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Henningsen: Creating A People

Have you ever wondered about that long middle section of the Declaration of Independence? You know, the tedious list of offences supposedly committed by King George?

Some of it’s clear enough: “quartering large bodies of troops,” “imposing taxes... without our consent,” “depriving us... of trial by jury.” Yeah, yeah - Quartering Act, Stamp Act, Intolerable Acts – high school US history. Sure.

But what about some of the others?

“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the repository of public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”

Or “He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

Or “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.”

Say what?

History geeks will quickly recognize references to the Intolerable Acts, enforcement of the Navigation Acts, and efforts to assert the will of Parliament over that of colonial assemblies respectively. But, for most of us, it’s a blur. This is when we doze off.

Perhaps we’d listen more closely if we understood that this seeming laundry list was at the time probably the most important part of the document.

First, as historians like Pauline Maier point out, the Declaration conformed to 18th century political theory requiring a formal proclamation ending a government and giving the reasons for doing so. That long list? Those are the reasons.

But the list had an even more important purpose. The American colonists called themselves “united.” In fact, they were anything but. It’s difficult today to recapture the reality of thirteen fractious colonies constantly dealing with internal strife, bickering among themselves, refusing to aid each other against Indians and pirates, and competing for land and trade. The hub of their universe was London, not their neighbors. To a Virginian, Massachusetts might as well have been Jamaica. Left to themselves, said one observer, the American colonies “would be a mere shambles of blood and confusion.” In 1776 their supposed “unity” was extremely fragile.

The Declaration’s long catalog of offenses affecting all thirteen colonies was meant to show how much experience they had in common and how what they had in common required them to unite and stay that way.

That’s why the list is so important. It not only gave colonists reasons for declaring their independence; it reminded them that they shared a past, a common history, and that gave them a shared identity – as Americans. It’s an early attempt to make the many into one.