Lessons From the Colonial Declarations of Independence

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Lessons From the Colonial Declarations of Independence

There are many lessons for our current political situation to be learned from the colonial declarations of independence.

As Americans celebrate the Fourth of July and the signing of “the” Declaration of Independence, it is valuable to recall that there were several such declarations (and similar legal documents) signed throughout the original 13 colonies published before and immediately after the official Declaration we commemorate this holiday.

There were, by best count, more than 90 of these documents declaring formal legal separation from the crown of Great Britain. As research in this area continues, more of them will be found, however. 

Perhaps one of the most enlightening aspects common to all these “declarations” (that word is in quotes because few of them were actually so titled) is the authority by which the severance with England was made. Almost every one of these statements reiterated the independence of the political entity drafting them, not of the “nation” of the United States. 

Moreover, nearly every one of these important documents followed a pattern of drafting that was well established in the history of English law and government. A declaration was formal and was issued for very specific purposes, unlike its less legalistic cousin the address or petition.

As preeminent Founding-era historian Pauline Maier teaches, “A declaration was a particularly emphatic pronouncement or proclamation that was often explanatory: from the fourteenth century “declaration” implied “making clear” or “telling.”

Furthermore, declarations were also aimed not only to inform some authority of the issuer’s intent, but to “command broad public support,” as evidenced by the many such documents issued by the king and parliament during the English Civil War.

Beyond their more public purpose, declarations had an accepted and expected legal element, as well. Declarations, as legal instruments, were required by practice and procedure to contain “a written statement of claims served on the defendant at the commencement of a civil action.” The list of grievances, furthermore, should be written in “plain and certain” language.

In many instances throughout the history of the American colonies, declarations combined several of these purposes. For example, the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms issued by the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775 summarized the deprivations suffered by the colonies at the hand of the crown and parliament in order to evince the “justice of our cause” to “the rest of the world.” This list of injuries was meant not only to put parliament on notice of legal allegations of wrongdoing, but to inspire support from the American populace.

Similarly, the 90 or so town, county, and colony declarations made around the time of “the” Declaration of Independence laid out lists of violations of the rights of Englishmen committed by king and parliament, all of which, the authors of the resolutions believed, justified the breaking of the bonds that held them tied to England. 

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