We often think of the Declaration of Independence as a singular event, the starting point for the war that would ensue over the better part of a decade.
As it is history, if it is the record of life, the details are never quite as clean cut and there were a series of actions, including many with a public communications component, the played out over many years leading up to the Declaration of Independence.
Though I use the word PR in the headline of this post, public relations isn’t the right word given the grass roots and decentralized inertia. Propaganda might have been more accurate then, but the meaning today has dwindled to mean drivel. There is clearly a communications component to several of these actions – here are five that stand out in my mind:
1. Message. “No taxation without representation,” was the colonial zeitgeist. It represented several decades – from 1740 on – of discontent with the policies of the crown to fund European wars through colonial taxation. The gripe? The colonies, first founded by people who sought to escape repression, had no influence over the creation, governance or implementation of these taxes. For a time, the French and Indian Wars united the king and his colonist against a common enemy. A junior officer in the Virginia Militia, a young George Washington, would learn valuable warfare lessons he’d draw on as the commanding general of a revolutionary army.
2. Protests. The Boston Tea Party in December 1773 was a staged event. The Sons of Liberty, a rabble-rousing group of sorts, dressed as Native Americans and pillaged the English ships carry heavily taxed tea in Boston Harbor. The crown responded by adding more taxes and sending more troops to the colonies which escalated tensions.
3. Organization. The first Continental Congress met in September 1774 and marks a turning point in the sequence of actions because for the first time, the future rebels were becoming organized. If they couldn’t win representation on an island kingdom across the Atlantic, they’d invent their own here in the New World. Many of the delegates were of the mind at this initial congress, that they’d be able to reason with the king. Declaring independence wouldn’t come for two more years.
4. Flashpoint Event. Fighting – the exchange of gun fire and first direct casualties – occurred more than a year before the Declaration of Independence in Lexington and Concord in April 1775. In many ways, this event was a tipping point, where increasingly the king was unknowingly removing options from those that opposed all our revolution. Word spread and resolve deepened. It was a reminder too, that the Continental militias could not face a professionally trained army laden with superior fire power in traditional fighting style.
5. Galvanizing the base. Viral was an ugly word in those times, because viruses, even those we consider minor today, could be a death sentence. Yet if viral were a thing in colonial history, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense would certainly have the qualities of viral marketing. Published anonymously first in January 1776, Paine would later put his name on it and reach a distribution of 2.5 million. Given the total population of the colonies was a mere 3 million at the time, Paine’s pamphlet would reach 80% of the population. Paine sounded his ideas off Benjamin Franklin before publishing the pamphlet; Franklin was the only member of the “Committee of Five” – tasked with writing the Declaration of Independence – that was not a lawyer.
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The Declaration of Independence was an output of a confluence of communications-related actions that reasoned, argues and successfully persuaded and entire population that they were literally fighting for their lives.
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