We are “resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.”

These powerful words, penned by Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson, hold a prominent place in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, approved unanimously by the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775.

Often completely ignored by government-run schools today, and overshadowed by the Declaration of Independence, this document stands as a crucial but forgotten explanation of the War for Independence. The colonists denounced a British “peace offer” that demanded gun control, and detailed their grievances against unlimited British power.

The latter was, of course, the Declaratory Act of 1766, which asserted British authority over the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

Before getting to the details of what had been happening since April 19, 1775 – Jefferson and Dickinson used the opening paragraph to reject this claim of unlimited power:

“If it was possible for men who exercise their reason, to believe that the divine Author of our existence intended a part of the human race to hold an absolute property in, and an unbounded power over others, marked out by his infinite goodness and wisdom, as the objects of a legal domination never rightfully resistible, however severe and oppressive, the inhabitants of these Colonies might at least require from the Parliament of Great Britain some evidence, that this dreadful authority over them has been granted to that body.”

From there, the Declaration explained that a series of acts were examples of how the British were exercising this unlimited power:

“Parliament was influenced to adopt the pernicious project; and assuming a new power over them, have, in the course of eleven years, given such decisive specimens of the spirit and consequences attending this power, as to leave no doubt concerning the effects of acquiescence under it.”

In a precursor to the Declaration of Independence, this list of grievances included:

  • They have undertaken to give and grant our money without our consent
  • Extending the jurisdiction of Courts of Admiralty and Vice-Admiralty beyond their ancient limits
  • Depriving us of the accustomed and inestimable privilege of Trial by Jury
  • Suspending the Legislature of one of the Colonies
  • Interdicting all commerce to the capital of another
  • Altering fundamentally the form of Government established by Charter
  • Exempting the “murderers” of Colonists from legal trial, and, in effect, from punishment
  • Quartering soldiers upon the Colonists in time of profound peace

Instead of continuing with an even longer list – as had been done in the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress (and the following year in the Declaration of Independence), Jefferson and Dickinson asked the obvious questions:

“But why should we enumerate our injuries in detail? By one statute it is declared that Parliament can “of right make laws to bind us in all cases whatsoever.” What is to defend us against so enormous, so unlimited a power?”

The fighting had only broken out years after the Declaratory Act was passed, and the Declaration made clear that the colonists had been pleading for change for a decade:

“We, for ten years, incessantly and ineffectually besieged the Throne as supplicants; we reasoned, we remonstrated with Parliament, in the most mild and decent language.”

In response to their pleas to end these measures, they noted that the Administration didn’t back down. It instead “sent over fleets and armies to enforce them.”

Despite the Colonists’ professed loyalty – Jefferson and Dickinson made clear that loyalty to liberty must supersede loyalty to any nation:

“We have pursued every temperate, every respectful measure; we have even proceeded to break off our commercial intercourse with our fellow-subjects, as the last peaceable admonition, that our attachment to no Nation upon earth should supplant our attachment to liberty.”

From there, the Declaration addressed the violence actually happening.

Passed just over two months after the “shot heard ‘round the world,” it was also a direct and vehement rejection of Gen. Gage’s “peace” offer: Give up your guns and give up your friends – and the fighting can end.

The response, of course, shouldn’t be a surprise


On June 12, 1775, Gage publicly offered near-blanket amnesty in exchange for disarmament:

“I do hereby, in His Majesty’ s name, offer and promise his most gracious pardon to all persons who shall forthwith lay down their arms, and return to their duties of peaceable subjects, excepting only from the benefit of such pardon, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whose offences are of too flagitious a nature to admit of any other consideration than that of condign punishment.”

But Jefferson, Dickinson and the entire Continental Congress knew all-too-well how gun-grabbers work. Gage had made a similar promise previously, but went back on his word.

Shortly after the Siege of Boston began, Gage ordered all residents to turn in their firearms “temporarily.” After nearly 2,700 were turned in, the guns were never returned to them, and many of those promised with safe passage out of the city were prohibited from leaving.

The Declaration lambasted Gage for his attacks on the colonists under military occupation:

“The General, further emulating his Ministerial masters, by a Proclamation, bearing date on the 12th day of June, after venting the grossest falsehoods and calumnies against the good people of these Colonies, proceeds to ‘declare them all, either by name or description, to be rebels and traitors; to supersede the course of the common law, and instead thereof to publish and order the use and exercise of the law martial.’ His troops have butchered our countrymen; have wantonly burnt Charlestown, besides a considerable number of houses in other places; our ships and vessels are seized; the necessary supplies of provisions are intercepted, and he is exerting his utmost power to spread destruction and devastation around him.” [Emphasis added]

The Declaration also made it clear that, though the siege was still ongoing, word of Gage’s gun confiscation measures had gotten out, and left an indelible impression on Americans whom Gage now demanded turn in their arms as well.

They knew the fix was in:

“The inhabitants of Boston, being confined within that Town by the General, their Governour, and having, in order to procure their dismission, entered into a treaty with him, it was stipulated that the said inhabitants, having deposited their arms with their own Magistrates, should have liberty to depart, taking with them their other effects. They accordingly delivered up their arms; but in open violation of honour, in defiance of the obligation of treaties, which even savage nations esteemed sacred, the Governour ordered the arms deposited as aforesaid, that they might be preserved for their owners, to be seized by a body of soldiers; detained the greatest part of the inhabitants in the Town, and compelled the few who were permitted to retire, to leave their most valuable effects behind.” [Emphasis added]

The force and beauty of the Declaration’s closing paragraphs still have remarkable impact today: 

“We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to the tyranny of irritated ministers, or resistance by force. The latter is our choice. . . . Honor, justice, and humanity forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us.”

It was understood that giving up at this point would lead to terrible results – and the Revolutionaries would continue their resistance no matter how much the odds were stacked against them:

“With hearts fortified with these animating reflections, we most solemnly, before God and the world, declare, that, exerting the utmost energy of those powers which our beneficent Creator hath graciously bestowed upon us, the arms we have been compelled by our enemies to assume, we will, in defiance of every hazard, with unabating firmness and perseverance, employ for the preservation of our liberties; being, with one mind, resolved to die freemen rather than live slaves.

The Declaration then closed with an assertion of the right of Americans to continue resisting Gage and other enforcers of British attacks on their natural rights, through the force of arms:

“In our own native land, in defence of the freedom that is our birth-right, and which we ever enjoyed till the late violation of it; for the protection of our property, acquired solely by the honest industry of our forefathers and ourselves, against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms. We shall lay them down when hostilities shall cease on the part of the aggressors, and all danger of their being renewed shall be removed, and not before.” [Emphasis added]

It’s not terribly difficult to understand the thinking behind the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. For over a decade, the colonists endured the tyranny of the British who unilaterally and arbitrarily exercised powers that violated the very foundations of liberty they had cherished for generations. 

When the colonists pleaded for reason, the British only tightened their grip. When the colonists resisted primarily through non-compliance, the British sent fleets and armies to enforce. When the Colonists still refused to submit, the British started implementing a massive gun control scheme. And when the British came to take the arms and powder, the Colonists were left with no other choice – they fought back.

Few documents, if any, so clearly explained this history better than the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms.

Michael Boldin