Declaration of Indepedence: A History

Courtesy US Department of State HIstorical Archive —

By issuing the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental
Congress on July 4, 1776, the 13 American colonies severed their
political connections to Great Britain.

The Declaration
summarized the colonists’ motivations for seeking their independence. By
declaring themselves an independent nation, the American colonists were
able to conclude an official alliance with the government of France and
obtain French assistance in the war against Great Britain.

Throughout
the 1760s and early 1770s, the North American colonists found
themselves increasingly at odds with British imperial policies regarding
taxation and frontier policy.

When repeated protests failed to
influence British policies, and instead resulted in the closing of the
port of Boston and the declaration of martial law in Massachusetts, the
colonial governments sent delegates to a Continental Congress to
coordinate a colonial boycott of British goods.

When fighting
broke out between American colonists and British forces in
Massachusetts, Continental Congress worked with local groups, originally
intended to enforce the boycott, to coordinate resistance against the
British. British officials throughout the colonies increasingly found
their authority challenged by informal local governments, although
loyalist sentiment remained strong in some areas.

Despite these
changes, colonial leaders hoped to reconcile with the British
Government, and all but the most radical members of Congress were
unwilling to declare independence. However, in late 1775, Benjamin
Franklin, then a member of the Secret Committee of Correspondence,
hinted to French agents and other European sympathizers that the
colonies were increasingly leaning towards seeking independence. While
perhaps true, Franklin also hoped to convince the French to supply the
colonists with aid. Independence would be necessary, however, before
French officials would consider the possibility of an alliance.

Throughout
the winter of 1775-1776, the members of Continental Congress
increasingly viewed reconciliation with Britain as unlikely, and
independence the only course of action available to them.

When
on December 22, 1775, the British Parliament prohibited trade with the
colonies, Congress responded in April of 1776 by opening colonial
ports—this was a major step towards severing ties with Britain.

The
colonists were aided by the January publication of Thomas Paine’s
pamphlet Common Sense, which advocated the colonies’ independence and
was widely distributed throughout the colonies. By February of 1776,
colonial leaders were discussing the possibility of forming foreign
alliances and began to draft the Model Treaty that would serve as a
basis for the 1778 alliance with France.

Leaders for the cause
of independence wanted to make certain that they had sufficient
congressional support before they would bring the issue to the vote. On
June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion in Congress to
declare independence. Other members of Congress were amenable but
thought some colonies not quite ready. However, Congress did form a
committee to draft a declaration of independence and assigned this duty
to Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Paine
Benjamin Franklin and John
Adams reviewed Jefferson’s draft. They preserved its original form, but
struck passages likely to meet with controversy or skepticism, most
notably passages blaming King George III> for the transatlantic slave
trade and those blaming the British people rather than their
government. The committee presented the final draft before Congress on
June 28, and Congress adopted the final text of the Declaration of
Independence on July 4.

The British Government did its best to
dismiss the Declaration as a trivial document issued by disgruntled
colonists. British officials commissioned propagandists to highlight the
declaration’s flaws and rebut the colonists’ complaints.

The
Declaration divided British domestic opposition, as some American
sympathizers thought the Declaration had gone too far, although in
British-ruled Ireland it had many supporters.
The Declaration’s most
important diplomatic effect was to allow for recognition of the United
States by friendly foreign governments.

The Sultan of Morocco
mentioned American ships in a consular document in 1777, but Congress
had to wait until the 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France for a formal
recognition of U.S. independence. The Netherlands acknowledged U.S.
independence in 1782. Although Spain joined the war against Great
Britain in 1779, it did not recognize U.S. independence until the 1783
Treaty of Paris.

Under the terms of the treaty, which ended the
War of the American Revolution, Great Britain officially acknowledged
the United States as a sovereign and independent nation.

As the
delegates to the Continental Congress became more amenable to declaring
independence, they also considered forging foreign alliances to assist
in the struggle.

Virginia delegate George Wythe originally
advanced the suggestion of seeking a foreign alliance in early 1776, and
the idea was referred to committee.

This suggestion inspired
other leading statesmen. Massachusetts delegate John Adams noted the
advantages of trade with France in his diary in February and March of
1776, and speculated that a separation of the colonies from Great
Britain would be advantageous to France.

Between March and
April, Adams drafted a preliminary version of the Model Treaty in his
diary. As an example, he outlined conditions for an alliance between
France and the not-yet-independent colonies. In this draft, the United
States was to accept no troops from France, nor submit to French
authority, but only sign a commercial treaty.

John Adams
A
more formal draft of a general model treaty was read before the
Continental Congress on July 18, 1776. This template treaty largely
reflected Adams’ original plans, but in more clearly formalized
language.

It sought reciprocal trade terms, although not free trade, and made no mention of direct military assistance.
Congress adopted a formal version of the Model Treaty on September 17.

On
September 24, Congress drafted instructions to commissioners on how to
negotiate a treaty with France, based on the existing template provided
in the Model Treaty. The commissioners were to seek a
most-favored-nation trade clause in the absence of the slightly more
liberal trade clauses of the Model Treaty, which could be construed as
seeking a free trade agreement between the two countries.

The
commissioners were to seek additional military aid, and also to assure
any Spanish diplomats present that the United States had no designs on
Spanish territory—Spain was a traditional ally of France and would join
the war in the hopes of regaining territories lost in earlier wars.
Spain was also concerned about maintaining a secure frontier on the
northern border of its American Empire. The Congress then appointed
commissioners to execute the terms on September 25.

The United
States would have to wait until early 1778 for France to formally agree
to a treaty. The formal treaty differed from Model Treaty in that the
two countries granted each other most favored nation trading privileges,
and also allowed for the presence of consuls in each others’ cities.

In
addition, the Treaty of Alliance provided additional military
stipulations relating to the terms of the alliance, ceding any military
gains in North America to the United States, and those in the Caribbean
to France. More importantly, France agreed not to seek peace with Great
Britain without British acknowledgement of American independence, and
neither allied country was to seek peace without the others’ consent.

Other countries were encouraged to join the alliance, but
only if both French and American negotiators were present. The 1778
treaty also included a secret clause allowing for articles to be altered
if Spain chose to join the alliance.

The Model Treaty served as a
successful starting point for negotiations. The United States was able
to obtain most of the conditions it wanted, and the treaty that resulted
proved beneficial to U.S. trade until the disruptions caused by the
Haitian and French revolutions in the 1790s.

The treaty also
served as a model for future trade compacts, especially the Convention
of 1800 between France and the United States that terminated the
undeclared Quasi-War with France and restored peace between the two
countries.