12/3/12 - not one but ninety declarations of independence

In today's selection -- our Declaration of Independence, adopted in July of 1776, was one of at least ninety "declarations of Independence" adopted by the colonies and other localities between April and July of 1776 -- especially in Massachusetts -- and they in turn followed a long-standing English tradition of declaring independence that dated back at least to the fourteenth century:

"[Thomas Jefferson's] preamble [to the new 1776 Virginia constitution], in short, was Virginia's declaration of In­dependence. And Jefferson's first draft of that preamble, which re­mained among his papers in Philadelphia, became the first draft of Congress's Declaration of Independence.

"But before we see how Congress's drafting committee and the committee's designated draftsman put together the Declaration that Congress took up on July 2, it's worth our while to stop and examine the other 'declarations of Independence' that Americans in colonies (or, as they soon became, states) and localities adopted between April and July 1776, of which Virginia's was one among many. There are, in fact, at least ninety documents in that category, and perhaps still more waiting to be found. Most have been forgotten under the influence of our national obsession with 'the' Declaration of Independence, al­though the bulk of them were published almost a century and a half ago, scattered through the pages of Peter Force's voluminous American Archives.

"In truth, those state and local 'declarations of Independence,' only a select few of which were called 'declarations' at the time, are a some­what miscellaneous set of documents written for a variety of related purposes. Some officially ended the old regime within a state. Virginia and New Jersey formally concluded British rule with provisions that opened their first state constitutions, which were adopted before Con­gress declared Independence. Rhode Island passed a separate law that served the same purpose, and Maryland -- as if to fulfill John Adams's prediction that Maryland would 'go beyond every body else, when they begin to go' -- adopted its own, separate 'Declaration' on July 6, 1776. The list of 'declarations of Independence' also includes instruc­tions that authorized states' Congressional delegates to approve Inde­pendence. Those carefully drafted, formal statements proclaimed a state's commitment to separate nationhood and almost always sum­marized the events that had provoked and justified that position. Moreover, in Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maryland, substantial numbers of towns or counties instructed their state representatives to work for Independence, and, again, often explained why. Elsewhere other groups, such as New York's mechanics, militia units in Pennsyl­vania, or grand jurymen in South Carolina, announced their support for Independence and reflected on its causes or, sometimes, its bene­fits.

"Only a small part of the American people participated in writing and approving these state and local 'declarations of Independence.' Given the political situation in the spring of 1776, efforts to mobilize popular support for Independence concentrated on a handful of states, particularly those whose Congressional instructions barred their dele­gates from consenting to Independence, or Massachusetts, which hoped to lead the way to the promised land and produced a dispropor­tionate part of the ninety 'declarations.' Even where communities did speak out, the number and representativeness of participants varied from place to place. What they said was, however, everywhere remark­ably alike. Despite their shortcomings, the state and local 'declarations of Independence' offer the best opportunity to hear the voice of the people from the spring of 1776 that we are likely to get. Nothing -- certainly not the Declaration of Independence Congress set about editing on July 2 -- provides a better explanation of why the American people finally chose to leave the British Empire and to take up the reins of government themselves.

"That these documents exist at all is surprising -- until we realize that their creation continued, with a peculiar American twist, an En­glish tradition that had been in place since at least the fourteenth century."


Pauline Maier


American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence




Copyright 1997 by Pauline Maier


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