The Declaration of Independence: Cry for Freedom

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The Declaration of Independence was a desperate cry for freedom. The British colonists living in America had grown used to being their own bosses in many ways. They thought that the British Parliament and its King, George III, were making too many laws that took away too many of their freedoms.

Some examples of these are the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act. Both put very high taxes on things that the American colonists used every day: paper and sugar. The Americans hadn't voted for these taxes. They hadn't even elected the members of Parliament who had passed the laws that created those taxes. To the Americans, this was "taxation without representation." They thought they had no say in what their government did to them. People who lived in Britain could protest and even choose not to re-elect lawmakers who voted for such taxes. But the Americans didn't have that option. They had to accept the taxes.

Or so Britain thought. The Americans weren't about to accept such high taxes. Each new Act brought more outrage in America. In one serious set of acts, which the Americans called the Intolerable Acts, the British closed the port of Boston and made it OK for British soldiers to stay in American houses without the owners' permission. The British government thought that by coming down hard on Massachusetts, it could isolate the colony and keep the rest of the 13 Colonies from following the example of Massachusetts. (After all, Massachusetts seemed to be always stirring up trouble: the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party...)

But the Intolerable Acts had the opposite effect. American colonists everywhere were angry. The following months saw the first meeting of the Continental Congress. Among other things, this group of delegates from all 13 colonies wanted to boycott British goods throughout the colonies. Not even a year later, the Revolutionary War had begun.

The Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill were just the beginning. British and American troops fought all over the 13 colonies and even in Canada. Many people thought the Americans needed a rallying cry, something they could all fight for. People like Patrick Henry were calling for independence.

Early in 1776, while the troops were fighting in the field, more delegates were meeting in Philadelphia, at the Second Continental Congress. This Congress went on for months, and out of it came the Declaration of Independence. The American people had had enough. The delegates decided that they wanted to declare themselves independent from Great Britain. They appointed a committee of five people to write a document to that effect. Those five people were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, R.R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The main author was Thomas Jefferson.

On June 28, the committee presented the Declaration to the Continental Congress. After a series of debates, the Congress approved it. On July 4, John Hancock, president of the Congress, signed it. The document itself was not signed by all 56 signers until much later. But Congress declared it in effect on July 4.

This was in the middle of a war, of course. The Americans had forced the British to leave Boston, but many bad losses were to follow. The Americans had to fight long and hard to keep their independence. Still, the signing of that document gave them all a common cause, something they could fight for and defend with their very lives.

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David White