Today in 1776: The Declaration of Independence is ratified

July 4, 2014

Today in Legal History Fourth of JulyAs you may no doubt be aware, today is the Fourth of July – also known as Independence Day – which is celebrated in the United States as the day of the nation’s birth.  And although it’s not a historical event typically studied in law school, nor one analyzed at any great length in modern legal treatises, it is arguably the most significant legal event in U.S. history, since, without it, there would be no U.S. legal history of which to speak.

But what actually happened on that fateful summer day in 1776?

Most know that it has something to do with the Declaration of Independence.  However, contrary to some misconceptions, the Fourth of July does not commemorate the signing of the document, but rather of its adoption by the Continental Congress.  The document itself wasn’t actually signed until August 2 of that year.

First, since this is a legal blog after all, what was the legal effect of the declaration?

It didn’t actually spark the Revolutionary War.  That began over a year earlier in April of 1775.  Nor did it officially form the sovereign nation of the United States of America (though it certainly laid the groundwork for as much).

Then what did it do?

It certainly did as its name implied: declared independence of the 13 colonies from Great Britain.  But if the colonies were already at war with Britain, wasn’t it implied that the colonies declared themselves to be independent?

Actually, no.  Up until the declaration was ratified, the majority of the colonists had believed that the colonies would reconcile with Britain, and that the war was only being fought over British Parliament’s high taxation of the colonies (enacted to dig Britain out of debt from the Seven Years’ War).

The Declaration of Independence was a major step, both legally and politically, for the colonies that would become the United States.

Legally, the ratification of the declaration was the culmination of the respective governments of each of the 13 colonies independently authorizing their delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for independence (delegates were not legally authorized to cast their vote for independence without this approval; also worth noting is that the New York legislature did not vote for independence until a week after its ratification, due to political instability caused by the war).

Politically, the declaration transformed the war with Britain into one for independence – and the first successful such war against a European colonial power.  The manner in which the U.S. gained its independence helped to set the course for the nation’s political foundation and historical course, both domestically and internationally: the Founding Fathers, though keenly aware of the history and traditions of the British legal and political systems, often opted to diverge from their former mother country, and, in doing so, set examples for numerous revolutions abroad that followed.

Indeed, those same ideals of the Founding Fathers inspire a wide range of jurists today – especially those who interpret the Constitution based on the intentions and ideals not only of the Framers of the Constitution, but those of the Founding Fathers in declaring independence.

Of course, between barbeques and fireworks, it’s easy to forget the historical significance behind the ratification of the Declaration of Independence that we celebrate today.  Nonetheless, the day should serve as a reminder that the U.S. is the nation that it is today, for good and for ill, because of this ratification.