The American Revolution
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The Declaration of Independence
Unit 3: Learning Objective D
- [Kim] On July fourth, 1776, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. We know parts of it very well. For example, "We hold these truths to be self-evident," "that all men are created equal." The Declaration of Independence was really the point of no return for the young United States of America, making an appeal to the rest of the world, to say that their time as a colony of the United Kingdom had ended. The principle author of the Declaration of Independence was this man here, Thomas Jefferson. I tried to find a picture of him as a young man. In fact, at the time, he was about 10 years younger than you even see him here. He was 33. Where did young Thomas Jefferson get all of the ideas that he expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and what happened to those ideas, once he put them down on paper? In this video, I'd like to explore some of the origins and effects of the Declaration of Independence. We often think that the Revolutionary War started with the Declaration of Independence. We think of 1776 as being this opening moment of the Revolution. In fact, parts of the Revolutionary War had been going on for some time. It was in 1765, more than a decade earlier, that some of the first unrest over taxation, specifically the Stamp Act, had begun. In 1773, the famous Boston Tea Party, when a group of colonists dumped over 300 crates of tea into Boston Harbor had happened. In 1775, over a year before the Declaration of Independence, the first shots of the Revolutionary War had taken place outside Boston, at the towns of Lexington and Concord. By the time the delegates had met in Philadelphia, the Revolutionary War had been a shooting war for more than a year. Why was it that in July of 1776, the delegates finally made the Declaration of Independence? The primary reason that they did it at this time, was because they wanted help, and they were particularly eager to get the assistance of the nation of France, which had been a long time enemy of the United Kingdom, and the delegates really knew that the new United States of America would have no hope of winning a war against a massive imperial power like Great Britain, without the help of another world power, such as France. In a way, what Jefferson was doing in the Declaration of Independence, wasn't so much declaring, but rather explaining why the states were declaring themselves independent, with the hope that they could get the sympathy and the help of the international community. Let's read some of the Declaration of Independence. I know that this is a gigantic block of text here, but bear with me. We'll grow through it fairly quickly. "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen" "United States of America." You'll notice here that he specifically points out that there are 13 United States. This is important, because it gives you a sense that they aren't really thinking of the individual former colonies, now states, as one larger country, but rather as a collection of states, a confederation of allied states, instead of a single nation. "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary" "for one people to dissolve the political bands" "which have connected them with another" "and to assume among the powers of the Earth," "the separate and equal" "station to which the laws of nature," "and of nature's God entitle them." "A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" "that they should declare the causes which impel them" "to the separation." Here's this explanation part, saying, we feel it necessary to explain why we want to separate from Great Britain. "We hold these truths to be self-evident." "That all men are created equal," "that they are endowed by their Creator" "with certain unalienable rights," "that among these are life, liberty," "and the pursuit of happiness." "That to secure these rights," "governments are instituted among men," "deriving their just powers from the" "consent of the governed." "That whenever any form of government becomes destructive" "of these ends," "it is the right of the people to alter," "or to abolish it," "and to institute new government," "laying its foundation on such principles and organizing" "its powers in such form," "as to them shall seem most likely to effect" "their safety and happiness." I think this might be the most important passage of the Declaration of Independence, and let me tell you why. In this paragraph, you can really see the influence of the Enlightenment on Jefferson's thought. The Enlightenment was a period in the 1600s and 1700s, when people began to explore scientific observation and reason. They became more interested in observing the world around them, and trying to make reasoned arguments from what they saw, as compared to accepting the religious explanations for how the world worked. During the Enlightenment, many philosophers began to rethink government as well, and of questioning whether the governmental system in Europe and other places was the right system. There was one philosopher, in particular, who really captured Jefferson's imagination, and his name was John Locke. John Lcoke was an English philosopher, who had lived in the 1600s, and he wrote a book that had really influenced Jefferson and many thinkers in this time period, called Two Treatises on Government. There are two really important points in Locke's work. One was the idea of natural rights. What Locke meant by natural rights, are rights that were endowed by nature, that all people were born with. If you think about Europe in this time period, there was a sense that some people were born with more rights than others. In fact, there was the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, that the king, or monarch of any sort, had been born the king because God wanted that person to rule. Locke rejects that. He says when people are born, they're all born the same, and they all have rights that can't be given away, that are unalienable, and those are life, liberty, and property. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? The other important idea that Locke had, was the idea of the Social Contract. The idea of the Social Contract was that, government came from the people, that society members got together, and agreed on what the forms of government should be, so that the only just government, was one that took into account the opinions of the people who live within it. You see that here, too. "Governments are instituted among men," "deriving their just powers from" "the consent of the governed." There's a third thing that Locke suggests that Jefferson also gets at, which is that when governments become tyrannical, when they do not abide by the Social Contract, it is the right of the people to rebel. All right, back to the Declaration. Most of the rest of the Declaration is just a list of grievances of what the King has done to the colonies that has made them very angry. This is an extremely abridged list of them. I highly recommend you read the entire Declaration, 'cause I think it gives you a really good sense of what the colonists were thinking at this time period. Here are some of the highlights. Jefferson says that the "King has kept among us, in times of peace," "standing armies without the consent of our legislatures." Those are the British regulars who have been stationed in North America for a long time. "For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world." The Navigation Acts, that said the colonies could only trade with Great Britain. "For imposing taxes on us, without our consent." The idea of taxation without representation, which really motivated the colonists to rebel. And so forth and so on. Now, it's worth noting that the Declaration of Independence, as an explanation hoping to get France on the side of the new United States, worked very well. The United States allied with France, which led them to win the Revolutionary War in 1783. As we close, it's worth pondering, what it was that Thomas Jefferson really meant by the phrase, "All men are created equal." The Revolutionary War didn't abolish slavery in the United States. In fact, Jefferson himself owned over 100 enslaved people of African descent. When Jefferson said, "All men are created equal," was he thinking only of all white men? Was he thinking only of elite white men? After all, after the Revolution, only a handful of propertied elite men could vote. But then, there's this larger idea here. He's saying that your ordinary man wasn't born any different than someone who was born a king, so why should someone who was born black be different than someone who was born white? It's hard to imagine how Jefferson separated those things in his mind. Certainly, others at the time period, realized that there was an inherent contradiction between slavery, and also between the rights of women, and the idea that all men are created equal. Over time, the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence would go on to spur many different movements for independence and civil rights. The most notable of which being the French Revolution, which took much of its rhetoric from the American Revolution. Later, in 1848, the first women's rights movement would gather at Seneca Falls, New York, and release what they called the Declaration of Sentiments. Which began, "All men and women are created equal." So Jefferson's ideas here, are both deeply radical, insisting that ordinary people are just as good as kings, and even more, entitled to decide their own form of government. But that Revolution only went so far. It didn't change much about the status of every day citizens in the United States. But it put forward an ideal which we've been working toward ever since.