The Declaration of Independence – The Grievances

rossiterIn writing the Declaration of Independence, the Founders knew that they needed to carefully enumerate the reasons for their rebellion.  They were after all, declaring to a King and his nation that enabled the creation of the Colonies, that they were taking the Colonies away from the British.  Had they failed, they likely would have all been mocked for being stupid, derided for being “terrorists” and likely executed as traitors to the crown.  The colonies may have been razed, there is no way to know, but one thing is for sure – had they failed, we would likely all still be subjects of the crown and would probably talk with a funny accent.

The list of grievances is rather long.  Some of these may seem weird, silly or unimportant with the context of our modern day.  In reading them, it is important to understand that the Colonists spent many years playing with government.  They had 13 colonies to try different things – they had a fail-quick environment.  They were well-read on government theory and especially knew their history.

By the time they wrote the Declaration they knew what they wanted in a government.  Therefore: some of these grievances are clear dereliction or abuses by the king as their sovereign, some of them are outright violations of the English Bill of Rights.  Each of them, however, provides a distinct example demonstrating that the king does not meet the rules of government that the Colonists have declared for themselves.  Not only were they listing out obvious problems, they were also demonstrating that the king’s way of governing was not the way they were willing to accept being governed.  The indictments of the king lay out the pattern for proper government by highlighting the failures of the king to govern properly.  They include: government by consent, distribution of power (checks and balances) , establishment of executive, legislative and judicial powers, and that the people should have military power – not a standing army.

It’s a rather audacious thing if you consider it – these peasant colonists were literally telling a king that they were not going to be subjects anymore; they were going to be free men who would govern themselves – when there was literally NO SUCH THING at the time!  Such an amazing feat of rebellion!


The Grievances:

The exact text of the Declaration is in the first bullet.  The sub-bullets provide a simple, modern language explanation of what was being said as well as the Proper Role of Government, or failure thereof that each Grievance was highlighting.

  • “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
    • He continuously vetoed laws that the colonies attempted to put in place that they believed were needed.
    • Just Governments are derived from the consent of the governed – there was no consent to be ruled by the King
  • “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 so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.”
    • Certain kinds of laws passed by the Colonial assemblies were required to be submitted to the king for approval (instead of the being approved by the Colonial (British) Governors).  Sometimes they would be neglected for years.
    • Just Governments are derived from the consent of the governed – there was no consent to be ruled by the King
  • “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.”
    • As populations grew larger and new, large, communities formed;  the king refused to allow them equal representation in government (government must be by the consent of the governed).
    • Just Governments are derived from the consent of the governed – there was no consent to be ruled by the King
    • Equal Representation in creating the laws is the Right of the People
  • “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.”
    • Shenanigans were created by the Colonial Governors that were effectively interfering with the public business and prevented them from access to information necessary to conduct it.
    • The consent of the People was for the assemblies to have proper access to information
  • “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
    • If a Colonial Assembly did or issued something the king did not like (such as charges against him), he ordered the body dissolved and refused to acquiesce to charges or demands.
    • Proper Checks and Balances in Government are necessary
  • “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.”
    • After dissolving their governments, he refused to allow new ones to be elected
    • The Right of Representation arises from Equal Liberty with all other humans, no one has the Right to rule another without that other’s consent
  • “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 migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”
    • The king refused Assent to Laws regarding immigration.  He hindered immigration from England and refused to cooperate in furthering the growth of the Colonies.
    • The unalienable Right to Liberty includes the Liberty to make use of Property to provide for oneself and ones family.
    • Government should make unused land available to the people by homestead or auction
  • “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.”
    • The king would not allow courts of justice to be established; he constantly interfered and would not allow the Colonies to judge their own criminals or redress upon one another.
    • Just Government derives from the consent of the governed and that government exists to secure rights
    • Without a judiciary to punish criminials and to seek redress from an injurer, Life, Liberty and Property are insecure
  • “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”
    • Judges served, and were paid, at the discretion of the king – making impartiality impossible.
    • Just Government must have a Separation of Powers with Checks and Balances
  • “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.”
    • The king created several new government officials including: customs officials, new offices to collect tax and tax collectors and courts of admiralty that were not approved by colonial legislatures and were therefore illegitimate.
    • Just Government must have a Separation of Powers – the Legislature must approve Executive Appointments or they are illegitimate
  • “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”
    • Throughout England and America, standing armies had long been regarded a danger which required close supervision. Without the consent of the Colonists, the king sent armies to keep order in the colonies, even though there was no war.
    • Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed; the Legislature, being the Representatives of the People must decide issues like this
  • “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”
    • Soldiers were not subject to civil laws.  The military could make up and try their own laws.
    • To ensure the security of Rights and Liberties, all citizens must be subject to the Judiciary
  • “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their acts of pretended legislation:”
    • The colonies tentatively accepted the king as their Chief Executive, but they did not recognize parliament or any authority of parliament to legislate over the colonies.  In violation of this, the king had assented to multiple laws created by parliament which affected the Colonists – which they deemed illegal.
    • A Just Government has a Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances
    • All of the Intolerable Acts where a violation of Governance by the consent of the People
    • These came to be called “The Intolerable Acts”: The Boston Port Act (closed the port), The Administration of Justice Act (disallowed the Colonists of trying any British Officials or soldiers) The Massachusetts Government Act (The MA council would be appointed by the king instead of elected), The Quartering Act (forced colonists to house and feed British soldiers)  and The Quebec Act (expanded Quebec deeply south into IL, MI, MN, removed Quebec’s representative government and taxed Catholics with the revenue going to the church):
      • “Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us”
        • Forced Colonists to house and pay for British troops
      • “For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit”
        • Immunized soldiers from Colonial Law
      • “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world”
        • Closing the Boston Port
      • “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent”
        • Taxing in many Acts and methods that were implemented without representation of the colonists
      • “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury”
        • In many cases there were no trials at all; the king decided they were guilty and punished them
      • “For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences”
        • People accused of crimes could be taken far way to be “tried” even when the case was very weak.
      • “For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies”
        • The Quebec Act extended Canada’s territory into land claimed by the Colonists
      • “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments”
      • “For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”
        • The king abolished laws, suspended legislatures and declared himself to legislate for them
  • “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us”
    • Feb, 1776, parliament declared the colonies out of the king’s protection (a duty of the sovereign) because of the “intolerable degree of unruliness”.
    • The purpose of Government is to protect Life, Liberty and Happiness
  • “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people”
    • The king had essentially declared war on the colonists by burning towns.  The British considered the colonists in open rebellion against their lawful rulers.  However, the Colonist’s saw their lawful rulers being the legislatures and such that the king had shut down.
    • The purpose of Government is to protect Life, Liberty and Happiness
  • “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 totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
    • The king had hired foreign troops to come in and fight against the colonists
    • The purpose of Government is to protect Life, Liberty and Happiness
  • “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.”
    • Colonists were forced to serve in the military and to fight against their own people
    • The purpose of Government is to protect Life, Liberty and Happiness
  • “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured 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.”
    • The king provoked the indians to attack the colonists
    • The purpose of Government is to protect Life, Liberty and Happiness

There are four Sections to this Series:

How well do you know the Declaration of Independence?
Introduction and Principles of Government
The Grievances
Tolerances, Appeals and Declaring Independence