In the 1500s England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and created a new church called the Church of England (sometimes referred to as the Anglican Church).
Although the new church had been founded by Henry VIII of England (r. 1509-1547 CE) during the Protestant Reformation in opposition to the Catholic Church, it still retained many aspects of Catholicism which some Protestants, derisively known by Anglicans as “Puritans” because they wished to purify the Church, objected to. (Joshua Mark, 2021)
King James I, the same who commissioned the famous King James Translation of the Bible, was the head of the Anglican Church, interpreted this criticism as treason, and authorized officials to fine, arrest, imprison and even execute dissenters. (Joshua Mark, 2021) Everyone in England had to belong to the Anglican Church. There was a group of people called Separatists that wanted to separate from that church.
The Early Colonists Wanted to Remain English, Even Though They Were Persecuted and Arrested
In 1607 CE, the Anglican Church became aware of the Scrooby congregation and arrested some, placing others under surveillance, and fining those they could. The congregation, under the leadership of John Robinson (l. 1576-1628 CE) sold their belongings and relocated to Leiden, the Netherlands, where the government practiced a policy of religious tolerance.
Between 1607-1618 CE, the congregation lived freely in Leiden. Bradford and Edward Winslow both wrote glowingly of their experience. In Leiden, God had allowed them, in Bradford’s estimation, “to come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any other church of these later times.” God had blessed them with “much peace and liberty,” Winslow echoed. (Joshua Mark, 2021)
However, after several years of living the Netherlands they cherished the freedom of conscience they enjoyed in Leiden, but the Pilgrims had two major complaints:
- they found it a hard place to maintain their English identity (their children wanted to speak Dutch instead of English and they missed other things about English life) and
- it was an even harder place to make a living.
In America, they hoped to live by themselves, enjoy the same degree of religious liberty and earn a “better and easier” living. (Robert Tracy McKenzie)
The Colonists were British Until the Declaration of Independence and Subsequent Revolutionary War
While the Mayflower Compact (signed in 1620) established a government for the Plymouth Colony, they still considered themselves loyal subjects of King James I and made that very clear in the text.
The first words of the Mayflower Compact confirm the Pilgrims’ loyalty to the king:
In the name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, defender of the Faith, etc.
They concluded the Mayflower Compact with:
In witness whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape Cod the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, 1620.
The rest of the Mayflower Compact bound the signers into a “Civil Body Politic” for the purpose of passing “just and equal Laws … for the general good of the Colony.”
In the 1600s and 1700s, Europeans came to North America looking for religious freedom, economic opportunities, and political liberty.
They created 13 colonies on the East Coast of the continent. Each colony had its own government, but the British king controlled these governments.
They believed that Great Britain did not treat the colonists as equal citizens. (US Citizenship and Immigration Services)
Colonists Were Loyal to the King During the First Continental Congress (1774)
At the end of the First Continental Congress, the delegates adopted a Petition addressed to “The King’s Most Excellent Majesty” on October 26, 1774. In part, it states,
WE your majesty’s faithful subjects of the colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts-Bay, Rhode-Island and Providence plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the counties of Newcastle, Kent and Sussex on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North-Carolina, and South-Carolina,
in behalf of ourselves and the inhabitants of those colonies, who have deputed us to represent them in general congress, by this our humble petition, beg leave to lay our grievances before the throne. …
Permit us then, most gracious sovereign, in the name of all your faithful people in America, with the utmost humility to implore you, for the honour of Almighty God, whose pure religion our enemies are undermining ; for your glory, which can be advanced only by rendering your subjects happy, and keeping them united ;
for the interest of your family depending on an adherance to the principles that enthroned it ; for the safety and welfare of your kingdoms and dominions threatened with almost unavoidable dangers and distresses :
That your Majesty, as the loving father of your whole people, connected by the same bands of law, loyalty, faith and blood, though dwelling in various countries, will not suffer the transcendent relation formed by these ties, to be farther violated, in uncertain expectation of effects, that if attained, never can compensate for the calamities through which they must be gained.
We therefore most earnestly beseech your majesty, that your royal authority and interposition may be used for our relief, and that a gracious answer may be given to this petition.
That your majesty may enjoy every felicity, through a long and glorious reign, over loyal and happy subjects, and that your descendants may inherit your prosperity and dominions, till time shall be no more, is, and always will be, our sincere and fervent prayer.
A contingent was sent to England to present and discuss the Petition with the King. It was presented to the House of Commons by Lord North on January 19, 1775, as No. 149 of a set of papers, and to the House of Lords the next day. (Wolf) Franklin reported back that,
It came down among a great Heap of letters of Intelligence from Governors and officers in America, Newspapers, Pamphlets, Handbills, etc., from that Country, the last in the List, and was laid upon the Table with them, undistinguished by any particular Recommendation of it to the Notice of either House; and I do not find, that it has had any further notice taken of it as yet, than that it has been read as well as the other Papers.
No answer was ever made to the first attempt of Congress to appeal to the King. (Wolf)
Colonists Were Loyal to the King During the Second Continental Congress (1775)
Unwilling to completely abandon their hope for peace, the Olive Branch Petition was adopted by Second Continental Congress on July 5, 1775 to be sent to the King as a last attempt to prevent formal war from being declared. The Petition emphasized their loyalty to the British crown and emphasized their rights as British citizens.
We, your Majesty’s faithful subjects of the colonies of new Hampshire, Massachusetts bay, Rhode island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the counties of New Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, in behalf of ourselves, and the inhabitants of these colonies, who have deputed us to represent them in general Congress, entreat your Majesty’s gracious attention to this our humble petition.
The union between our Mother country and these colonies, and the energy of mild and just government, produced benefits so remarkably important, and afforded such an assurance of their permanency and increase, that the wonder and envy of other Nations were excited, while they beheld Great Britain riseing to a power the most extraordinary the world had ever known. …
We, therefore, beseech your Majesty, that your royal authority and influence may be graciously interposed to procure us relief from our afflicting fears and jealousies, occasioned by the system before mentioned, and to settle peace through every part of your dominions …
That your Majesty may enjoy a long and prosperous reign, and that your descendants may govern your dominions with honor to them selves and happiness to their subjects, is our sincere and fervent prayer.
War and a Push for New Governance and Citizenship
By the time Congress met again, war was already underway, and thus the delegates to the Second Continental Congress formed the Continental Army and dispatched George Washington to Massachusetts as its commander.
Over one-hundred and fifty years after the Pilgrims landed and signed the Mayflower Compact in the New World, the subsequent colonists stated in 1776,
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another …
… and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. …
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.
They concluded their Declaration stating,
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare,
That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States
that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.
And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The Declaration of Independence (1776) was designed for multiple audiences: the King, the colonists, and the world. It was also designed to multitask. Its goals were to rally the troops, win foreign allies and to announce the creation of a new country.
By issuing the Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, the 13 American colonies severed their political connections to Great Britain. The Declaration summarized the colonists’ motivations for seeking independence.
By declaring themselves an independent nation, the American colonists were able to confirm an official alliance with the Government of France and obtain French assistance in the war against Great Britain. (National Archives)
However, King George III did not want to lose this valuable land, and so the colonies took to arms to defend their new country and rights in what is now known as the Revolutionary War.
Unfortunately, it took five long years of war before the British surrendered in October 19, 1781, and the United States of America could begin the business of becoming a nation. Later, when the colonists won independence, these colonies became the 13 original states.
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