The Declaration of Independence included twenty-seven specific grievances about the conduct of the King and British government. We asked our contributors to choose one and tell us something about it. The grievances are listed at the end of this article, with numbers added for convenience.
Grievance: “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.”
Gene Procknow: Since the British Parliament’s Plantation Act of 1740, the colonial governments assumed the right to naturalize immigrants into their states and passed enacting laws. However, this right was revoked by King George III in 1773, which infuriated the colonists who actively sought immigrants. One of the first laws enacted under the new U.S. Constitution was a national immigration policy. The founding politicians viewed high levels of immigration as vital to national security, which is a poignant lesson today.
Grievance: “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”
Don N. Hagist: Many of the grievances focus on issues that occurred after the burning of HMS Gaspeein 1772, the first of a series of tit-for-tat escalations by both sides. The “multitude of New Offices,” however, seems to refer back to the end of the French and Indian War, when Great Britain established a host of new mechanisms for managing their vastly-extended North American holdings. Some policies of the 1760s and 1770s were at odds with the colonial governments put in place many decades before, when population and extent of settlement was much smaller. Parliamentary efforts to obtain revenue without colonial representation in Parliament – taxation without representation – was the most important, but the officials and offices established to implement these efforts were the highly-visible instruments of these policies.
Grievance: “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”
Will Monk: The idea that the King should not be allowed to send a standing army unless he had permission from a colonial legislature is the most dubious. The king was commander of the armed forces, and responsible for the defense of the British empire. He had the legal right and responsibility to send troops to protect the colonies. The same colonists who objected to this idea did notobject when the same troops put down Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, or the Cherokee revolt in 1761.
Grievance: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”
Nancy K. Loane: As British citizens, the colonists were familiar with the military reporting to Parliament. But in North America, the British military dissolved the assemblies – and the populace exploded. Then Gen. George Washington resigned his military position and stepped back into civilian life. The U.S. Constitution limited military power by allowing Congress to appropriate funds for the armed forces in no more than two years increments. Years later, Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against the unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex. America’s answer to the important question of whether the military should be independent of civil authority has been NO!
Grievance: “For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”
Connor Runyan: Should I have worn the crown of a British monarch, this grievance would have greatly confounded me. Even in the pre-revolutionary era, when I sent precious Highlander regiments to places like Charleston, as part of a global conflict known as the Seven Years War, there were then the planted seeds of future conflict. Rather than embrace my benevolence, as was customary throughout the Empire, you insulted your King. I sent troops to protect you against the real threat of the French and Indians and you responded with petty bickering and foot-dragging over even the most essential of needs for my troops – officer quarters, beds and bedding, even firewood and tables. What was it that you wanted me to do? Go figure.
Grievance: “For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.”
Jim Piecuch: This grievance is spurious at best. The only widely known incident that Thomas Jefferson could be referencing is the trial of the Boston Massacre perpetrators. I’m sure John Adams, who led the defense, did not consider it a mock trial; he defended the accused soldiers to demonstrate that the colonists were committed to true justice, unlike their British counterparts.
Grievance: “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.”
Tom Shachtman: This was a beef central to the Declaration for merchants, ship-owners, and seamen who worked for them; it had been beautifully articulated earlier by Thomas Paine in a paragraph that Adam Smith could have written: that to a trading country, freedom of trade was “of such importance, that the principal source of wealth depends on it; and it is impossible that any country can flourish … whose commerce is … fettered by laws of another …. A freedom from the restraints of the Acts of Navigation I foresee will produce … immense additions to the wealth of this country.”
Grievance: “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”
Brett Bannor: I think there is a common misunderstanding about this grievance. Note that it accuses England of depriving the colonists trial by JURY, not of depriving them of trials entirely. Parliament had enlarged the jurisdiction of Admiralty Courts to handle offenses committed against the Stamp Act, and Admiralty Courts do not have juries. So the offender went to court, but his fate was in the hands of the judge, not a jury. See Pauline Maier, American Scripture, page 118.
Grievance: “For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.”
John Concannon: Of course this refers specifically to the Gaspee Affair, wherein the British revenue schooner HMS Gaspeewas lured aground, attacked by a group of Rhode Island Sons of Liberty, and set afire. The Crown was, of course, much incensed and set up a royally appointed court of inquisition to discover any perpetrators. But none were found; in Rhode terms, “nobody knew nuttin’“ and the Star court of Inquiry (which bypassed the standing judicial system within the colony) was not able to find anyone to indict. Had they been able to do so, any such suspects were to be transported across the Atlantic to England for trial, for the British were rightly suspicious that anyone indicted would be found innocent by the local courts that were so friendly to colonial citizens. But of course, it would also be impossible to receive a fair trial in England either, where no supporting witnesses would likely be available. The American response to this usurping of the colonies’ own court systems was robustly opposed by leading politicians within America. When Thomas Jefferson helped write the Declaration he included this item that had directly lead the Virginia House of Burgess to reestablish the Standing Intercolonial Committees of Correspondence.
Grievance: “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.”
Steven M. Baule: The British government offended the New England religionists by supporting Catholicism, and the middle and southern colonists by restricting expansion. It allowed for Catholicism to be freely practiced in Canada and what would become the Northwest Territory. It put land speculators and others interesting in moving into the Ohio Valley at a disadvantage against the existing French habitants. Those looking towards westward expansion now had to deal with a foreign (French) system of government managed by former enemies. This put a huge impediment in place to thwart legal westward migration. The Quebec Actwas responsible for keeping Canada loyal to the Crown.
Geoff Smock: This grievance complained about the Quebec Act, which abolished “the free System of English Laws” there, established “an arbitrary government” comprised of officers serving only at the pleasure of the king, and enlarged its borders into western lands that colonists coveted – rendering “an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies.” Essentially, Quebec foreshadowed what the American colonies would look like when most of the other grievances listed in the Declaration were taken together – the suspending of colonial legislatures, controlling the actions of colonial governors, creating new crown-appointed offices, etc. The present in Quebec was the future in America.
Grievance: “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.”
Jason Yonce: The colonial charters played a massive role in the decision to declare independence but we’ve lost the context. Colonial charters until Georgia’s had granted the colonists the “rights of Englishmen,” which had included self-governance but with allegiance to the Crown. This began to change in the 1680s. It’s hard to overstate the strength of the idea of Englishness and the belief that these rights had immemorial origins. Throughout the crises of the 1760s these charters were used as the main defense against parliamentary intrusions into the colonies, but what it meant to be a British subject had changed after 1688.
Grievance: “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”
Gary Shattuck: The Declaration is a creative, extra-legal document to justify revolution. Struggling in their efforts, the rebels relied on an ancient feudal concept based on the reciprocal obligations of the Crown providing protection to its people in exchange for their allegiance. The absence of one meant that the contract had been violated and permitted revolt. Many of the Declaration’s allegations, such as this one, are based on this purported withdrawal of protection by England that allowed the rebels to withhold their allegiance. In truth, England never withdrew its protection, but it has served as a convenient argument to justify rebellion.
Grievance: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”
Charles H. Lagerbom: The reference to “burnt our towns” refers to Mowatt’s attack on Falmouth(present-day Portland, Maine) and is one of the more devastating accusations levelled against King George III and Great Britain. However, I feel it is even more a damning indictment of Adm. Samuel Graves, who conceived of the attack (and by extension) Capt. Henry Mowatt, who carried it out. The act basically ruined them. Their careers were never the same afterwards. Graves was soon replaced and retired; Mowatt’s subsequent service career was strained and advancement stymied, all tinged by that October act of retribution.
Grievance: “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
John L. Smith: Up to the hiring of Hessian mercenariesby King George III, the “repeated injuries and usurpations” borne by the Americans (serious as they were) had been of a “family’ nature of kindred blood; e.g. the British Parliamentary ministers, the British monarch, and the British colonists. But the King’s hiring of “barbarous” German soldiers to kill his own subjects may have been the tipping point for some Americans. Historian Pauline Maier wrote, “George III’s hiring of German soldiers to fight the colonists was cited almost everywhere and seems to have been decisive in alienating large numbers of colonists from the crown.”
Grievance: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Don Glickstein: The Declaration’s grievances contain an impressive base of facts, mixed into a pot of propaganda, seasoned with hypocrisy, and served boiling hot. The two grievances about “cutting of trade” and plundering “the seas” were most important in the short term, because trade restrictions alienated wealthy merchants. From the British perspective, it was all about those merchants evading tariffs with widespread smuggling and trading with enemies. The most hypocritical grievance was probably the last one—inciting domestic discord and supporting “the merciless Indian Savages.” AsHolger Hoock (among others) pointed out in his book about violence during the Revolution,the original terrorists were the so-called “patriots” leading up to the war who practiced torture and violent intimidation. Moreover, the rebels tried hard to recruit their own Indian nations; they failed because of the colonists’ rapacious appetite for stealing and squatting on Indian land.
Timothy Symington: I have always been bothered by this particular grievance, perhaps because the racism towards the Native Americans is so blatant. This may have been the general opinion of members of the Congress. Jefferson himself probably did not see the Native Americans as savage or merciless, and he was fascinated with their culture. But, war was the setting, so anyone the British sided with had to be turned into monsters. The Americans should also not have been surprised by the British trying to turn the slaves against them. What else was to be expected? The grievance, I believe, was completely unnecessary. It did not seem to be needed, other than contributing to and strengthening an immediate sense of outrage.
Bryan Rindfleisch: For Native American communities, the Declaration of Independence – particularly the final grievance – means something very different from other Americans today. As the founding document of the United States, the Declaration lumps all Native Americans together as “merciless Indian Savages” and frames them as enemies of the new nation-state, despite indigenous groups like the Oneida, Catawba, Stockbridge-Mohican, St. Francis Abenaki, among others, who supported the revolutionaries, not to mention individual towns/communities among the Muskogee (Creek), Onondaga, Tuscarora, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Delaware, and many others. In short, Native American communities today have a very different outlook on, and relationship with, the Declaration of Independence.
Eric Sterner: The vast bulk of the reasons for declaring independence relate to political thought and self-government. The last one, however, deals with “domestic insurrection.” The Declaration’s reference to “domestic insurrection” began as a protest against Virginia Gov. John Murray’s promise of freedom to slaves who took up arms for the British. (In truth, he had likely overstepped his authority). The hypocrisy of fighting a war for liberty while practicing slavery led the drafting committee to water down Jefferson’s original language and apply it to Loyalists as well, an early example of subordinating American ideals to practical concerns, and one of its foundational flaws.
Jett Conner: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us …” is a line substituted by the Congress for Jefferson’s original charge against the king that “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery.” Notably, Jefferson’s charge was against the king’s role in the “execrable commerce” of the slave trade and exciting armed rebellion by slaves in the colonies, not slavery itself. Even so, without the change, the Declaration likely would not have been approved by the Congress.
J. L. Bell: By the end of April 1775, the provincial army besieging Boston included a company of Native men from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Those seventeen soldiers were officially under Capt. William Goodrich, but one of their own, Jehoiakim Yokun, was also called captain. The warriors wore war paint and lived with their wives and children. By September Gen. Thomas Gage told London, “they have brought down all the Savages they could against us here, who … are continually firing on our advanced Sentries.” The Declaration’s complaint that the Crown had enlisted “merciless Indian Savages” thus ignores how an American government had done the same thing first.
The twenty-seven grievances in the Declaration of Independence (with numbers added for convenience):
- “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”
- “He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.”
- “He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.”
- “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”
- “He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.”
- “He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.”
- “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.”
- “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.”
- “He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.”
- “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”
- “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.”
- “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”
- “He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.”
- “For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us.”
- “For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States.”
- “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.”
- “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”
- “For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.”
- “For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.”
- “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.”
- “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments.”
- “For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.”
- “He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”
- “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.”
- “He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”
- “He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.”
- “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”