The Declaration of Independence: What Were They Thinking?

June 30, 2021 Posted by: Ranger Val & Ranger Bill

A row of Continental soldiers stand in the fort. A step in front is a man in a wool jacket holding and reading a large sheet of parchment paper.
"...A unanimous Declaration..."
Oftentimes we know a document is important, and may understand why the document is important, but the details of the message are lost as decades (and even centuries) grow between us and the past. How many of you have listened to or read the Declaration of Independence and wondered exactly what each of the grievances (or complaints) were referencing? What were Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration Committee referencing as they created this document, which ultimately was an incredible act of treason against their King and country. As you read this, you'll see history through their eyes as you discover the meaning behind the words.

Grievance 1    
"He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."

This refers generally to any time colonial legislatures passed internal laws that the British Parliament refused to ratify.

Grievance 2   
"He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them."

A reference to colonial self-rule being removed; the royal governors were appointed by England, and Parliament sometimes instructed their governors to withhold ratification on legislation they did not agree with.

Grievance 3  
"He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only."

Another reference to parliament attempting to restrict colonial self-rule. The reference to “Relinquishing the right of representation in the legislature” refers to parliament trying to dictate internal regulations in the colonies, such as taxing the colonies. If the colonists submitted to internal taxation from Parliament they were submitting to “taxation without representation.”

Grievance 4   
"He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures."

This is a direct reference to the “Massachusetts Government Act” in 1774 (Known in the colonies as “The Intolerable Acts”) that was passed by Parliament after “The Boston Tea Party.” It revoked the colony’s 1691 charter, made General Thomas Gage the military Governor, and allowed him to dissolve the current legislature, appoint a new one and force them to meet where he wanted them to.

Grievance 5
"He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people."
As friction between the colonies and England grew, Royal Governors had the authority to suspend and/or dismiss any colonial legislatures that ignored or refused to act on Parliamentary legislation they did not agree with, or when they expressed viewpoints considered subversive to the British government. The New York legislature was dismissed in 1767 and 1769 for refusing to implement the quartering act for British troops in the colony. It was not until 1771 that a NY legislature finally acted on the measure.

Grievance 6
"He has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining, in the mean Time, exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and Convulsions within."

This is builds upon the fifth grievance. Sometimes royal governors would just suspend the legislature to force them into compliance, since no internal governing could be carried out while the legislature was suspended.

Grievance 7
"He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."

The first part of this deals with Parliament revoking the Plantation Act of 1740, in 1773. The Plantation act had given each colony the right to enact laws for naturalizing immigrants into its colony. It was viewed as another example of parliament taking away colonial self-rule. The second part about the “new appropriations of lands” is the reference to the 1763 proclamation line and the 1768 boundary line treaty.

Grievance 8
"He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers."

This is another part of the “Intolerable Acts” against MA. In 1774, Parliament abolished the colony’s right to elect/appoint its own judges and appointed the judges themselves.

Grievance 9
"He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries."

A continuation of the above grievance. Since the King/Parliament appointed the judges, they also directly paid the judges, rather than the judges receiving their salary from the colony. Colonists feared that this would cause the judges to no longer be truly impartial since they would want to keep parliament happy to ensure they continued to get paid (and kept their jobs).

Grievance 10"He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."

This is a reference to all the acts that parliament attempted to pass to regulate the internal affairs of the colonies that would require newly appointed government officials to enforce them. The most well-known to the public would be those appointed to issue the stamps associated with the “Stamp Act” tax.

Grievance 11  
"He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures."

Anyone who grew up under English law had an inherent mistrust of full time, professional armies, as they were perceived as potential tools that could be used by corrupt government officials to enforce martial law and aid potential dictators. As far as the colonists were concerned, with the French defeated and (relatively) peaceful Indian borders, there was no longer any need for British troops in the colonies. They refused to recognize that with a greatly expanded empire, England would need to maintain a military force in the colonies to maintain peaceful borders with the Indians and other European powers.

Grievance 12  
"He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power."

This is another direct reference to “The Intolerable Acts” instituted in Massachusetts after the Tea Party. Gen. Thomas Gage, Commander in Chief of British forces in America, was appointed to be the new governor of Massachusetts, and the military would be used to enforce law as necessary.

Grievance 13  
"He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to theirActs of pretended Legislation."

Overall, this is a reference to Parliament’s continued attempts to impose internal taxes on the colonies. The colonies in turn continued to insist that only government entities that they had representation in (their own colonial legislatures) could impose internal taxes. Parliament’s insistence that they had a right to impose taxes in all cases was therefore subjecting the colonies to “a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws.” The rest of the grievance is accusing the King of assisting Parliament in these efforts instead of standing up for their perceived rights.

Grievance 14  
"For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us."

When Parliament decided to keep troops in the colonies after the F&I War and Pontiac’s rebellion, they passed the “Quartering Act” in 1765, which required colonies where troops were stationed to provide quarters for them and to pay for some of their basic necessities, such as food. Along with being obnoxious to the colonists as part of the “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures." grievance, those colonies where troops were stationed looked upon it as an unfair burden on their colonies. As mentioned in grievance 5, NY particularly opposed it which led Parliament to pass “The New York Restraining Act” in 1767, which allowed the governor to suspend the NY legislatures until they finally agreed to follow the “Quartering Act”

Grievance 15  
"For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States."

In 1768, two citizens of Annapolis, Maryland were murdered by Marines from a British ship. Even though there was overwhelming evidence against them, the marines were acquitted.

Grievance 16  
"For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world."

This is one of those many ironic grievances, as it’s referring to something Parliament had enacted in the 1660’s, but never really enforced until the 1760’s as yet another way to get “tax money” from the colonists. It refers to “The Navigation Acts”, which regulated who the colonies could and couldn’t trade with, and how that trade was supposed to be carried out. It also set regulations on how trade was to be carried out between England and her colonies. Since they had gotten so used to trading with whoever they wanted in whatever way they wanted, the colonists now saw this as unjustly restrictive (it also meant their smuggling operations were jeopardized).

Grievance 17  
"For imposing taxes on us without our consent."

The basic grievance of Parliament asserting that they had the right to tax the colonies in any way they desired, and the colonists insisting that in the case of internal taxes, only legislative entities that they had representation in could enact internal taxes.

Grievance 18  
"For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of trial by jury."

This is about the English attempts to enforce “The Navigation Acts”. Any cases concerning these regulations were tried by the Admiralty Court, which did not make use of a jury. The court’s decision came directly from the judge.

Grievance 19   
"For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offenses."

Another reference to parts of the “Intolerable Acts” directed against MA. This bill stated that anyone accused of having committed crimes against people administering he King’s laws in MA, could, at the government’s pleasure, be transported to another colony, or even to England, to stand trial. This bill was also vehemently opposed by colonial supporters in Parliament who saw it only as an act of retaliation and revenge against the colony (which is exactly what it was, as by 1774, Parliament was determined to force the colonies to submit to their authority).

Grievance 20  
"For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies."

This is a reference to “The Quebec Act” of 1774. The “Royal Proclamation of 1763” attempted to force the French-Canadian population to assimilate English culture and law and encourage the English/colonial population to settle in Canada to complete this assimilation. The proclamation did not have the desired results in bringing large amounts of “English” people into the colony, and French-Canadians remained the dominant population and holders of colonial government positions. British Governor Guy Carleton recommended many of the provisions of the act, which first and foremost allowed the French-Canadians to retain the “French” mode of civilian government and cultural practices (“establishing therein an Arbitrary government…”). This also meant that the Catholic faith would be allowed to continue in Canada, as well as its influence in Canadian civil government. This provision angered the 13 colonies deeply, as they saw it as a betrayal and breach of trust by the King and Parliament, who had previously always worked to stamp out Catholic religion and influence wherever encountered. The colonists feared that if Parliament could so easily abandon traditional English government in Canada, what would keep them from deciding to do the same in their colonies? The colonists were also angered by the provisions of the act that expanded the boundaries of Quebec out into the modern Midwest of the U.S., as this would further restrict colonial settlement of western lands, as the 1768 Boundary Line Treaty had already done.

Grievance 21  
"For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments."

Back to the “Intolerable Acts” directed against MA. Parliament revoked MA’s charter and gave the royal governor (which meant that under Gen. Gage it also put the colony more or less under martial law) the power to appoint their own choices for the various colony government positions such as judges, attorney generals, justices of the peace, and sheriffs.

Grievance 22  
"For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever."

This refers to the power conferred on royal governors to suspend colonial legislatures and enact royal proclamations that would then become law. As mentioned earlier, this occurred several times in NY when the legislature refused to support “The Quartering Act”. It also occurred in 1775 in VA, GA and SC.

Grievance 23  
"He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us."

King George addressed the opening of Parliament in Oct. of 1775, in his address he declared the 13 colonies to be in open rebellion against the government and that he was committing British military forces to put down the rebellion. He in effect was declaring war on the colonies, which meant he no longer recognized them as being under English rule or under protection of English laws. As the colonies had not yet declared themselves independent in 1775, John Adams noted the irony of the King’s declaration: "It throws thirteen colonies out of the royal protection, levels all distinctions, and makes us independent in spite of our supplications and entreaties ... It may be fortunate that the act of independency should come from the British Parliament rather than the American Congress."

Grievance 24  
"He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people."

In the fall of 1775, up through early 1776, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, had amassed a small army and naval force and attacked several towns on the Virginia coast, and along the colony’s inland rivers.

Grievance 25  

"He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and unworthy the Head of a civilized nation."

While hiring troops from another country to supplement one’s own army was a common and accepted practice in Europe, it was looked upon with horror in the American colonies. This was probably due to the fact that it appeared to the colonists that not only was the King willing to use English troops to destroy and subjugate fellow Englishmen, but now he was also willing to use troops from other countries to destroy and subjugate them as well.

Grievance 26  
"He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands."

An act of Parliament passed in December of 1775 authorized the seizing of colonial ships by the Royal Navy, and also allowed for the impressment of the captured sailors into the Royal Navy rather than being treated as prisoners. This is another act that was severally condemned by colonial supporters in Parliament as having no other purpose but to be cruel and vengeful.

Grievance 27  
"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions."

While this is often interpreted as one grievance it is actually two separate grievances combined into one. The “domestic insurrections” brought on by the British refers primarily to Lord Dunmore’s proclamation that any slaves that ran away from their rebel masters to join him to fight the rebels would be granted their freedom. A significant part of his force that had attacked the Virginia coast was composed of runaway slaves. The “Founding Fathers” were painfully aware of how hypocritical they were being in stating that “all men are created equal” while maintaining slavery in the colonies, so the reference is very veiled, but the threat of large scale slave revolts was a great fear for many in the colonies. The use of various Indian allies by the British all throughout the war was looked upon with as much horror by many members of Parliament as it was by the colonists.

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Last updated: June 30, 2021

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