The impact of independence

A drawing likening American independence to the coming of age of a young woman

For all its idealism and philosophical content, the Declaration of Independence was designed primarily to achieve real, practical outcomes. With this document the second Continental Congress hoped to draw Americans closer to the revolution; to inspire men to enlist in the Continental Army or the various state militias; to convince those still-equivocating states that the revolutionary cause was right; and to show foreign nations – particularly France – that the revolution was being waged by a single nation rather than thirteen small and disparate colonies. At the time it was written most people did not consider it to be of great importance; it seemed to be just another in the Continental Congress’ stream of declarations and petitions. The crucial measure was Richard Henry Lee’s initial motion to declare independence, passed on July 2nd. The historian Gary Wills refers to Jefferson’s Declaration as “a propaganda adjunct” to Lee’s original motion. And its legendary, almost mythic status today has developed over time; in 1776, the Declaration of Independence was viewed as little more than an interesting resolution of the Continental Congress.

After Congress ratified the Declaration on July 4th its official printer, John Dunlap, was asked to produce 200 copies. They became known as the ‘Dunlap broadsides’ and were distributed amongst the members of Congress, who in turn passed copies onto state assemblies, committees of safety and high-ranking officers in the Continental Army. Washington received a copy of the Declaration of Independence on July 6, and ordered that his men be paraded three days later so that the document could be read aloud to them. He stated in general orders that he hoped “…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 depends, under God, solely on the success of our arms. He is now in the service of a State, possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit.” On July 9, a copy of the Declaration was translated into German and distributed in Pennsylvania, where one-third of the population spoke that particular language. By the end of July the Declaration or extracts from it had appeared in more than 30 different newspapers around the colonies; on August 17 it made its first appearance in a London newspaper. British politicians and theorists penned long-winded responses to the Declaration and its list of charges against the king, the best-known being a 110-page rebuttal by John Lind, though these were largely ineffective and even today are little known. During a September 1776 attempt to negotiate peace, British commander General Richard Howe demanded that American representatives (including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin) retract the Declaration of Independence. They subsequently refused and the fighting continued.

“On the western side of the Atlantic, silencing the Declaration was a more effective governmental response to its challenge than attempting to refute it. When word of the Declaration reached the British colony of Nova Scotia in August 1776, the governor allowed only the last paragraph of the document to be printed, lest the rest of it ‘gain over to the Rebels many converts, and inflame the minds of His Majesty’s loyal and faithful subjects of Nova Scotia’. Back in Britain, the government could not respond openly and officially to the Declaration, for that ‘would be to recognise the right of other states to interfere in matters from which all foreign interposition should forever be precluded.”
David Armitage, historian

News of American independence was greeted with amusement and curiosity elsewhere in Europe, with France and Spain viewing the incident as evidence that British imperial control was failing. There was little or no serious belief that an independent America would survive, however, the prevailing view being that the thirteen ex-British colonies would, in time, align with one or other of the European powers. Back in America, few African-Americans were aware of independence or the text of the Declaration; almost all were illiterate and politically isolated. A few did note the irony of its grand statements about liberty and equality, however. Lemuel Haynes was a 23-year-old mulatto serving in the Massachusetts militia. He wrote of the Declaration: “…liberty is a jewel which was handed down to man from the cabinet of heaven… he that would take away a man’s liberty assumes a prerogative that belongs to another. I query, whether liberty is so contracted a principle as to be confined to any nation under Heaven. Even an African has equally as good a right to his liberty in common with Englishmen.” Haynes would not be the only individual to turn the idealism of the Declaration against those who seemed to ignore its principles. The slave-turned-philosopher Frederick Douglass and civil rights leader Martin Luther King would subsequently refer to Jefferson’s words to justify their cause; so too would resistance and liberation movements in other nations, such as Ho Chi Minh in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945.

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