Editor’s note: Despite the fact that many of the beliefs Americans hold about the Declaration of Independence are elitist and inaccurate, historian Woody Holton explains why. His 2021 book “Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution” demonstrates how women, indigenous and enslaved people, religious dissenters, and other formerly ignored Americans had an impact on American independence and the Revolutionary War. In honor of the United States’ birthday, Holton presents six unexpected facts about the country’s founding document, including the fact that it didn’t succeed in its primary objective and that its significance has evolved over time.
American citizens in general were crucial
The Declaration of Independence was drafted by affluent white men, but common Americans provided the inspiration. By July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress decided to secede from Great Britain, 90 provincial and municipal organizations, including conventions, town meetings, and even grand juries, had already made their own declarations or given Congress the authority to do so, according to historian Pauline Maier.
County conventions in Maryland asked that the provincial convention instruct the state’s lawmakers to embrace independence. Before Philadelphians assembled outside the State House, later known as Independence Hall, and threatened to overthrow the Legislature, which caused them to remove this directive, Pennsylvania assemblymen forced their congressional delegates to reject independence.
African Americans contributed to American independence in part
The final text of the Declaration never refers to a slave, just like the U.S. Constitution does. But in the original version, which was authored by Thomas Jefferson, African Americans took center stage.
The fact that the mother nation had first forced enslaved Africans on white Americans before attempting to rouse them against their patriotic owners was Jefferson’s single greatest grievance in that early draft. Jefferson said that George III had urged enslaved Americans to “buy that liberty of which he has robbed them, by murdering the people upon whom he has likewise obtruded them” in a complaint to which he assigned 168 words, three times as much as any other complaint.
Jefferson was joined by a large number of other white Southerners in criticizing the mother nation for, in the words of one, “putting a dagger to their Throats, via the hands of their Slaves.”
It was the slaves who first established Britain’s informal partnership with African Americans. James Madison was the first white American to announce in November 1774 that slaves were planning to rebel and gain their own freedom by taking advantage of tensions between the colonies and the mother country.
The last British governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued an emancipation proclamation on November 15, 1775, after first rejecting African Americans’ promise to fight for their monarch. However, the slaves continued to arrive. All slaves owned by rebels (patriots) who could reach his lines and were willing to take up arms against the patriot uprising were set free.
When the Second Continental Congress said in the final copy of the Declaration that George III had “inspired internal rebellion amongst us,” it was referring to Dunmore and other British officers. All that was left of Jefferson’s 168-word tirade against the British for bringing Africans to America and then encouraging them to murder their owners was that little euphemism. Nobody, however, mistook its message.
The king was not the subject of the allegations
A proclamation that never once refers to “Parliament” has 33 verbs that refer to the monarch of Britain. However, nine of Congress’s most urgent complaints concerned legislative legislation. Even British officials, such as those who fought against colonial smuggling, worked for his Cabinet rather than George III, which was in reality a creation of Parliament.
By focusing primarily on the monarch, who in the Declaration of Independence performed a purely
symbolic function analogous to Uncle Sam in contemporary America, Congress strengthened its unique argument that Americans did not need to break links with Parliament since they had none in the first place.
The declaration does not explicitly condemn the monarchy
The Declaration of Independence “had no essential opposition to the notion of kingship in general,” as Julian P. Boyd, the founding editor of “The Papers of Thomas Jefferson,” noted.
In fact, a number of congressmen, like Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson, expressed open admiration for limited monarchy. They had a grudge against King George III, and only against him since he served as the face of Parliament, not with all monarchs and queens.
Declaration failed to achieve its most important goal
Supporting delegates stated in June 1776 that if Congress quickly declared independence, France may accept its offer of an alliance. In that summer, the French Navy could begin to obstruct British supply ships headed for America.
The first French ships and men did not enter the war until June 1778, despite the fact that it took French King Louis XVI a long 18 months to commit to a formal alliance.
The role of abolitionists and feminists
Few of the Declaration of Independence’s white contemporaries cited its now-famous passages on equality and rights, in line with its primarily diplomatic intent. In contrast, as the literary historian Eric Slauter found, they emphasized its passages that supported one nation or state severing ties with another.
Lemuel Haynes, a free African American soldier fighting in the Continental Army, had written an article titled “Liberty Further Extended” before the year 1776 was out, as Slauter also points out. Jefferson’s proverbs “that all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” were used by him in his opening statement.
Haynes started the process of changing the Proclamation of Independence’s focus and meaning from Congress’ law of secession to a global declaration of human rights by stressing these arguments. Later, additional abolitionists, both Black and White, women’s rights advocates, and other social justice searchers, including Abraham Lincoln, continued that struggle.
Abolitionists and feminists eventually turned Congress’ unsuccessful attempt to secure an immediate French alliance into possibly the most important freedom manifesto ever written.
Professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Woody Holton A Creative Commons license has been used to republish this article from The Conversation. Check out the original article.