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Yankee Doodle / Spirit of '76

3 unexpected ways the Declaration of Independence changed British History

Image: Originally titled 'Yankee Doodle', this is one of several versions of a scene painted by A. M. Willard that came to be known as 'The Spirit of '76' | Public Domain

On 4th July 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence was adopted and started to be signed by 56 delegates of the Second Congressional Congress. Setting out how the 13 united colonies of America considered themselves independent sovereign states who were no longer under British colonial rule, the Declaration of Independence was the founding document of the United States of America as we know it today.

By the time the Declaration was signed, America and Britain had already been at war for well over a year, and tensions had been rising between the two nations for much longer. While the Declaration didn’t mark the end of the Revolutionary War of Independence, it was a landmark moment that turned the tide of opinion for many on both sides of the Atlantic.

With the signing of the Declaration of Independence heralding the start of a new nation in America, back in Britain, the after-effects would still be felt for years to come. Here are three unexpected ways that the Declaration of Independence changed British history forever.

1. Ireland didn’t rebel

Having lived under the often tyrannical rule of the British Monarchy, much of Ireland viewed America as a brother in arms when it came to the revolution. Concerned that the American victory might encourage fresh rebellion in Ireland, Britain made concessions to improve relations between the two nations and to hopefully quell any further thoughts of revolution.

As well as relaxing the limitations around who could run for public office, the repeal of the Declaratory Act (which had meant that Westminster was in control of what was made law in Ireland) granted the country legislative independence. Further relaxation of trade laws also meant that Ireland could trade directly with British colonies, which boosted the export of wool.

While talks of rebellion and revolution weren’t silenced, the softer approach meant that Ireland remained part of the British Empire until the Irish War of Independence over a century later.

2. The Second British Empire

While the aftershocks of America’s incendiary Declaration were still being felt, not all was lost for British colonialism. Britain retained their control across the Atlantic, with its territories in Canada and the Caribbean, and its control of the British colonies in Africa and India.

Colonies were also founded in Singapore, Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and Britain’s global conquest continued to boom. Even without the American colonies, by the peak of the second British Empire in 1919, it was the biggest empire in the history of the world.

Over 23% of the world’s population and almost a quarter of the world’s landmass was part of the British Empire. The sun could never set on the empire, as it was always daytime in at least one of the overseas territories.

3. The birth of Australia

As well as choosing to focus on its remaining colonies, Britain now had a new issue - what to do with all its criminals. Britain had been shipping its criminals and convicts off to the American colonies as a form of punishment (and a way of making the problem disappear) almost as soon as the first British settlement was built on American soil in the 1600s. With the cost of maintaining prisons, and feeding prisoners just too high for The Crown, shipping them off to build new settlements abroad saved money and boosted numbers for the growing provinces.

With the loss of the 13 colonies in America, Britain was scrabbling for an alternate solution, though it didn’t take them all that long to find one. The first fleet of convicts sailed into Botany Bay, Australia in May 1787 and started building a new nation.