between the colonies, that led to an attempt confederation between 1783 and 1788.

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