What Were the Grounds for Declaring Independence?

This post was originally submitted for an American Government class at Regent University. It has been modified for this post.

An important subject to study about the American Revolution is the motivation behind the move to independence.  It is a common misconception in the 21st century that the American colonists originally wanted to become independent from Britain. In fact, the opposite is true. Analysis of primary documents by writers like James Otis, Jonathan Mayhew, Thomas Paine, and ultimately the Declaration of Independence itself, one can see that what the colonists really wanted were their rights. Acknowledging that reconciliation was impossible, the American colonists’ hands were tied, and they had to declare independence in defense of their rights, primarily the right to representation before taxation.In Congress, A Declaration

James Otis’ The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved presented a case “which by God and nature are fixed” hit on four major points involving government. One of those points was: “Taxes are not to be laid on the people, but by consent in their person, or by deputation.” In essence, if subjects of the British government were to be taxed, representation in Parliament was necessary.[1] Taxes such as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the infamous Tea Act of 1773 were just two of the numerous taxes levied on the unrepresented American colonists. Otis built a foundation on the Lockean philosophy that God had given the people their rights, and that a government that denied people those rights were defying God’s Law.

Jonathan Mayhew offered a religious defense in a widespread sermon that took strong root with the American colonists who desired Independence. His argument claimed that God’s law was Supreme over the law of man, and that when any law of man defied the Supreme Law of God, man had a duty to defy those laws in obedience to God.[2] In the year that Mayhew wrote this (1750), the stage had not really been set for the Independence movement. Only after the French and Indian War did England take a more pronounced interest in colonial affairs. When taxes started to be enacted, the colonists were furious because they had no representation in Parliament, and began to believe that the English government was not creating laws for the well-being of society.

In the minds of the colonists, and the mindset of Lockean liberalism, taxes could only be levied by the people, or by deputation of consent (representation).[3] The idea of “no taxation without representation” came as a violation of their rights in the eyes of the colonists. A combination of Lockean governmental ideas and refutation of the Divine Right of Kings led more and more colonists to drift from loyalty to Britain. The refutation of the Divine Right of Kings is explicitly seen in the Declaration of Independence, as the Declaration is primarily a letter to King George III in regards those violations and why the colonists were taking action.

taxation without representation“For imposing taxes on us without our consent” was a major offense; the writings of Otis and Mayhew had influenced the colonists’ mindset into believing that representation for taxation was a God-given right.[4] For years the colonists had pleaded with the British government, sending letters of petition and attempting to create their own representation. As listed in the Declaration, King George ignored those petitions and those representative bodies were shut down. In Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, he boldly challenged anyone in support of reconciliation to name one benefit the colonists would receive by staying affiliated with Britain.[5]

The American colonists did not originally plan to secede from Britain. They enjoyed citizenship in the British Empire, but they wanted their rights more. When their right to taxation with representation was denied, they felt they had no choice but to secede to protect those God-given rights. Mayhew’s refutation of divine right of kings and elevation of God’s Law emphasized Lockean idealism, and ultimately, reconciliation was futile according to Paine. The rights of the colonists were more important than belonging to the British Empire, and the Declaration of Independence was the culmination of these violations.

[1] Otis, James, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764, 105.

[2] Mayhew, Jonathan, A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers, 1750, 47.

[3] Otis, James, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764, 105.

[4] The Declaration of Independence, 1776.

[5] Paine, Thomas, Common Sense, 1776, 141.



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