Before Americans were American, they were British. Before Americans governed themselves, they were governed by a distant British king and a British Parliament in which they had no vote. Before America was an independent state, it was a dependent colony. Before Americans expressed support for equality, their government and society were aristocratic and highly hierarchical. These transformations were complex, but the changes owe a great deal to the Declaration of Independence of 1776, what has been properly termed “America’s mission statement.”
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, and colonists' loyalties were to their individual colonies and the British Empire rather than to each other. In fact, only commercial and cultural ties with Britain served to unify the colonies. Yet the Declaration helped to transform 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 taxes imposed without American representation, along with King George III's failure to address or ease his subjects' grievances, made dissolving 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." In such circumstances, Jefferson explained that it was the people’s “right, it was their duty,” to throw off the repressive government. Under the new "system," Americans would govern themselves.