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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for the Declaration of Independence

  Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in London by Mather Brown, 1786 (Wikimedia Commons) Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in London by Mather Brown, 1786 (Wikimedia Commons) In 1775 Jefferson was elected to the Continental Congress.  He drafted the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776. Locke, Grotius, and Samuel Pufendorf deeply shaped Jefferson’s thinking.  Historians differ on whether the American Revolution was primarily an intellectual movement or an economic dispute.  It has been said that the American Revolution was a tax revolt in patriotic dress.  Either an Enlightemnent battle over natural rights and citizenship, or an expression of pique by merchant interests, by the mid 1760’s, differences between Britain and the colonies were exacerbated by a series of economic disputes.   At issue: trade and taxes and duties on goods that were levied on the colonies to pay for the cost of Empire.  Britain was deeply in debt. Mercantilism was orthodoxy, and as such, the thought was that the colonies should contribute more to the common security of the realm.     

Aside from noting in detail the grievances, or “usurpations” of Britain, the Declaration reflects the shift in ideas of representation and democratic legitimacy taking place at the time.  In the 1760s and 70’s, English constitutional theory stood on a different understanding of representation than those that the principles articulated in the Declaration would advance.  This difference is best understood via the Revolutionary cry of “no taxation without representation.”  Contrary to the understanding of representation that sits at the core of the Declaration, the English Parliament did not serve as a forum for particular regions or people to advance their parochial interests, but rather was thought to serve the interests of the whole.  Parliament in Britain was based on a trusteeship of the national interest, what was called virtual representation, whereas the Declaration argued for a theory of representation wherein representatives would advance the interests and voices of constituents.   The town meetings and local legislatures of the colonies reflected a different and more participatory approach to politics that proved a major influence.  This difference in views about representation, along with disputes over trade, taxes, tea, and authority would end in musket fire in 1775 in Lexington and Concord.

In 1776 the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia.  Delegates differed about the goals of war, but agreed to support the project.  Moderates wished for reconciliation and others, led by Samuel and John Adams, favored breaking ties. The different approaches in the Continental Congress reflected the disagreement in the colonies themselves, differences that the Declaration would try to persuasively address.  Was this an economic dispute, a political dispute, both, or something else?

Benjamin Franklin and John Adams assisted the 33 year old Jefferson in writing the Declaration.  In the previous months, at least ninety local declarations of independence were circulating around the colonies.   Jefferson relied on them, as well as the social contract theory of John Locke in his writing.  

Reform movements, across the political spectrum in the United States and the globe, have been inspired by its advocacy of equality and liberty. Diverse movements have appropriated or adapted its language, to draw attention to its values to support their purposes and projects. The Declaration of Sentiments, a key text in the 19th century women’s rights movement, mirrored the Declaration.   Abolitionists, especially Fredrick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, deployed the language of the Declaration in service of their efforts to end slavery. Simon Bolivar drew inspiration from the Declaration for the Latin-American independence movements of the 19th Century.  Civil rights activists in the 1960s drew from the Declaration, moral power and succor to advance and sustain their cause in the face of violence.  Social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and those a bit more distant in time: Arab Spring (2010+), and Tiananmen Square, (1989), openly and repeatedly invoked the language and ideals from the Declaration


Written by Seth David Halvorson, Department of Philosophy, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Alan Brinkley, The Unfinished Nation, 6th Edition

The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson