Hidden history: 6 surprising facts about the American Declaration of Independence


by Woody Holton, University of South Carolina

Editor’s Note: Americans may think they know a lot about the Declaration of Independence, but many of those ideas are elitist and wrong, there Historian Woody Holton explained.

His upcoming book “Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden Story of the American Revolution“Shows how independence and the war of independence were influenced by women, indigenous and enslaved people, religious dissidents and other once overlooked Americans.

In celebration of the 245th anniversary of the United States, Holton offers six surprising facts about the nation’s founding document – including that it failed to achieve its most immediate goal, and that its meaning has changed from its founding to the present day.

Ordinary Americans played a big part

The Declaration of Independence was written by wealthy white men, but the impetus for independence came from ordinary Americans. Historian Pauline Maier discovered that from July 2, 1776By the time the Continental Congress voted to secede from Britain, 90 provincial and local bodies – congresses, city assemblies and even large juries – had made their own statements or instructed Congress to do so.

In Maryland, district assemblies required that the provincial assembly call upon the Maryland Congressman to support independence. Pennsylvania MPs urged their congressional delegates to oppose independence – until the Philadelphians gathered outside the State House, later called Independence Hall, and threatened to overthrow the legislature, which then dropped the order.

American independence is due in part to African Americans

As in the US Constitution, the word “slave” is never used in the final version of the declaration first draft, written by Thomas Jefferson.

In this early draft, Jefferson’s main criticism was that the motherland first forced enslaved Africans on white Americans and then tried to incite them against their patriotic owners. In an objection to which he 168 words – three times as many as any other complaint – Jefferson said George III encouraged enslaved Americans to “acquire the freedom he took away from them by murdering the people on whom he forced it.”

Numerous other white southerners joined Jefferson to vent their anger at the motherland because, as one put it:pointing a dagger at their throats, by the hands of their slaves. “

Britain really had an informal alliance with African Americans – but it was the slaves who initiated it. In November 1774, James Madison became the first white American to report it Slaves planned to take advantage of the divisions between the colonies and the motherland to rebel and gain their own freedom. Initially, the British turned down the African American offer to fight for their king, but the slaves kept going and on November 15, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the last British governor of Virginia, finally published one Declaration of emancipation. It freed all rebellious (patriotic) slaves who could reach its lines and would fight to quell the patriot rebellion.

The Second Continental Congress was talking about Dunmore and other British officials when it claimed in the final draft of the declaration that George III.excited domestic riot among us. ”That brief euphemism was all that remained of Jefferson’s 168-word diatribe against the British for sending Africans to America and then telling them to kill their owners. But nobody missed its meaning.

The complaints did not concern the king

The British King is the subject of 33 verbs in a declaration that never says “Parliament”. But nine of Congress’s most pressing complaints were actually about parliamentary statutes but for its cabinet, which was essentially a creature of parliament.

By targeting only the king – who played a purely symbolic role in the Declaration of Independence, akin to modern America’s Uncle Sam – Congress reiterated its novel argument that Americans shouldn’t cut ties with parliament because they never had any .

The Declaration of Independence does not really condemn the monarchy

As Julian P. Boyd, founding editor of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, pointed out, the Declaration of Independence is “had no necessary antagonism to the idea of ​​royalty in general.”

Indeed, several members of Congress, including Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, openly admired the limited monarchy. Their beef was not with all kings and queens, but with King George III. – and he only as the front man of Parliament.

The declaration of independence failed to achieve its most pressing purpose

In June 1776, delegates in support of independence suggested that France could immediately accept its invitation to an alliance if Congress soon declared. Then the French Navy could start intercepting British supply ships to America in the summer.

But in reality, the French King Louis XVI. long 18 months to agree to a formal alliance, and the first French ships and soldiers did not enter the war until June 1778.

Abolitionists and feminists shifted the Declaration of Independence’s focus to human rights

In keeping with the largely diplomatic purpose of the Declaration of Independence, hardly any of its white contemporaries quoted its now famous phrases about equality and rights. Instead, as the literary scholar Eric Slauter discovered, they highlighted its clauses justifying one nation or state to separate from another.

But before 1776 came out, Lemuel Haynes, a freelance African American soldier who served in the Continental Army, as Slauter also notes, had an essay entitled “Freedom further extended. “He began by quoting Jefferson’s truisms that” all human beings are created equal “and” are endowed with certain inalienable rights by their Creator “.

In highlighting these claims, Haynes began to shift the process, focus, and meaning of the Declaration of Independence from the Congressional Secession Ordinance to a universal declaration of human rights. These efforts were later continued by other abolitionists. black and White, by Suffragettes and from other seekers of social justice, including Abraham Lincoln.

Over time, abolitionists and feminists turned the failed congressional bid for an immediate French alliance into what is arguably the most momentous freedom document ever written.

[The Conversation’s Politics + Society editors pick need-to-know stories. Sign up for Politics Weekly.]

Woody Holton, Professor of History, University of South Carolina

This article was republished by The conversation under a Creative Commons license. read this original article.

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