The 100 Other Declarations of Independence

MaierBy this point you are probably getting sick of July 4th posts.  But I have at least more for you before we put them aside for another year.

In 1997, the late Pauline Maier taught us that the Declaration of Independence signed in 1776 was one of many such “Declarations of Independence.”  Her book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence explored the nearly 100 state and local “declarations” that were written during 1776.

Rutgers University history professor David Greenberg recalls Maier’s work in his piece “America’s 100 Other Declarations of Independence.”

Here is a taste:

Colonists expressed this newfound conviction in the “declarations of independence” that Maier discovered. A handful of these were self-consciously drafted in the same spirit as the Declaration we know today—proclamations issued by Virginia or New Jersey that formally disavowed British rule as a prologue to establishing their own constitutions. Others were simply enunciations of the sentiments of bodies that lacked formal political power but wished to take part in a conversation occurring across the colonies. Several came in the form of instructions issued by colonial legislatures to their congressional delegates, who had assembled in Philadelphia and were by the spring of 1776 taking up the question of independence. The state and local proclamations were meant to contribute to—to be in conversation with—the grand debates and discussions taking place in Philadelphia.

The everyday colonists’ declarations of independence from Britain give evidence that they considered the work of their appointed delegates to be of consummate importance. Assertive as they were in challenging the king, they deferred to what one town called “the well-known wisdom, prudence, justice, and integrity of that honourable body the Continental Congress.” Their conception of democracy was predicated on a regard for and trust in their chosen leaders. And the leaders, in turn, had regard for the will of the people. As one delegate to the Continental Congress put it, Congress wouldn’t call for a formal split until “the voice of the people drove us into it,” since “without them, our declarations could not be carried into effect.”

The documents that the people drafted exhibited a striking consistency in their reasoning and language. In place of Paine’s sweeping calls for a new age of mankind, colonists offered detailed, particular, pragmatic reasons for severing their bonds with Britain. The “declaration” was a familiar form, a genre, with roots in British politics, and colonists emulated past declarations, especially the English Declaration of Rights of 1689, which had justified the deposition of King James II. Following this form, colonists enumerated the specific wrongs committed by King George, citing mainly the offenses of the last two years—especially the Prohibitory Act of 1775, which blockaded American ports—and not the longer train of incidents dating to the 1760s. Also common to most of these documents was the claim that the call for separation was a last resort—a step taken only because the king had rejected their previous entreaties and no alternatives remained.

Read the entire piece here.