The Declaration of Independence’s Grievances Against King George III

Author’s note: Common knowledge about the Declaration of Independence often contains misconceptions and inaccuracies, as outlined by scholar Woody Holton.

In his recent publication in 2021, “Liberty is Sweet: The Obscure History of the American Revolution,” Holton highlights the impact of non-traditional figures like women, Indigenous groups, enslaved individuals, religious dissenters, and other overlooked segments on the journey to independence and the Revolutionary War.

On the occasion of America’s anniversary, Holton shares six intriguing revelations about the genesis of the nation’s foundational manuscript, including its original failure to achieve primary objectives and the evolution of its significance from inception to present day.

The Crucial Role of Everyday Americans

Although the Declaration of Independence’s authors were affluent white men, the push for independence originated from the common populace. Historian Pauline Maier unearthed that by July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress voted for separation from Britain, 90 regional and local assemblies – ranging from conventions and town gatherings to grand juries – had already crafted their proclamations or instructed Congress accordingly.

In Maryland, county assemblies demanded the provincial convention to urge Maryland’s delegates to endorse independence. The Pennsylvania legislators directed their delegates to oppose independence until Philadelphians converged outside the State House (later dubbed Independence Hall) and threatened upheaval, leading to the withdrawal of this directive.

Significance of African Americans in American Independence

While the final version of the Declaration, akin to the U.S. Constitution, omits the term “slave,” the initial draft penned by Thomas Jefferson prominently featured African Americans.

Jefferson’s preliminary draft primarily censured the motherland for forcibly bringing enslaved Africans to America and inciting them against their patriot owners. Jefferson dedicated 168 words to this grievance – three times the length of any other complaint – highlighting how George III promoted enslaved individuals to purchase the freedom deprived by their oppressors through homicidal means.

Several other white Southerners echoed Jefferson’s ire towards Britain for what one described as “threatening them with a dagger through their Slaves.”

Although an informal allegiance with African Americans did exist, it was the enslaved individuals who initiated this connection. By November 1774, James Madison reported the inception of a plot amongst slaves to leverage the discord between the colonies and the motherland to seek liberty. Initially rebuffed by the British, the slaves persisted, leading to Lord Dunmore, Virginia’s final British governor, issuing an emancipation proclamation on November 15, 1775, freeing patriots’ slaves who sided against the rebellion.

The final version of the Declaration referenced George III for “inciting insurrection among us,” encapsulating Jefferson’s extensive censure of British actions towards African Americans in a concise manner understood by all.

The presentation of the Declaration of Independence by its drafters to the Continental Congress. (John Trumbull/Wikimedia Commons)

Precision of Grievances in the Declaration

Although the Declaration was rife with references to the king, employing 33 verbs to describe actions directed towards him, it notably never mentioned Parliament. However, nine of the most critical grievances actually pertained to parliamentary statutes. Moreover, even British authorities tasked with curbing Colonial smuggling operated not directly under George III but under the purview of his Cabinet, essentially an extension of Parliament.

This selective focus on the king, who served a symbolic role akin to modern Uncle Sam, reinforced Congress’ distinct argument on American independence vis-à-vis Parliament.

The Declaration’s Stance on Monarchy

Contrary to popular belief, the Declaration of Independence did not inherently denounce monarchy, as highlighted by Julian P. Boyd, the esteemed editor of “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson.” Boyd noted that the Declaration essentially “bore no intrinsic hostility towards the concept of kingship in general.

Several members of Congress, including John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, actually held admiration for limited monarchy. Their objections were not against all monarchical systems but specifically against King George III given his role as the face of Parliament.

Unrealized Aspirations of the Declaration

In June 1776, proponents of independence suggested that a prompt declaration could prompt France’s immediate alliance, enabling French naval intervention against British supplies heading to America that very season.

However, the actuality differed significantly, with French King Louis XVI deliberating for a prolonged 18 months before formalizing an alliance, thereby delaying the deployment of French naval forces and troops to June 1778.

The Emphasis on Human Rights by Abolitionists and Feminists

Contrary to its diplomatic intent, few among the Declaration of Independence’s contemporary audience emphasized its now-celebrated assertions on equality and rights. Instead, as noted by literary scholar Eric Slauter, the focus encompassed clauses justifying the separation of one entity from another.

By the close of 1776, Lemuel Haynes, an African American soldier in the Continental Army, penned “Liberty Further Extended,” quoting Jefferson’s assertions on equality bestowed by the Creator. Haynes initiated the shift in Declaration’s interpretation from a secession decree to a universal assertion of human rights. This shift gained momentum through abolitionists, both Black and white, women’s rights advocates, and proponents of social justice, such as Sarah Grimké and Abraham Lincoln.

Over time, abolitionists and feminists reframed Congress’ thwarted bid for an immediate French alliance, transforming it into arguably the most influential declaration of freedom ever crafted.

This content originally appeared on The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Refer to the source article for further details.

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