What are the Grievances in the Declaration of Independence?

The Declaration of Independence The Declaration of Independence (click for source)

Any good American should know this famous line in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Most of the Declaration, however, focuses on a specific set of grievances against King George III. Often they are vaguely worded. All educated men of the day knew what events they referred to, but to the modern reader they can be ambiguous. Let us look at a few of these grievances listed, and thereby attempt to understand the American Revolution more clearly.

- "He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good."
This is the first of the "repeated injuries and usurpations" detailed in the Declaration. Many of the colonies were required to submit their laws to the King for royal assent (approval) before they would become valid. The King could withhold his assent, effectively vetoing colonial legislation that he disliked. This began to happen frequently and the colonists saw it as overreach.

- "He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands."
Migration to the colonies was brisk in the 18th century, yet the population remained relatively small. The colonists wanted to encourage additional migration to enhance their economies and political power. Advisors to the King warned that the colonies were becoming overly populated and independent-minded. It was for this reason that the King delayed and prevented new migration from England and other parts of Europe. The King also handed down the Royal Proclamation of 1763, preventing settlement west of the Appalachians. This infuriated many colonists of all classes. The common class wanted to settle in the west, and some of the more prosperous men had significant investments in western real estate.

- "He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures."
The French and Indian War was won in 1763, and the expectation of the colonists was that the British Army would by and large return to their home country. Instead, many remained in the colonies on a permanent basis, and the colonial governments were required to help pay for their support. Those in favor of independence saw these troops as an imposition to suppress the popular will and enforce the King's odious revenue policies.

- "For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:"
This was an economic grievance of the colonies against British trade policy. The British forbade the colonies to trade with any other nation (i.e. France, Spain, etc.) and enforced this with various policies, which grew heavily restrictive by the 1770s. Trade from New England was cut off completely by 1774 (as part of the "Intolerable Acts"), in retaliation for that colony's restiveness (to wit, the Boston Tea Party). The entire policy was meant to make the colonies dependent upon Britain and to enhance the wealth of Britain vis a vis other nations.

- "For imposing taxes on us without our consent."
This ties in with the famous cry of "no taxation without representation". The specific acts it refers to (among others) are the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, and the Tea Act of 1773. This final act imposed new taxes on tea and led directly to the famous Boston Tea Party. Though repealed, the Stamp Act of 1765 lived in infamy all the way through to 1776. It imposed a tax on basically any type of paper and united the opposition of many disparate groups.

- "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:"
This refers to the Quebec Act of 1774. This act had multiple purposes. It granted expansive religious rights to the French Catholics of Quebec, and expanded their territory into the American Midwest. Doing so would secure the absolute loyalty of that province and provide a base for British troops. The Act also established a heavily centralized government, accountable to the King, in a place where it would not be opposed. This sent a clear message to the colonists. Only 11 years had passed since the French and Indian War ended, yet it seemed like Britain was now treating the defeated French better than the loyal colonists who had helped defeat them. This inflamed the resentment from the other grievances above.

This list is far from exhaustive. There are 27 "repeated injuries and usurpations" listed in total. The purpose of this particular list is simply to provide a brief overview and to provide resources for further study. It was with reference to many of these abuses that both the Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution would ultimately be written. From the perspective of today, does this list of grievances seem like reasonable cause for a Revolution? Many people have argued passionately on both sides of the question.

Spread the Word

comments powered by Disqus