Australia probably isn’t the first place Americans think of on Independence Day, but it’s important to consider the many ways America’s example has reverberated around the world for centuries. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, had three great consequences for Australia. First, it prompted the founding of a British colony there. Second, it facilitated Australian independence. Third, it led to the structure of the Australian Constitution. American independence meant that 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 moonshot of trying to establish a colony on the other side of the world, at Botany Bay (now in Sydney).
The success of the revolutionary war and Declaration of independence 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 independence led to the Constitution. The Constitution (drafted while the First Fleet was hazarding its epic journey from Portsmouth in England to establish the new colony in Australia) had a profound influence on the structure and terms of the Australian Constitution, and therefore 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 Founders were focused on protecting their legal and political rights from British predation. The Founders charged King George III with tyranny. They rebelled, left his kingdom and established a republic. Charles I suffered a similar fate, charged with tyranny by the Rump Parliament. He was tried and beheaded in 1649, and a British republic established. The American republic has endured.
The English republic was short-lived. But some 30 years after the end of the English republic, the English had a second revolution, called either 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 monarch was subject to Parliament and to law. During the English Revolution, there were rebellions against English rule in Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland.
The English Revolution was a foundation of the development of pluralistic societies, which enjoyed freedom and representative government subject to law in England and America. The American Revolution further developed and cemented these principles and had a profound effect on the development of the modern world. The Founders believed that they were protecting their existing legal and political rights. Their conception of those rights developed in the British-American colonial period. There was plenty of scope for different perceptions in America and in 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 subject to Parliamentary legislation.
When, some 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, Americans rebelled against Parliament as well as against the king. They believed that Parliament had abandoned its role as the protector of liberties against royal overreach. Most famously, colonial Americans believed that Parliament could not impose direct taxes on them because there could be no taxation without representation, and Americans were not represented in Parliament.
The American Bill of Rights 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 U.S. Declaration of Independence is universal in its aspiration: “That all [people] 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 is a foundation of America. And it has a profound significance for Australians: It is one of Australia’s founding documents, too.