Passed by the Second Continental Congress on July 4th 1776, the Declaration of Independence was not just an expression of philosophy or a cluster of idealistic assertions. It was a tactical document, designed to achieve real and important outcomes in a time of war.
In passing the Declaration, 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 and to convince still doubtful states that the revolutionary cause was right.
It also had an international purpose. The Declaration aimed to show foreign nations and potential allies, most notably France, that the revolution was being waged by a single united nation – not by 13 small and disparate colonies still wedded to Britain.
At the time it was written, many did not consider the Declaration of Independence of great importance. It seemed just another in the Continental Congress’ long stream of declarations and petitions. Richard Henry Lee’s July 2nd motion to declare independence was seen as more significant. The historian Gary Wills refers to Jefferson’s Declaration as “a propaganda adjunct” to Lee’s original motion.
The legendary, almost mythic status the Declaration of Independence enjoys today developed over time. In 1776, the Declaration was viewed as an interesting and well-written 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. They, 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 6th and was impressed by its content. He ordered his men be paraded three days later so that it could be read aloud to them. Washington 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 9th, a copy of the Declaration was translated into German and distributed in Pennsylvania, where one-third of the population spoke that 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 17th, 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 of these was a 110-page rebuttal by John Lind. These rebuttals were ineffective at the time, 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.
News of American independence was greeted with amusement and curiosity elsewhere in Europe, with France and Spain gleefully describing it 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 was that the 13 ex-British colonies would, in time, would rejoin Britain or align with another European power.
Back in America, few African-Americans were aware of independence or the text of the Declaration. This is not surprising, given that most were illiterate and politically marginalised.
A few who could read noted the irony of its grand statements about liberty and equality. 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 was not the only individual to turn the idealism of the Declaration against those whose actions contradicted its principles. The slave-turned-philosopher Frederick Douglass and civil rights leader Martin Luther King later referred to Jefferson’s words to justify their cause. So too did resistance and liberation movements in other nations, such as Ho Chi Minh in the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945.
A historian’s view:
“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.”