The Declaration of Independence is the founding document that defines America and establishes its identity. It summarizes and defends the core principles that have shaped the cultural conscience of America and set our course as a nation. What other effects did the Declaration of Independence have on America and the world?
The Declaration of Independence invoked an escalated military response from the British crown and enabled the Continental Congress to secure alliances that would be critical to the Revolution. It subsequently laid the foundation for America’s constitutional form of government and inspired centuries of change throughout the world.
Read on as we discuss the immediate impact of the Declaration of Independence on the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States, as well as its enduring legacy worldwide.
What Happened After the Declaration of Independence?
Upon adopting the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress ordered the printing of poster-sized announcements called broadsides, which patriots distributed throughout the colonies. In addition, there were public readings of the Declaration in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York that same week.
As the distribution of the Declaration widened throughout the colonies, more Americans rallied to the cause of independence and renounced allegiance to the British crown. The Declaration also served to unite the colonies with a single voice in their pursuit of peace terms with Great Britain.
The international response was varied. Congress did not send the Declaration directly to King George III. Instead, British officials in America learned of the Declaration of Independence through the press and public postings and delivered a copy to the king. The British press dismissed the Declaration and its signers as “nonsense” (source).
Congress sent a copy of the Declaration to American envoys in France for distribution to French and Spanish officials. Spain and France had both been in recent conflicts with Great Britain, so both provided aid to the colonies while regarding the American Declaration with caution.
Despite aiding the American Revolution, Spain declined to enter a formal treaty and banned the distribution of the Declaration of Independence in their own American colonies. France, by contrast, established a formal alliance with the United States.
Sensing the resentment of their citizens against royal opulence, the fears of European monarchs ultimately came to fruition when independence-minded citizens in France adapted the ideals of the Declaration to their own more radical Declaration of the Rights of Man in the decade that followed.
We can best understand the consequences of the Declaration of Independence with further historical context, including why and how the Declaration of Independence originated.
The Declaration of Independence prompted an escalation in fighting between American and British forces. In addition, the Declaration stated the justification for the American Revolution, which had begun in April 1775 when American militia confronted the British at Lexington and Concord (source).
In July 1776, British reinforcements began to arrive in New York. Thousands of British troops were already harbored in New York when George Washington read the Declaration to the Continental Army gathered there on July 9. Several battles took place in and around New York in the following months.
In the year leading up to July 1776, while the Continental Congress directed their efforts toward military strategy, the spread of fighting throughout the colonies also helped spread the cause of liberty and independence. Additionally, Thomas Paine’s publication of the pamphlet Common Sense in early 1776 further encouraged support for independence.
Before the Revolution, the colonies had existed for over a century and a half and experienced significant change. To learn about the establishment and growth of the individual colonies before the American Revolution, read “13 American Colonies Timeline: Dawn of the Colonial Era.”
In the decade that preceded the issuance of the Declaration, the changes imposed on the colonies by the British crown met with increasing resentment, which ultimately gave rise to a new, self-directed set of changes.
Course of Events
The Declaration of Independence cites the “Course of human events” that precipitated its necessity (source). In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the British Parliament enacted legislation, beginning with the Stamp Act in 1765, which the colonists determined to be punitive, coercive, and unjust.
Long Train of Abuses
The Declaration of Independence articulates 78 distinct grievances against King George III. Some of the most widely recognized include:
- Taxation of the colonies without consent
- Maintaining a standing army during peacetime
- Cutting off trade with other countries
- Depriving individuals of trials by jury
- Dissolving and suspending colonial governments
The Declaration concludes its list of American grievances with the bold assertion that King George III is “unfit to be a ruler of a free people.”
The Declaration of Independence concludes with the attestation of the right of the colonies “to be Free and Independent States,” dissolving all political connections to Great Britain.
The Declaration further describes the rights and authority enjoyed by the newly independent states. Specifically, it says that the States have the power to:
- Levy War
- Conclude Peace
- Contract Alliances
- Establish Commerce
Recognition of the States’ Independence
By articulating the powers and authority of the independent states, the Declaration of Independence served as more than just a rallying cry to the colonists and a complaint against the British crown.
The Declaration of Independence announced to the world that the American colonies had severed ties with Great Britain.
This announcement would prove instrumental in establishing vital diplomatic relationships and military alliances as the American Revolution continued to escalate.
Benjamin Franklin had begun seeking aid from France and other European nations in his role as a member of the Secret Committee of Correspondence. However, France insisted that unless the American colonies declared independence from Great Britain, they would not ally with them.
Colonial leaders had already begun drafting a model treaty in early 1776, but it was the Declaration of Independence that enabled Franklin to negotiate the Treaty of Alliance with France (source). Through Franklin and two other diplomats, the Continental Congress formally ratified the Treaty in 1778, making it the first formal recognition of the United States as an independent nation.
Franklin’s role as an ambassador and understanding of the diplomatic benefits of declaring independence made him an ideal candidate for the committee that ultimately produced the Declaration of Independence.
Franklin helped edit the Declaration, and he may have altered Jefferson’s original statement that our rights were “sacred and undeniable” to “self-evident.”
In June 1776, the Continental Congress passed a resolution in favor of declaring independence from Great Britain. They appointed a Committee of Five to produce a written announcement of the colonies’ independence.
Congress appointed Thomas Jefferson to chair the committee, and Jefferson produced the first draft, presenting his writing to Congress before the end of June. Over the first several days of July, Congress refined the announcement through debate and editing. Finally, on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence.
As a member of the Committee of Five, John Adams also provided key revisions to Jefferson’s draft, helping win enough votes in Congress to secure passage of the Declaration of Independence’s final version.
The Continental Congress initially wanted Adams to draft the full document, but he declined (source).
Next, we will examine the words Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin drafted to help fully understand the impact of the Declaration of Independence.
The Declaration frames the rights of humans as natural rights grounded in the created order. It further states that people institute governments to secure natural rights. Therefore, by inference, manmade government institutions cannot be the source of human rights.
Laws of Nature
The Declaration of Independence appeals to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as the source of the natural rights to which individuals are entitled. The opening paragraph further describes and defines our natural rights.
The Declaration lays out how individuals are entitled to the “separate and equal station,” which allows them to dissolve political connections that bind them.
Powers of the Earth
In the same sentence, the Declaration recognizes the rights of persons as global, applying not merely to a particular people in a closed system but meant for others to “assume among the powers of the earth.”
Opinions of Mankind
From the stated position of equal standing, a “respect for the opinions of mankind” compels the writers to articulate the reasons for issuing a declaration of independence.
These phrases and ideas anchor the preamble of the Declaration and establish the thinking that precipitates the call to action. In the following paragraph, the Declaration draws a roadmap to change by elaborating on our rights and the relationship of human rights to self-government.
Building on the idea that certain rights are inherent, the Declaration of Independence further describes our natural rights as “unalienable” — or inalienable in some earlier drafts — rights, meaning no one can remove them (source).
By establishing that human rights are unalienable and that government is a manmade institution, the Declaration concludes that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed.” For this reason, it says that the purpose of government is to secure the natural rights of the governed.
Right of the People
When government fails to secure the rights of the people and instead “becomes destructive of these ends,” the Declaration insists that it is the “Right of the People to alter or abolish it” or to “throw off such government.”
The notion of throwing off a particular government is literally revolutionary, and it is a course of action that the Declaration concedes should not be taken lightly.
In tension with this understanding rests the concurrent idea that when abuse and tyranny become too great to withstand, throwing off an abusive government rises to the level of duty.
In the matter of Colonial American grievances against Great Britain, this statement bridged the need to articulate the compelling reasons for dissolution stated in the preamble with the detailed and specific list of abuses carried out by the British crown.
On the whole, they served to demonstrate that the inherent natural rights of the people could not be enjoyed by the people without such radical change.
Pursuit of Happiness!
The three unalienable rights the Declaration of Independence names are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. According to the Declaration, the aim of government is to protect these rights by being organized and conducted in a manner that most easily ensures the safety and happiness of the people.
Examining the grievances detailed in the Declaration reveals that each represents an affront to one or more of these three fundamental rights.
For example, military violence and improper administration of justice deprived people of life, while the disbanding of local governments and taxation without consent interfered with the colonists’ liberty.
The drafters of the Declaration further understood that unless the people were secure in their lives, livelihoods, and autonomy, the pursuit of happiness to its fullest natural extent was an impossible endeavor.
How Did the Declaration of Independence Change the World?
The ideas embodied by the Declaration of Independence emboldened citizens of other countries to embrace the cause of liberty and pursue their own changes — the first and most dramatic instance was the French Revolution, which began in 1789 (source).
Other countries would soon follow. Even as late as the mid-twentieth century, independence-minded citizens of other countries cited the Declaration of Independence in support of their own causes.
The nature of human rights, the ideal of self-governance, and the abuses of the British crown that the Declaration of Independence articulates informed the framing of the United States Constitution — the operating manual of the Federal Government.
The Constitution defines the separation of powers across multiple branches of government, each with its own limited function, to safeguard against the types of abuses the colonists had experienced at the hands of the British crown.
The Constitution further established a mechanism for self-governance through elected representatives chambered to ensure that varied individual and state interests have a voice and vote in the government.
Most famously, the Constitution’s Bill of Rights enshrines the unalienable, natural rights of individuals to protect those rights from oppressive and tyrannical government encroachment.
The Early Republic
The change inspired by the Declaration of Independence did not come quickly. The Revolution continued for five years until the British surrendered at Yorktown, VA, in 1781.
In 1783, the United States and Great Britain officially established peace by signing the Treaty of Paris. In 1787, the United States ratified the Constitution. The fledgling United States enjoyed peace as it established its new identity at home and in the international community. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Then, in the early 1800s, the expansion of the United States and conflict in Europe precipitated a second war between the United States and Britain. To learn more about these events, read “Causes of the War of 1812: A Timeline.”
In 1776, the Declaration of Independence marked the beginning of a new season in America by rallying the colonial inhabitants around a unified purpose. Its principles formed the basis of our Constitutional form of government and shaped future amendments and actions as the country matured.
The appeal to human rights and the success of the American Revolution inspired freedom-minded people worldwide to effect change in their nations.