The Purpose of the Declaration of Independence

What was the purpose of the Declaration of Independence? Why was it written? What was it supposed to accomplish? On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress, assembled in Philadelphia, voted to break its ties from Great Britain permanently and irrevocably. Most Americans know about the Declaration and that it announced American freedom from Britain, but the signers had several specific purposes in mind which it was intended to accomplish, besides merely announcing their freedom.

One of the most important was to persuade reluctant colonists to join with them. Many Americans were not yet decided about which side they wanted to be on. Did they want to stay loyal to the British King? Or were they going to risk being labeled traitors by the British government, possibly be put in prison, lose everything they had, or even... suffer death?!

The signers of the Declaration intended to show those who were reluctant to join in the rebellion that loyalty was a lost cause. It was too late for them to save the colonial/mother country relationship. They would have to give up and realize that the colonies would begin to govern themselves.

There were four main purposes of the Declaration of Independence:

  • Getting reluctant colonists to realize that loyalty to Britain was a lost cause
  • Explaining the Congress' position on the purpose of human government
  • Listing the colonists' grievances against King George III to show the legitimacy of their actions to others
  • To encourage foreign nations to help them

Read below to find out more about the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Purpose of the Declaration of Independence -
Getting reluctant colonists on board

Many members of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia knew that a lengthy war with Great Britain was inevitable by the spring of 1776. Several battles had already been fought, including the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Battle of Ticonderoga. These Founding Fathers knew that the Americans would have to hold together in unison if they were ever going to defeat the powerful British Army.

Continental Congress
Continental Congress

By May of 1776, the representatives to Congress from the southern colonies and the northern colonies were mostly decided that an absolute break was justified and necessary. The people of the middle colonies were not so sure though. Some of them still wanted to try to reconcile with Britain through diplomatic channels. Some of them believed that a break with Great Britain was inevitable, but also believed that that time had not come yet. For the most part, though, the leaders of the rebellion in Congress thought the populations of the middle colonies would soon be persuaded that independence was necessary.

The representatives in Congress that believed the time for separation had come, wanted a way to clearly state to their brothers the reasons why a break with Great Britain was necessary. One purpose of the Declaration of Independence then, was to boldly state the reasons for separation with Britain, to both their friends and their enemies, to persuade them that the separation was morally justified and that they should join the cause.

Purpose of the Declaration of Independence -
The purpose of government

Why did many of the colonists believe that a break with Great Britain was necessary? One purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to explain their view of the purpose of human government. If you read the text of the Declaration, you will see that the signers believed that all men were created equal by God and that they possess certain unalienable rights. This means that God gives mankind certain rights when each one is born. They belong to human beings simply because they are human. Among these rights are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Declaration of Independence
Click to enlarge
Declaration of
Independence

Sometimes though, there are people and events in life that try to take away these rights and privileges. People create governments in order to "secure" or protect these rights. The government derives its power from the "consent of the governed." This means that the people who are being ruled over have a right to choose how their government functions. If the government tries to do things without the people's consent, then that would be unjust. Notice that the signers did not think that a government, such as that of Great Britain, had the right to tell people what to do, or to dictate to people how they should live. Nor did they believe that a government existed for supplying people's needs or solely for the building up of its own self. They believed that governments should be allowed to exist only to protect their God given rights.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. In it, he wrote that if ever "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." This means that if a government starts doing things that destroy people's rights, rather than protecting their rights, it is their right to change or destroy that form of government, and to institute a new one that will protect their rights once again. You can learn more about Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence here.

The Declaration goes on to list a great number of violations of the trust that the people of the thirteen colonies had with the King of Great Britain. The members of the Continental Congress listed all of these grievances in the Declaration to prove to their fellow Americans, to the population of Great Britain, to the King himself and to the entire world, that they were justified in breaking away from this unjust government that was not protecting their God given human rights, but was instead, actively working to destroy the very rights it was supposed to be protecting.

You can read a complete copy of the Declaration text here.

Purpose of the Declaration of Independence -
Grievances against the King

Many people know the Americans were unhappy with various taxes the British government was placing upon them. During a course of 20 years, Britain had angered the Americans with such things as the Molasses Act, the Proclamation of 1763, the Sugar Act, the Currency Act and the Stamp Act. Their anger often turned into violence.

But there were many, many other grievances held by the colonists that the Declaration points out as well. One purpose of the Declaration of Independence was to point these things out for the world to see. The following list explains many of the grievances that are found in the Declaration itself:

King George III
King George III
  • "He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good." - Each of the thirteen colonies had its own legislature elected by its own people in order to make local laws. The king, however, required that any laws passed by the colonial legislatures must first receive his approval before they were passed. Sometimes he would strike down laws that were created by the people for the "wholesome and necessary" public good. For example, many colonies tried to abolish the slave trade, but the king would not allow it because he wanted the profit. This fact is mentioned in Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration, but was removed by the full Continental Congress, in order to appease southern states that would not cooperate if abolishing slavery was on the table.
  • The king would require his appointed governors in each colony to suspend certain laws passed by the colonial legislatures if he didn't like them and would require that they not be reinstated until he gave his consent. Then he would wait and wait and not do anything so that many of these laws were not implemented for years.
  • The king would not grant the right of many colonists to elect their own representatives to their own legislatures. The colonists believed that it was their right to elect their own representatives to the government because government should only be by the consent of the governed, but the British government treated this as if it were a right to be granted only by the king.
  • The king dissolved many of the colonial legislatures whenever they would stand up to his injustices. Then he wouldn't allow new legislatures to be constituted for a long time. This created a vacuum in which no government existed, thus exposing the people to all the dangers that governments are supposed to be protecting them from.
  • The king passed laws making it more difficult for people to emigrate to the American colonies and made it more difficult and expensive to get land. The colonists believed that one of their God given rights was to own property that would assist them in their "pursuit of happiness," but the king treated the American land as his own to give to whomever he pleased.
  • In certain instances the king did not allow the colonial legislatures to create judicial courts, saying that only the king had the right to appoint such courts. Several colonies went for long periods of time without courts as a result of this. This broke a fundamental rule of the purpose of government which is to secure the people's right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Without courts, criminals could violate people's rights and not be punished or captured and people had no way of receiving compensation for injuries.
  • The king decided that the length of time in office and the salaries of colonial judges would be at his own discretion, meaning he could fire them whenever he wanted, and change their salaries whenever he wanted. This of course would have the effect of giving him great control over the decisions made by these judges, rather than them doing what they felt the cases before them justified. Again, this violated the principle that the government exists to secure people's rights.
  • This one is self-explanatory - "He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance."
  • The king had allowed standing armies to be positioned in the colonies since 1765 without the colonists' consent. The Quartering Act of 1765 required that British troops stay in the colonies after the French and Indian War ended. The colonists were also required to support these British troops financially. Standing armies were long considered a threat to the people in English thought.
  • The king's policies had the effect of making the military power sovereign over the civil authorities, since he had all control over the military and would not allow the colonial legislatures any say in how they were used. This violated the principle of consent by the governed.
  • The king had sent troops to wage war against Americans in Boston and other places, killed people, destroyed trade and burned towns. All of this destroyed his right to any place of authority over the people.
  • The king had hired foreign armies to make war against the Americans.
  • The king had encouraged Indians to make war against the Americans.
  • The British government passed a law allowing British naval vessels to capture any American ships they could find and then force the captives into service, even to fight against their own brethren.
  • The colonists had repeatedly used proper diplomatic channels to address these grievances, but had been continually rebuffed by the king and by the parliament.

You can read about each of these grievances in the Declaration itself by reading the complete copy of the Declaration text here.

Purpose of the Declaration of Independence -
Hopes of Foreign Intervention

Spirit of 76

The members of the Continental Congress knew they would need foreign support if they were to defeat Great Britain. They needed guns and ammunition, ships and military training. Their main hopes lay with France and Spain. France and Spain had long been enemies of England and if the Americans could get one or the other of them to be on their side, it would greatly affect the outcome of the war.

If the Americans could present a united front, they could possibly persuade the French or Spanish to join with them against Great Britain. They hoped their Declaration of independence from Britain would show these powers that they were indeed serious and, indeed, that their rebellion would be successful. The Americans would need the financial and military assistance of one of these great powers. It would also be in the interest of these nations to weaken both Great Britain and the American colonies by dividing them because they would become a powerful adversary if they remained together.

If the Americans appeared weak, however, and appeared to be divided, it might dissuade the French and Spanish from joining together with them. One purpose of the Declaration of Independence then, was to present a strong and unified nation that the other European governments were looking for, in order to persuade them to join in the war against Great Britain. Both France and Spain would eventually join the war on the Americans' side.

Watch this short video about the purposes of the Declaration of Independence:

Learn more about the Declaration of Independence with the following articles:

Last updated 7/30/12

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