There have been other documents titled 'declaration' and associated with various revolutions - notably, the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" adopted in 1789 by the leaders of the French Revolution, to which was added in 1791 the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen" and the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793" - the relatively quick accumulation of which points to the intellectual confusion underlying the French Revolution, which was manifested in its failure, as it turned to mass murder and the denial of the very rights which it initially proposed as its cause.
More interesting, and more fruitful, would be the other declaration produced by the Second Continental Congress, a full year prior to the famous Declaration of Independence. That document bore the lengthy title,
A declaration by the representatives of the united colonies of North America, now met in Congress at Philadelphia, setting forth the causes and necessity of their taking up arms.
The text was largely a joint effort by Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson. Although born in Maryland, Dickinson spent most of his life in Pennsylvania and Delaware. While one of his teachers was a Presbyterian, he gravitated toward Quakerism, his wife being a devout Quaker, but never formally joined the Society of Friends, having himself a moderate pacifism in contrast to Quakerism's radical pacifism. The text of the 1775 declaration highlights the connection between the French and Indian War and the American independence movement. While England claimed to have been acting in order to protect the colonies during that conflict, it had violated the rights of the colonists in the process. The inhabitants of the thirteen colonies claimed, as Englishmen, the rights set forth in the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights of 1689. Jefferson and Dickinson wrote:
If it was possible for men, who exercise their reason to believe, that the divine Author of our existence intended a part of the human race to hold an absolute property in, and an unbounded power over others, marked out by his infinite goodness and wisdom, as the objects of a legal domination never rightfully resistible, however severe and oppressive, the inhabitants of these colonies might at least require from the parliament of Great-Britain some evidence, that this dreadful authority over them, has been granted to that body. But a reverance for our Creator, principles of humanity, and the dictates of common sense, must convince all those who reflect upon the subject, that government was instituted to promote the welfare of mankind, and ought to be administered for the attainment of that end.
Accusing Parliament of exerting slavish and illegitimate power over the colonists, the text addresses the purpose of government. Governments exist to serve people, not people to serve government. A government can "promote the welfare of" its citizens by, in a roughly Lockean formulation, protecting their lives, freedoms, and properties. This, and the parallel formulation of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," is the understanding of welfare in the eighteenth century tradition of 'classical liberalism' which includes John Locke, Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. The document's repeated allusions to slavery as a metaphor for Parliament's tyranny over the colonies also foreshadows the abolitionist movement which was even then already making itself felt. Jefferson and Dickinson refer to the original understandings under which the colonies were formed:
Our forefathers, inhabitants of the island of Great-Britain, left their native land, to seek on these shores a residence for civil and religious freedom.
The notions of freedom circulating in the American independence movement are always multivalent. Political liberty, economic liberty, religious liberty, intellectual liberty are all in the mix, and not always to be sharply distinguished from one another. Further, they should not be distinguished from one another, because, in order for any one of them to flourish, they all must flourish. Economic freedom and political freedom led to prosperity, and prosperity allowed the colonies to emerge successfully from the French and Indian War.
Societies or governments, vested with perfect legislatures, were formed under charters from the crown, and an harmonious intercourse was established between the colonies and the kingdom from which they derived their origin. The mutual benefits of this union became in a short time so extraordinary, as to excite astonishment. It is universally confessed, that the amazing increase of the wealth, strength, and navigation of the realm, arose from this source; and the minister, who so wisely and successfully directed the measures of Great-Britain in the late war, publicly declared, that these colonies enabled her to triumph over her enemies.
In the minds of the colonists, they were capable of defending themselves and had largely done so; they did not perceive the British army's intervention as decisive. In London, Parliament tended to view itself as having rescued the colonies. The colonists saw the British army as unnecessary, because they could have defended themselves, as troublesome, because hosting the English soldiers was a financial and a social burden, and as expensive, because after the war Parliament wanted to raise painful taxes upon the colonists to pay for the British military intervention. Parliament saw the colonists as ungrateful, refusing to pay for the soldiers who had saved them. Further, the colonists saw Parliament's legislative acts, and the king's directives, as violating what were by then long-standing legislative institutions in the colonies.
As in the 1776 Declaration, there is a list of grievances, and the 1775 list is similar to the 1776 list. The 1775 document cites Parliament's statement, in the 1766 Declaratory Act, that it has the
full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever
Jefferson and Dickinson then recount how the colonists have suffered from such legislations, how they have civilly and peacefully protested and petitioned for relief from such tyranny, and how the British government has brutally enforced such regulations and taxes upon the colonists. They write a narrative which explains how tax enforcement morphed into a cruel occupation by the English military of the colonial cities, chiefly Boston. The colonies responded to this tyranny:
We are reduced to the alternative of chusing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. - The latter is our choice. - We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. - Honour, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them, if we basely entail hereditary bondage upon them.
Explaining their firm resolve to continue military action - hostilities had commenced in April 1775; Jefferson and Dickinson were writing after approximately three months of warfare - the colonists still maintain that there is some slight possibility of a peaceful reunion with the mother country. Even at this late date, the colonists might be persuaded to rejoin the British Empire if their representation in Parliament were guaranteed and effective, obtaining for them the full rights of Englishmen.
Lest this declaration should disquiet the minds of our friends and fellow-subjects in any part of the empire, we assure them that we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us, and which we sincerely wish to see restored. - Necessity has not yet driven us into that desperate measure, or induced us to excite any other nation to war against them. - We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great-Britain, and establishing independent states. We fight not for glory or for conquest. We exhibit to mankind the remarkable spectacle of a people attacked by unprovoked enemies, without any imputation or even suspicion of offence. They boast of their privileges and civilization, and yet proffer no milder conditions than servitude or death.
To avoid misinterpretation, Jefferson and Dickinson clarify the objectives of the Second Continental Congress. Their goals, understood as the only goals of any legitimate government, serve to highlight the fact that the Crown has been negligent in executing its proper duties: thus the monarchy is guilty of omission, in not carrying out its proper functions, and guilty of commission, in acting tyrannically. The colonial military action is justified:
In our own native land, in defence of the freedom that is our birthright, and which we ever enjoyed till the late violation of it - for the protection of our property, acquired solely by the honest industry of our fore-fathers and ourselves, against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms. We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being renewed shall be removed, and not before.
The surprise, perhaps shocking in hindsight, is the equivocation, however slight, included in the document to the extent that a slight possibility is left in the text for a reintegration of the colonies into the British Empire. By July 1775, while the sentiment toward independence was strong, it was not solid enough among the representatives at the Congress to allow for an unconditional declaration. Indeed, the desire for complete independence was never unanimous among the entire population of the thirteen colonies, but by July 1776, it was the consensus of the leadership. The situation a year earlier was less solid, as James Srodes writes that
there also were sharp divisions even among those who were resolutely for a clean break and independence as to just what kind of new order was to be set up in its place.
Not only was there the open question of whether or not to seek complete political independence, but there was also the question of what type of government the colonies would institute once they had such independence. Not all of the members of the Second Continental Congress were classical liberals in the sense of John Locke; not all of them understood liberty as the primary goal.
There were those, like cousins Sam and John Adams, who wanted to create a kind of better England where the benefits and responsibilities of democracy would be reserved for the respectable classes of citizenry who would uphold the rule of law and the stability of society. But while England had offered a Whiggish model of orderly government, it had also sent the New World its “17th-century levelers,” those who thought no man should have too much while any man had not enough.
A clear choice lay before those who would form the future of the new nation. Would America choose freedom as its primary value, assigning to the government the task of protecting and maintaining economic liberty, political liberty, religious liberty, and the freedoms of speech and of the press? Or would America succumb to simply another form of tyranny, in which cruel taxes continued to inflict suffering on the residents of the colonies?
The politicking and negotiating between July 1775 and July 1776, i.e., between the two declarations, would decide. James Srodes tells us that
the plotting Adams cousins and their unlikely allies, the Lees of Virginia, who make a shaky and improbable alliance with a cast of conflicting and conflicted radicals from other colonies, some of whom were not even delegates to the Congress.
We might call Sam Adams, John Adams, and the Lee family the "freedom faction" among the various political views represented at the time. (Two of the Lee family, Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, would be signers of the 1776 Declaration of Independence.) To reach a critical mass, and nudge the Second Continental Congress clearly toward both independence and a clear statement of liberty, they understood that
they could only get independence approved with the support of those town craftsmen, small merchants, debt-ridden farmers, newly arrived German settlers and, most unruly of all, the Scots-Irish who pushed ever westward looking for land that was free of cost and the constraints of English law. These were the men who ordinarily would be denied a vote, but they had formed themselves in to armed militias throughout the Colonies and were the backbone of Congress‘ own army. They had guns, and now they had the vote.
This freedom coalition managed, as we now know, to carry the day, and so it was that the United States was founded upon a series of texts which emphasized individual freedom and personal liberty. Had the freedom faction not won, it might have been that the United States would have gained its independence, only to subject itself to a tyrannous taxation as cruel as Britain's taxes had been. Thankfully, that was not the case.