For many Americans, the entirety of the Declaration of Independence can be summed up by Thomas Jefferson’s stirring preamble: “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.”
But in fact, the main purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to present a compelling case that King George III and the British Parliament had broken their own laws, leaving the American colonists no choice but to cut ties and “throw off” British rule. To accomplish that, Jefferson and the Continental Congress compiled a laundry list of grievances—27 in total—meant to prove to the world that King George was a “tyrant” and a lawbreaker.
Drafted Like a Prosecutor's Opening Statement
That “legalistic” motivation is clear from the language of the Declaration itself, which sounds like a prosecutor’s opening statement: “The history of the present King 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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
English law included provisions for dethroning a monarch who had breached the law, says Don Hagist, editor of the Journal of the American Revolution, so the Declaration served as a kind of “impeachment” proceeding, laying out the charges against the chief executive.
“These grievances were a list of charges and accusations, a legal argument for why the king was not following the laws of England that were in place at the time,” says Hagist.
The Declaration Was Not the First List of Colonial Grievances
A full decade before the Declaration of Independence, American colonists were infuriated by the Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed a direct tax on newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, dice and playing cards in an effort to raise money for Britain. In protest of “taxation without representation,” nine of the 13 colonies convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York City and issued a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances.”
In that 1765 declaration, the Stamp Act Congress appealed to King George “with the warmest sentiments of affection” and reserved its ire for Parliament. The Americans asserted that the Stamp Act and earlier laws like the Sugar Act and Quartering Act “have a manifest destiny to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists” and would be “extremely burdensome and grievous.”
Then in 1774, Jefferson penned a document called “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” a lengthy and sometimes acid-penned list of grievances that was published as an anonymous pamphlet. Like other colonial leaders, Jefferson was furious that Parliament had dissolved several colonial legislatures (including Jefferson’s own House of Burgesses in Virginia) in response to the Boston Tea Party.
“Shall these governments be dissolved, their property annihilated, and their people reduced to a state of nature, at the imperious breath of a body of men, whom they never saw, in whom they never confided?” wrote Jefferson. “Can any one reason be assigned why 160,000 electors in the island of Great Britain should give law to four millions in the states of America, every individual of whom is equal to every individual of them, in virtue, in understanding, and in bodily strength?”
Continental Congress Gathers to Draft Colonial Response
Months later, in September of 1774, the First Continental Congress brought together delegates from 12 of the colonies (Georgia was absent) in Philadelphia to draft a coordinated colonial response to Parliament’s latest punitive laws, collectively known as the Intolerable Acts.
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“The whole purpose of the First Continental Congress was to say, we all have to work together to formalize what our objections are to what the British government is doing,” says Hagist.
The document they signed on October 14, 1774 was also known as the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” similar to the one produced by the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, and included a list of “infringements and violations” by Parliament and the Crown that, in the Congress’s words, “demonstrate a system formed to enslave America.”
Grievances in the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was drafted by the Second Continental Congress, which met under very different circumstances. War broke out between the British and the Colonies in 1775, so several of the 27 grievances in the Declaration referred to “crimes” committed by the Crown during the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
“[King George III] is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries,” wrote Jefferson in the Declaration, “to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages.”
That grievance referred to King George’s use of Hessian “mercenaries” from modern-day Germany to fight on behalf of the British during the Revolutionary War, a move that incensed the colonists.
Another grievance accused the king of having “plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” That was a reference to the bombardment of Falmouth (modern-day Portland), Maine, in 1775. On that occasion, a British naval commander, exacting revenge for an earlier insult, gave the 3,800 citizens of Falmouth two hours to flee the port city before razing it to the ground with a barrage of cannon fire.
Other grievances, like “cutting off our trade with all parts of the World,” were longstanding colonial beefs with the British. Merchants and traders were the lifeblood of the colonial economy, but starting with the Navigation Acts of the 1650s, Parliament sought to control colonial maritime trade. First, goods could only be shipped on British ships. Then, they could only be traded with England. And finally, in 1775, all American trade was barred with the outbreak of war.
Colonists Sought Allies to Fight England
The Declaration of Independence wasn’t really written for King George III or Parliament. The Revolutionary War was well underway by the summer of 1776, so England certainly knew where the Americans stood on their claims of independence. Instead, the Declaration and its 27 grievances were intended to prove “to a candid World”—specifically France and Spain—that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”
For that reason, says Hagist, it was really important that the text of the Declaration of Independence be published abroad. “Of course it would be highly publicized to try to get support from anywhere in the world that support could be gotten.”
One of the first places that the Founders wanted to publish the Declaration of Independence was in France, England’s traditional enemy which had just lost the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War in the United States). The Americans even created a “Committee on Secret Correspondence,” headed by Benjamin Franklin, to send agents to France and other European countries to try to win support for the Revolution.
On July 8, 1776, less than a week after signing the Declaration, Franklin and his secret committee sent a copy of the document to Silas Deane, an American agent in France, with instructions to translate the Declaration and share it with the royal courts of both France and Spain. But the package to Deane never arrived.
Instead, the first foreign newspapers to print the Declaration of Independence were two London papers on August 16, 1776—“That was very quick by the standards of the day,” says Hagist—followed by papers in Scotland, Germany and Ireland. By August 30, a French-language newspaper in the Netherlands was the first to print the Declaration of Independence in French.
France proved instrumental to American victory in the Revolutionary War, providing an estimated 12,000 soldiers and 32,000 sailors. France was the first to recognize the United States as an independent nation and the two countries formed an official alliance in 1778.