Declaration of Rights
DECLARATION OF RIGHTS
DECLARATION OF RIGHTS. The Declaration of Rights on 14 October 1774, promulgated by the First Continental Congress, was an obvious precursor of the Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776 in both language and content. It should be noted that fifteen years later, its very title as well as its content informed the first stirrings of the French Revolution (1787–1799). With the example of the American Revolution (1775–1783) in mind, the First Estates General issued its own Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.
The American declaration marked a significant escalation in the expression of colonial grievances. First, it was put together by a national entity, revolutionary in itself, representing as it did twelve of the thirteen colonies. Second, it articulated for the first time a specific historic linkage to escalating events, citing violations of colonial rights during the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, the blanket affirmation of total British sovereignty embodied in the Townshend Duties and the ensuing Declaratory Act of 1767, and the Coercive Acts applied to Massachusetts in general and Boston Port in particular in 1774. Finally, the language of the Declaration of Rights boldly asserted America's higher sovereign authority rooted in Natural Law as expressed in the Enlightenment discourse of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Specifically, the declaration was the first American revolutionary document to articulate the right to "life, liberty and property," the most common American expression of Natural Law. The declaration went even further. It challenged English authority by claiming that the colonists were Englishmen and Englishwomen, asserting "all the rights, liberties and immunities of free natural born subjects, within the realm of England." Directly confronting the Coercive Acts of 1774 and the creation of an autocratically appointed upper house and the suspension of the local judiciary in the Bay Colony, the Declaration of Rights proclaimed both the "right in the people to participate in their legislative councils" and "the privilege of being tried by their peers of their vicinage [locality]."
If it sounded as if the members of the Congress wanted it both ways, they did. They wanted both their rights as Englishmen and the liberty of establishing their own government. The Declaration of Rights then was a radical document, the most revolutionary expression of American rights yet articulated. It both reflected and engendered a growing sense of national purpose and, as such, in 1774 moved America significantly closer to independence.
Ironically, the inspiration for the American Declaration of Rights may have come from the English Parliament of 1689. At the end of the Glorious Revolution (1688), English representatives forced on William III their own Declaration of Rights forbidding the Crown to suspend any parliamentary act, granting to Parliament the sole right to tax, and again, tellingly, guaranteeing protection of the law to every English subject. All of these elements were in evidence in 1774 in the New World. What went around came around.
The American Declaration of Rights was a milestone in the process of eroding royal authority. Crown prerogatives, even given the limitations placed on them by parliamentary encroachment over five hundred years, were rooted in the idea of king as father figure, the paternal, wise, and beneficent ruler who presided in mystical bond with his subjects. The declaration specifically rejected "the exercise of legislative power in several colonies by the King." This official assault on the Crown, who was characterized as not wise and beneficent after all, was reinforced by the steady barrage of propaganda coming out of Massachusetts Bay and Philadelphia. John Dickinson, John Adams, and Samuel Adams particularly undermined royal authority among colonists. They defined Loyalists directly as those loyal to the king.
Samuel Adams, one of the delegates representing Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress, was already deemed a radical in 1774, and he was joined by John Adams in telling the Bay Colony's story of the events following the Boston Tea Party in 1773. By every measure, John Adams had been a moderate until then, not advocating independence in his influential writings prior to 1774. But his endorsement of the Declaration of Rights at the Congress marked the movement of moderates generally and John Adams specifically to the radical camp that espoused independence as the only way to secure American liberties. The 1774 declaration then was a key moment in the maturation of the American Revolution, as it articulated a growing and perhaps by then irreversible estrangement between the mother country and its rebellious colonies.
Namier, Louis Bernstein. England in the Age of the American Revolution. New York: St. Martin's, 1962.
Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979.
Declaration of Rights
J. A. Cannon