7/3/13 - our declaration of independence comes from a long tradition

In today's selection -- on the eve of Independence Day, our celebration of the Declaration of Independence, it is interesting to note that in making its declaration, the members of the Continental Congress that met in Philadelphia in 1776 -- and who at that moment were English -- were in important respects acting in a long tradition of declarations and petitions that had been made by their English forbears. In fact, a model for the Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most important model, was the Declaration of Rights of 1689, which formally ended the reign of James II and inaugurated that of William and Mary. That declaration was itself built on precedents -- on five occasions between 1327 and 1485 and then twice in the 1600s, Englishmen had brought the reign of a living king to an end:

"The milestones of English history are marked not so much by stone monuments as by parchment documents, including an abundance of addresses, petitions, and declarations... Petitions were addresses that asked for something, and one specific type, petitions of right, had a particularly important place in English practice. ... The famous Petition of Right of 1628, for example, asserted that the Crown had violated the laws of the land by forcing subjects to make loans and pay other levies that Parliament had not authorized, billeting soldiers in private homes, and proceeding in improper ways against persons accused of crimes, and it asked that all such violations of English 'laws and liberties' cease. Once Charles I accepted the petition with certain prescribed words, as he did to the immense relief of Parliament, he bound himself to recognize the rights it asserted.

"Declarations were still different, and had their own rich history. A declaration was a particularly emphatic pronouncement or proclamation that was often explanatory: from the fourteenth century 'declaration' implied 'making clear' or 'telling.' Occasionally a declaration announced and, for all practical purposes, enacted a new policy. For example, James II's Declarations of Indulgence granted liberty of conscience to Catholics and dissenters. Declarations were always meant to command broad public support, and both kings and Parliament issued them during their protracted seventeenth-century struggles. But the word 'declaration' also referred to a legal instrument, a written statement of claims served on the defendant at the commencement of a civil action. Such summaries of wrongs were supposed to be presented in a 'plain and certain' manner.

"Often declarations conformed to several of these definitions, bringing charges of wrongdoing in an emphatic way while appealing for public support. The Continental Congress's Declaration on Taking Up Arms is an example: it summarized the injuries America had suffered at Parliament's hand in an effort to demonstrate 'the justice of our cause' to 'the rest of the world.' ...

Presentation of the Declaration of Rights

"The best-known and most influential English declaration among Americans was the Declaration of Rights of 1689, which formally ended the reign of James II and inaugurated that of William and Mary. It became for the colonists a sacred text, a document which, although not celebrated with religious imagery, provided a statement of established, fundamental political and legal truths. Like all such documents in English and American history, the Declaration of Rights was itself built on a substantial body of precedents. On five occasions between 1327 and 1485, then twice again in the seventeenth century, Englishmen brought the reign of a living king to an end. English kings were never disposed of lightly or silently; official statements of one sort or another always explained and justified the change of regime. Those justifications served over time to limit the legitimate deposition of a monarch to cases in which he was blatantly incompetent (rex inutilis) or bad in the sense of having violated established laws, customs, and moral standards, whether on his own initiative or by stubbornly following (as was said of Edward IV in 1484) 'the counsel of persons insolent, vicious, and of inordinate avarice, despising the counsel of good, virtuous, and prudent persons.' But who could judge a king? God, of course, and the language of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries suggested that the community of the governed could also decide whether a reigning king was incompetent or evil and who would replace him on the throne, although in practice a small number of high placed men made the critical decisions. ...

John Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776"

"The opening section of the Declaration of Rights had a particular significance for Americans in 1776 because it formally closed the reign of James II. It began with a 'Whereas' clause that said 'the late King James the second' -- late not because he was dead but because he was no longer King -- with 'the Assistance of divers Evil Counsellors, Judges, and Ministers, imployed by him did endeavour to Subvert and extirpate the Protestant Religion, and the Lawes and Liberties of this Kingdome.' Then, in thirteen clauses, it cited specific instances of the King's misconduct in an appropriately plain and certain manner. He was charged, for example, with raising money without the consent of Parliament, 'raiseing and keeping a standing army within this Kingdom in time of Peace without Consent of Parliament and quartering of Souldiers contrary to Law,' requiring excessive bail of accused criminals, and inflicting 'illegall and cruell punishments.' All of these acts were pronounced 'utterly contrary to the knowne Laws and Statutes and freedome of this Realme.' "


Pauline Maier


American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence


Vintage Books a division of Random House


Copyright 1997 by Pauline Maier


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