US Declaration is our nation’s founding document too: James Philips

John Trumbull's 1817 painting The Declaration of Independence 1776.
John Trumbull’s 1817 painting The Declaration of Independence 1776.

Thomas Jefferson’s US Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 – almost 2½ centuries ago on Sunday – had three great consequences for Australia.

First, it led to the founding of the British colony of NSW. Second, it facilitated Australian independence. Third, it led to the structure of the Australian Constitution.

US independence meant the British could no longer send convicts to its former American colonies. Long-stay prisons in Britain were in short supply. The British needed a new colony to which they could transport convicts. They risked the moon shot of trying to establish a colony on the other side of the world, at Botany Bay (now in Sydney).

The success of the American Revolutionary War and the declaration taught the British not to resist a settler colony whose people wanted independence. When Australians demanded independence, just over a century after the founding of the first Australian colony, the British did not stand in their way.

The declaration and independence led (in 1787-88) to the US constitution. That constitution (drafted while the First Fleet was hazarding its epic journey) had a profound influence on the structure and terms of the Australian Constitution and on Australia’s system of government.

Of course, a future Australia was not on his mind when Jefferson was drafting the declaration. He and other US founders were focused on protecting their legal and political rights from British predation.

The Declaration of Independence charged King George III with “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States”.

In charging the king with tyranny and seceding, Americans were following in the footsteps of English rebels.

In 1649, the English Rump Parliament had charged King Charles I with “a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his Will, and to overthrow the Rights and Liberties of the People”.

The US founders charged ­King George III with tyranny, rebelled, left his kingdom and established a republic. The Rump Parliament had charged Charles I with tyranny, tried him, beheaded him and established a republic.

The US republic has endured. The English republic was short-lived.

But 30 years after the end of the English republic, the English had a second revolution, called the English Revolution or the Glorious Revolution. The English (with substantial Dutch help) forced James II to flee his kingdom, rather than putting him on trial and executing him. The English Revolution established finally that the king or queen was subject to parliament and to law.

During the English Revolution there were rebellions against English rule in Massachusetts, New York and Maryland.

In the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution, Americans believed they were protecting their existing legal and political rights. Their conception of those rights developed in the British-American colonial period. The 13 colonies were self-governing to varying degrees.

There was plenty of scope for different perceptions in America and England as to the extent of British control of aspects of colonial government and to what extent American rights were subject to the king’s prerogative power or to parliamentary legislation.

When, 80 years after the English Revolution, George III and his parliament began imposing taxes on Americans and seeking to increase British control over the colonies, the colonists drew on more than a century of English and American resistance to the infringement of their rights.

What was new was that Americans rebelled against parliament as well as against the king, believing that parliament had abandoned its role as the protector of liberties against royal overreach.

Most famously, colonial Americans believed parliament could not impose direct taxes on them because there could be no taxation without representation, and Americans were not represented in parliament.

The US bill of rights (the first 10 amendments to the US constitution) was essential in the minds of many Americans because of the risk that congress might betray the people, as parliament had betrayed them. To Americans, the developing British concept of parliamentary supremacy had become a latent source of tyranny.

Australia’s Constitution is largely a hybrid of the American and British models, using the American federal and national structure but establishing parliamentary supremacy (subject to that structure).

The most famous statement in the Declaration of Independence is universal in its aspiration “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”. Making these rights real and operable for all Americans is a work in progress.

Still, it is momentous that the declaration stated in such compelling language that these rights were inherent and that when the British impeded them, Americans had a right to rebel.

The Declaration of Independence is a foundation of the US. And it has a profound significance for Australia: it is one of our founding documents, too.

James Philips is the author of the new book Two Revolutions and the Constitution: How the English and American Revolutions Produced the American Constitution, published in the US by Hamilton Books and available through all online booksellers.