Before Americans were American, they were British. Before Americans governed themselves, they were governed by a distant British king. Before America was an independent state, it was a dependent colony. Before Americans claimed equal rights, they were subject to British tyranny. What brought about these transformations? The Declaration of Independence of 1776.
An American People
In its opening lines, the Declaration made a radical statement: America was one "people." On the eve of independence, however, the thirteen colonies had been separate provinces. Colonists' loyalties were to individual colonies. In fact, only commercial ties with Britain served to unify the colonies in any sense. Yet the Declaration transformed South Carolinians, Virginians, New Yorkers and other colonists into Americans.
A New System of Governance
The Declaration announced America's separation from one of the world's most powerful empires: Britain. Parliament's oppressive taxes, along with King George III's failure to address or ease his subjects' grievances, made dissolving of the "bands which have connected them" not just a choice, but an urgent necessity. As the Declaration made clear, the "long train of abuses and usurpations" and the tyranny exhibited "over these States" forced the colonists to "alter their former system of Government." Under the new "system," Americans would govern themselves.
Closer to Europe
America did not secede from the British Empire to be alone in the world. Instead, the Declaration proclaimed that an independent America had assumed a "separate and equal station" with the other "powers of the earth." With this statement, America would occupy an equal place with other modern European nations, including France, the Dutch Republic, Spain, or even Britain. America's independence signaled a fundamental change: once-dependent British colonies became independent states that could make war, create alliances with foreign nations, and engage freely in commerce.
The Declaration issued a landmark decree—that "all men are created equal." Colonists had always seen themselves as equal to their British cousins and entitled to the same liberties. But when Parliament passed laws that violated colonists' "inalienable rights" and ruled the American colonies without the "consent of the governed," colonists concluded that Britain was the land of tyranny, not freedom. The Declaration sought to restore equal rights by rejecting Britain's oppression.
The "Spirit of 76"
The principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence promised to lead America—and other nations on the globe—into a new era of freedom. The revolution begun by Americans on July 4, 1776 would never end. It would inspire all peoples living under the burden of oppression and ignorance to open their eyes to the rights of mankind, to overturn the power of tyrants, and to declare the triumph of equality over inequality.