Declaration of Independence: History, Meaning, Continental Congress, and Facts
The Declaration makes its way to Continental Europe
Congress made sure that the British officials in the various colonies had copies of the Independence Declaration. These officials, in turn, sent them to the King George and the British Parliament. It made big headlines on the streets of London. The declaration was seen in most British newspapers. Soon, the entire continental Europe was reading about it in their newspapers. From Rome, all the way up the north in Warsaw, it was translated into various languages.
Congress also sent copies to the various nations abroad. This was a sign that the United States had now assumed sovereignty. Some countries and empires sought to restrict the circulation of the declaration for fear of similar thing happening in their colonies. Spain for example was very apprehensive about the Declaration. They feared their colonies in the South America could use the United States’ Declaration to agitate for greater autonomy and even independence.
The British Empire’s Response to the Declaration in America
The British Parliament, as well as some members of the British public, gave a very sharp rebuttal to the Declaration. They believed that the signers of the declaration lacked the moral authority to do so given that they had not completely eliminated slavery and the persecution of African Americans in their colonies. If the signers believed so much in liberty, equality and freedom, how come they could not grant those same God-given rights to the African Americans living in their colonies? Where the African Americans that worked on the plantation farms not created equal? Questions like these and many more rebuttals flowed from the British Tories.
Also, the immediately after the Declaration, Britain responded in its typical manner. However, this time around the conflict and wars were more vicious. France, a former foe, came to their rescue. With independence now proclaimed, France as well as other European nations could support the colonies. Congress signed the Treaty of Alliance with France in 1778. Soon, other foreign governments such as the Netherlands (in 1782) and Spain (in 1783) followed in similar fashion as France did. The war with the British Empire would continue until 1783 after the various parties (America along with her European allies versus Great Britain) signed the Treaty of Paris.
The Declaration’s contradiction with Slavery
Thomas Jefferson must have had his conscience prick him for putting in the Declaration draft that “all men are created equal” while at the same time owning hundreds of slaves. Jefferson tried to pin this on the British. In his initial draft he claimed that the British Empire had imposed on the American colonies slavery, and that the colonies simply had to obey the wishes of the British Empire. This point was eventually removed by Congress because they feared that tagging the entire British society as pro-slavery would alienate the few British and parliamentarians who were on the side of the American colonies.
Many historians believe that Jefferson as well as other members of the Congress were particularly hypocritical in this regard. Thomas Day, a famous English abolitionist, saw the work done by Congress as well as their Independence proclamations as the highest form nonsense. How could these Congress men openly proclaim that all men are born equal and yet keep hoards of slaves on their farms and plantations?
In spite of their strong beliefs and philosophies, slavery was not immediately abolished after Declaration. It would take a mammoth 89 years to do so. However, the Declaration did give a lot of 19th century abolitionist the impetus to go ahead and fight for African Americans. Leaders like William Lloyd Garrison and Benjamin Lundy drew a lot of inspiration from the Declaration. Some abolitionist even turned radical and believed that the Declaration text called for the destruction of a government that condoned slavery.
Up into the 1819 and 1821 when new states wanted to join the union, many Congressmen openly kicked against the idea of accepting states that had not abolished slavery. They held the view that admission of such states will undermine the entire principle of the Independence Declaration.
On the flip side of the argument, the pro-slavery camp and states back then argued that the Constitution was the most important thing legal document and therefore the Declaration of Independence and its text could certainly not be applied in the debate. Some pro-slavery politicians from North Carolina and Indiana argued that the founding fathers never intended to apply the “all men are created equal” principle to black people.
Abraham Lincoln reads The Declaration into the Constitution
The decades that followed the Declaration of Independence did not see many changes in the legislative framework that could actually abolish slavery in America. The only few states that had any form of legislation prohibiting slavery was Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia. This was good news for the abolitionists. However, the abolitionists still had to deal with the rest of continental America. It was very shocking because the so called tyrant of the American colonies, Great Britain, even abolished slavery in 1833. However, America, whose founding principles were based on equality of all men, had yet to abolish it.