The Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: A History Of The United States, 2nd Edition

By Allen Gulezo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

The committee for the Declaration of Independence was considered as a distant third behind the committee of foreign alliances and the committee responsible for writing the rules of confederation; but by the end, it was proven to be second to none.

The Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
The Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was accepted. (Image: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

The Formation of Three Major Committees

Congress formed different committees to devise a plan for a Confederation of the states, to seek out foreign alliances, and to prepare a formal declaration that would embody Lee’s resolution on independence.

Of these three major committees, the committee on foreign alliances was understood to be the most important, while the committee for writing the rules of a new Confederation super-government came in as a quick second. The committee for writing the declaration lagged behind as a distant third.

It’s not hard to see why. A declaration committee was only going to fiddle around with Lee’s resolution, whereas the alliances and the Confederation were considered to be the really important things that Congress had to do.

For that reason, the most prominent members of the Congress grabbed for the first two committees: John Adams made sure that he was going to be on the committee for alliances, John Dickinson made sure that he would be writing the material for the Confederation. The committee for writing the declaration, even though it included Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, pretty much referred the job entirely to a quiet, lanky member of the Virginia delegation—Thomas Jefferson.

Learn more about American Revolution-politics and people.

Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson was one of the most widely read philosophical amateurs in America. He was a lawyer by profession.

From the very first words, Jefferson cast his Declaration as enlightenment and a Whig manifesto. Here is the way that Jefferson began his Declaration:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Jefferson declares that American independence occurs in the course of human events. We can no longer speak of kings holding mandates from heaven. We are speaking of government as John Locke spoke of it, as a human event, something that occurs within the flow of human history. This is the voice of the Whig ideology, reminding us that governments are created by people, and not handed down from heaven on a platter.

We also hear about the fixed natural laws and that these laws are necessary and cannot be avoided. Thus, the basis of the American founding, according to Jefferson, is in nature, and not in artificial human constructions like class or status or tradition. God is involved here only in the process as nature’s God, not the Christian God whose name was invoked to bless one English king’s coronation after another.

Jefferson is not content merely to appeal to historic British rights or traditional British rights. He appeals to the rights embedded equally in every human being.

An image of the Declaration of Independence presented to Congress.
The image of the original Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. (Image: original: w: Second Continental Congress; reproduction: William Stone/Public domain)

He invokes natural rights, which are so clearly hard-wired into everyone’s consciousness that there’s no need to quarrel over the history of this right or the interpretation of that right. Rights such as Jefferson wants to talk about are self-evident.

Thus, Jefferson pours the foundation for American independence with the most universal and basic rights that he can summon up. He says, “We hold these truths”, the ones he’s about to list, “to be self-evident”, they are axiomatic. “That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Everybody is hard-wired with those rights, and no government can deny them, take them away, abolish them, or erase them.

The first task of government, then, according to Thomas Jefferson, is to make these rights safe from assault by anyone, foreign or domestic. That’s the primary task of a government. Make those rights secure: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If a government doesn’t make those rights secure, then, Jefferson goes on to say, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it”.

Now, according to Jefferson in the Declaration, violating these natural rights was the first offense of the British government. Whatever else the British government did that was wrong was going to come later. Everything else from the Stamp Act on down to, Jefferson goes on to list them, “suspending our legislatures, transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny”.

Hence, the crime that Britain has committed is a crime against human identity itself since human identity is bound up with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And all of those things are what Britain has put in jeopardy in America. It’s for these reasons, Jefferson concludes, that the colonies deserve to become free and independent states.

After Benjamin Franklin’s few prudent surgical recommendations to Thomas Jefferson, Congress picked up Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence and voted to adopt Richard Henry Lee’s Independence motion on July 2, 1776. After chopping and hacking at what Jefferson thought were the best parts of his Declaration, on July 4, 1776, Congress voted to approve Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Although the work of the other two committees appeared, at the time, to be substantially more important, neither of them succeeded in 1776 as grandly as Jefferson’s Declaration.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Articles of Confederation

John Dickinson dominated the committee for the Confederation. The committee was important not only for keeping the newly independent states united but also because it would be impossible to expect economic and military aid from other countries if there was no government in the colonies for European nations to recognize.

The Articles of Confederation, which Dickinson’s committee finally offered to Congress in August of 1776, were largely Dickinson’s work, but they were a haphazard affair at best.

An image of John Dickinson's Articles of Confederation.
The Articles of Confederation, written by John Dickinson, did not succeed as grandly as Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. (Image: The government of the United States/Public domain)

Once the colonies became independent states, many of them proceeded to behave as though they were independent of each other, too. And their delegates in Congress fought to keep the Confederation as weak as possible. Arguments erupted over how the states should be represented in the proposed Confederation Congress. Those arguments were settled in possibly the worst way, by granting each state an equal vote no matter what its size.

More arguments erupted over the Confederation’s authority to tax, and not surprisingly, for states involved in a war over taxation. The Confederation was left with little more power than to solicit contributions from the states for its upkeep.

Finally, matters almost came to blows over control of the land west of the Appalachians. States like Connecticut demanded, on the basis of their old colonial charters, to have their boundaries recognized as stretching to the Pacific Ocean. It meant that Connecticut was claiming title not just to a thin little band of territory stretching right across North America but also directly across northern Pennsylvania.

In the end, a compromise was reached. All the states would cede their western claims to Congress for settlement, but this was only because the disagreement was imperiling American military survival.

Learn more about the Great War for Empire.

The Committee of Foreign Alliances

The committee on foreign alliances was not that much happier either. Congress sent first Silas Deane, then Benjamin Franklin, and finally John Adams to France, Spain, and the Netherlands to negotiate treaties.

Franklin and Adams quickly came to despise each other. Nevertheless, even if they hadn’t, the French would not commit themselves until it was clear that the Americans could succeed militarily on their own. The French had put their money on enough slow horses in North America, and in 1776 success of a military nature for the Americans was by no means clear.

Common Questions about the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation

Q: How did the Declaration of Independence influence the Articles of Confederation?

The Declaration of Independence condemned the power of the British king over the colonies which in a way led to the creation of a limited government in the articles.

Q: Did the Articles of Confederation reflect the values put forth in the Declaration of Independence?

No, the Articles of Confederation did not fully reflect the values put forth by the Declaration of Independence.

Q: What does the Declaration of Independence mean?

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence as a statement of sovereignty of the United States to the world. It declares the freedom of the thirteen American colonies from Great Britain. 

Q: What does Article 2 of the Articles of Confederation mean?

Article 2 of the confederation means that each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence. It also retains every power and jurisdiction which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States.

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