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The Argument of the Declaration of Independence

Writing the Declaration of Independence 1776 by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Thomas Jefferson (right), Benjamin Franklin (left), and John Adams (center) meet at Jefferson's lodgings, on the corner of Seventh and High (Market) streets in Philadelphia, to review a draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Wikimedia Commons

Long before the first shot was fired, the American Revolution began as a series of written complaints to colonial governors and representatives in England over the rights of the colonists.

In fact, a list of grievances comprises the longest section of the Declaration of Independence. The organization of the Declaration of Independence reflects what has come to be known as the classic structure of argument—that is, an organizational model for laying out the premises and the supporting evidence, the contexts and the claims for argument.

According to its principal author, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration was intended to be a model of political argument. On its 50th anniversary, Jefferson wrote that the object of the Declaration was “[n]ot to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent , and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”

Guiding Questions

What kind of a document is the Declaration of Independence?

How do the parts and structure of the document make for a good argument about the necessity of independence?

What elements of the Declaration of Independence have been fulfilled and what remains unfulfilled? 

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Declaration of Independence to understand its structure, purpose, and tone.

Analyze the items and arguments included within the document and assess their merits in relation to the stated goals. 

Evaluate the short and long term effects the Declaration of Independence on the actions of citizens and governments in other nations. 

Lesson Plan Details

The American Revolution had its origin in the colonists’ concern over contemporary overreach by the King and Parliament as well as by their awareness of English historical precedents for the resolution of civic and political issues as expressed in such documents as (and detailed in our EDSITEment lesson on) the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights.

The above video on the Prelude to Revolution addresses the numerous issues that were pushing some in the colonies toward revolution. For example, opponents of the Stamp Act of 1765 declared that the act—which was designed to raise money to support the British army stationed in America after 1763 by requiring Americans to buy stamps for newspapers, legal documents, mortgages, liquor licenses, even playing cards and almanacs—was illegal and unjust because it taxed Americans without their consent. In protesting the act, they cited the following prohibition against taxation without consent from the Magna Carta , written five hundred and fifty years earlier, in 1215: “No scutage [tax] ... shall be imposed..., unless by common counsel....” American resistance forced the British Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766. In the succeeding years, similar taxes were levied by Parliament and protested by many Americans.

In June 1776, when it became clear that pleas and petitions to the King and Parliament were useless, the members of the Continental Congress assigned the task of drafting a "declaration of independence" to a committee that included Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Considered by his peers in the Congress and the committee as one of the most highly educated and most eloquent members of the Congress, Jefferson accepted the leadership of the committee.

For days, he labored over the draft, working meticulously late into the evenings at his desk in his lodging on Market Street in Philadelphia, carefully laying out the charges against His Majesty King George III, of Great Britain and the justification for separation of the colonies. Franklin and Adams helped to edit Jefferson’s draft. After some more revisions by the Congress, the Declaration was adopted on July 4. It was in that form that the colonies declared their independence from British rule.

What is an Argument?  An argument is a set of claims that includes 1) a conclusion; and 2) a set of premises or reasons that support it. Both the conclusion(s) and premise(s) are “claims”, that is, declarative sentences that are offered by the author of the argument as "truth statements". A conclusion is a claim meant to be supported by premises, while a premise is a claim that operates as a "reason why," or a justification for the conclusion. All arguments will have at least one conclusion and one—and often more than one—premise in its support.

The above video from PBS Digital Studios on How to Argue provides an analysis of the art of persuasion and how to construct an argument. The focus on types of arguments begins at the 5:10 mark of the video. 

In the first of this lesson’s three activities, students will develop a list of complaints about the way they are being treated by parents, teachers, or other students. In the second activity, they will prioritize these complaints and organize them into an argument for their position.

In the last activity, they will examine the Declaration of Independence as a model of argument, considering each of its parts, their function, and how the organization of the whole document aids in persuading the audience of the justice and necessity of independence. Students will then use what they have learned from examining the Declaration to edit their own list of grievances. Finally they will reflect on that editing process and what they have learned from it.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8   Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

NCSS.D1.1.6-8. Explain how a question represents key ideas in the field.

NCSS.D2.Civ.3.6-8. Examine the origins, purposes, and impact of constitutions, laws, treaties, and international agreements.

NCSS.D2.Civ.4.6-8. Explain the powers and limits of the three branches of government, public officials, and bureaucracies at different levels in the United States and in other countries.

NCSS.D2.Civ.5.6-8. Explain the origins, functions, and structure of government with reference to the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, and selected other systems of government.

NCSS.D2.His.2.6-8. Classify series of historical events and developments as examples of change and/or continuity.

NCSS.D2.His.3.6-8. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to analyze why they, and the developments they shaped, are seen as historically significant.

NCSS.D2.His.4.6-8. Analyze multiple factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

Activity 2. Worksheet 1. So, What Are You Going to Do About It?

Activity 3. Worksheet 2. The Declaration of Independence in Six Parts

Assessment Section

Activity 1. Considering Complaints

Tell students that you have overheard them make various complaints at times about the way they are treated by some other teachers and other fellow students: complaints not unlike those that motivated the founding fathers at the time of the American Revolution. Explain that even though adults have the authority to restrict some of their rights, this situation is not absolute. Also point out that fellow students do not have the right to “bully” or take advantage of them.

  • Arrange students in small groups of 2–3 and give them five minutes to list complaints on a sheet of paper about the way they’re treated by some adults or other students. Note that the complaints should be of a general nature (for example: recess should be longer; too much busy-work homework; high school students should be able to leave campus for lunch; older students shouldn’t intimidate younger students, etc.).
  • Collect the list. Choose a selection of complaints that will guide the following class discussion. Save the lists for future reference.
  • Preface the discussion by remarking that there are moments when all of us are more eager to express what's wrong than we are to think critically about the problem and possible solutions. There is no reason to think people were any different in 1776. It's important to understand the complaints of the colonists as one step in a process involving careful deliberation and attempts to redress grievances.

Use these questions to help your students consider their concerns in a deliberate way:

  • WHO makes the rules they don't like?
  • WHO decides if they are fair or not?
  • WHAT gives the rule-maker the right to make the rules?
  • HOW does one get them changed?
  • WHAT does it mean to be independent from the rules? and finally,
  • HOW does a group of people declare that they will no longer follow the rules?

Exit Ticket: Have students write down their complaints as a list, identifying the reasons why the treatment under discussion is objectionable and organizing the list according to some principle, such as from less to more important. Let each student comment on one another student’s list and its organization.

View this satirical video entitled "Too Late to Apologize" about the motives for the Declaration of Independence as you transition to Activity Two. 

Activity 2: So, What are You Going to Do About It?

Ask the students to imagine that, in the hope of effecting some changes, they are going to compose a document based on their complaints to be sent to the appropriate audience.

Divide the class into small groups of 2–3 students and distribute the handout, “ So, What Are You Going To Do About It? ” Tell students that before they begin to compose their “declaration” they should consider the questions on the handout. (Note: The questions correspond to the sections of the Declaration noted in parentheses. The Declaration itself will be discussed in Activity 3. This discussion serves as a prewriting activity for the writing assignment.)

Exit Ticket: Hold a general discussion with the class about the questions. Have individual groups respond to the questions in each of the sections and ask other groups to contribute.

Activity 3. The Parts of the “Declaration”

The Declaration of Independence was created in an atmosphere of complaints about the treatment of the colonies under British rule. In this activity students will identify and analyze the parts of the Declaration through a close reading. Students will also be given the opportunity to construct a document in the manner of the Declaration of Independence based on their own complaints.

Provide every student with a copy of the Declaration of Independence in Six Parts . Ask them to “scan” the entire document once to understand the parts and their function. After that they will be asked to reread the document this time more closely. Have students identify the six sections (below) by describing what is generally being said in each. Help students identify these sections with the following titles:

Preamble: the reasons WHY it is necessary to EXPLAIN their actions (from "WHEN, in the Course of human Events" to "declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation.")

Statement of commonly accepted principles: specifying what the undersigned believed, the philosophy behind the document (from "We hold these Truths to be self-evident" to "an absolute Tyranny over these States") which underlies the argument

List of Complaints: the offenses by King and Parliament that impelled the declaration (from "To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World" to "unfit to be the ruler of a free people") 

Statements of prior attempts to redress grievances: (From "Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren," to "Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.")

Conclusion: (From "WE, therefore" to "and our sacred Honour.") Following from the principles held by the Americans, and the actions of the King and Parliament, the people have the right and duty to declare independence.

Oath: Without this oath on the part of the colonists dedicating themselves to securing independence by force of arms, the assertion would be mere parchment.

Exit Ticket: Have students arrange their constructed complaint into a master document (“Parts of Your Argument” section of worksheet 1) for further analysis by matching each section of their personal complaints to the above six corresponding sections of the Declaration.

As an assessment, students make a deeper analysis of the Declaration and compare their declarations to the founding document.

Divide the class into small groups of 3–4 students, each taking one of the Declaration’s sections, as defined in Activity 3. Distribute copies of the student handout, “Analyzing the Declaration of Independence.” Assign each group one of the sections and have them answer the questions from their section.

Guide students in understanding how their section of the Declaration of Independence corresponds to the relevant question of their personal declaration in Activity 3.

Once the groups have finished their handouts, have each report their findings to the class. As they listen to the other presentations, have students take notes to complete the entire handout.

For a final summing up, have students reflect on what they have learned about making an argument from the close study of Declaration’s structure.

  • Have students conduct research into the historical events that led to the colonists' complaints and dissatisfaction with British rule. Direct students to the annotated  Declaration of Independence on Founding.com which provides the historical context for each of the grievances. Ask them to identify and then list some of the specific complaints they have found. After reviewing the complaints, have students research specific historic events related to the grievances listed.
  • The historical events students choose could also be added to a timeline by connecting an excerpt of a particular complaint to a brief, dated summary of an event. The complaints relate to actual events, but the precise events were not discussed in the Declaration. Why do the students think the framers decided to do that? ( Would the student declarations also be more effective without specific events tied to the complaints?

Materials & Media

Worksheet 1. declare the causes: what are you going to do about it, worksheet 2. declare the causes. the declaration of independence in six parts, related on edsitement, a more perfect union, declare the causes: the declaration of independence, the declaration of sentiments by the seneca falls conference (1848), not only paul revere: other riders of the american revolution.

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EWU Masters Thesis Collection

From ‘sacred and undeniable’ to ‘self-evident’: a rhetorical analysis of jefferson's original draft of the declaration of independence.

Patrick A. McHugh , Eastern Washington University

Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type

Degree name.

Master of Science (MS) in Communications

Communication Studies

This research examines Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Ostensibly written for the simple purpose of justifying the American separation from Great Britain, the Declaration nevertheless utilizes persuasive techniques and narrative themes that are not necessary to the rhetorical goal of justification. Of particular interest is Jefferson’s curious choice to base his argument for independence around the theme of enslavement. In order to uncover Jefferson’s possible reasons for doing so, the original draft of the Declaration is examined using a combination of three methods of rhetorical criticism: analysis of the rhetorical situation, close textual analysis, and Dramatistic analysis. The use of these methods reveal that Jefferson’s purpose in writing his draft was to turn George III into a scapegoat for all forms of tyranny within the colonies, including the institution of slavery, so that by expunging the King they would be absolved of their attachment to the slave trade and could reform their new American identity in opposition to British tyranny. The study then explores how the removal of his indictment of the slave trade weakened its ideological integrity and corrupted its popular impact.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 International License

Recommended Citation

McHugh, Patrick A., "From ‘sacred and undeniable’ to ‘self-evident’: a rhetorical analysis of Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence" (2018). EWU Masters Thesis Collection . 514. https://dc.ewu.edu/theses/514

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When Thomas Jefferson penned ‘all men are created equal,’ he did not mean individual equality, says Stanford scholar

When the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it was a call for the right to statehood rather than individual liberties, says Stanford historian Jack Rakove. Only after the American Revolution did people interpret it as a promise for individual equality.

In the decades following the Declaration of Independence, Americans began reading the affirmation that “all men are created equal” in different ways than the framers intended, says Stanford historian Jack Rakove .

purpose of declaration of independence thesis

With each generation, the words expressed in the Declaration of Independence have expanded beyond what the founding fathers originally intended when they adopted the historic document on July 4, 1776, says Stanford historian Jack Rakove. (Image credit: Getty Images)

On July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted the historic text drafted by Thomas Jefferson, they did not intend it to mean individual equality. Rather, what they declared was that American colonists, as a people , had the same rights to self-government as other nations. Because they possessed this fundamental right, Rakove said, they could establish new governments within each of the states and collectively assume their “separate and equal station” with other nations. It was only in the decades after the American Revolutionary War that the phrase acquired its compelling reputation as a statement of individual equality.

Here, Rakove reflects on this history and how now, in a time of heightened scrutiny of the country’s founders and the legacy of slavery and racial injustices they perpetuated, Americans can better understand the limitations and failings of their past governments.

Rakove is the William Robertson Coe Professor of History and American Studies and professor of political science, emeritus, in the School of Humanities and Sciences. His book, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution  (1996), won the Pulitzer Prize in History. His new book, Beyond Belief, Beyond Conscience: The Radical Significance of the Free Exercise of Religion will be published next month.

With the U.S. confronting its history of systemic racism, are there any problems that Americans are reckoning with today that can be traced back to the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution?

I view the Declaration as a point of departure and a promise, and the Constitution as a set of commitments that had lasting consequences – some troubling, others transformative. The Declaration, in its remarkable concision, gives us self-evident truths that form the premises of the right to revolution and the capacity to create new governments resting on popular consent. The original Constitution, by contrast, involved a set of political commitments that recognized the legal status of slavery within the states and made the federal government partially responsible for upholding “the peculiar institution.” As my late colleague Don Fehrenbacher argued, the Constitution was deeply implicated in establishing “a slaveholders’ republic” that protected slavery in complex ways down to 1861.

But the Reconstruction amendments of 1865-1870 marked a second constitutional founding that rested on other premises. Together they made a broader definition of equality part of the constitutional order, and they gave the national government an effective basis for challenging racial inequalities within the states. It sadly took far too long for the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s to implement that commitment, but when it did, it was a fulfillment of the original vision of the 1860s.

As people critically examine the country’s founding history, what might they be surprised to learn from your research that can inform their understanding of American history today?

Two things. First, the toughest question we face in thinking about the nation’s founding pivots on whether the slaveholding South should have been part of it or not. If you think it should have been, it is difficult to imagine how the framers of the Constitution could have attained that end without making some set of “compromises” accepting the legal existence of slavery. When we discuss the Constitutional Convention, we often praise the compromise giving each state an equal vote in the Senate and condemn the Three Fifths Clause allowing the southern states to count their slaves for purposes of political representation. But where the quarrel between large and small states had nothing to do with the lasting interests of citizens – you never vote on the basis of the size of the state in which you live – slavery was a real and persisting interest that one had to accommodate for the Union to survive.

Second, the greatest tragedy of American constitutional history was not the failure of the framers to eliminate slavery in 1787. That option was simply not available to them. The real tragedy was the failure of Reconstruction and the ensuing emergence of Jim Crow segregation in the late 19th century that took many decades to overturn. That was the great constitutional opportunity that Americans failed to grasp, perhaps because four years of Civil War and a decade of the military occupation of the South simply exhausted Northern public opinion. Even now, if you look at issues of voter suppression, we are still wrestling with its consequences.

You argue that in the decades after the Declaration of Independence, Americans began understanding the Declaration of Independence’s affirmation that “all men are created equal” in a different way than the framers intended. How did the founding fathers view equality? And how did these diverging interpretations emerge?

When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal” in the preamble to the Declaration, he was not talking about individual equality. What he really meant was that the American colonists, as a people , had the same rights of self-government as other peoples, and hence could declare independence, create new governments and assume their “separate and equal station” among other nations. But after the Revolution succeeded, Americans began reading that famous phrase another way. It now became a statement of individual equality that everyone and every member of a deprived group could claim for himself or herself. With each passing generation, our notion of who that statement covers has expanded. It is that promise of equality that has always defined our constitutional creed.

Thomas Jefferson drafted a passage in the Declaration, later struck out by Congress, that blamed the British monarchy for imposing slavery on unwilling American colonists, describing it as “the cruel war against human nature.” Why was this passage removed?

At different moments, the Virginia colonists had tried to limit the extent of the slave trade, but the British crown had blocked those efforts. But Virginians also knew that their slave system was reproducing itself naturally. They could eliminate the slave trade without eliminating slavery. That was not true in the West Indies or Brazil.

The deeper reason for the deletion of this passage was that the members of the Continental Congress were morally embarrassed about the colonies’ willing involvement in the system of chattel slavery. To make any claim of this nature would open them to charges of rank hypocrisy that were best left unstated.

If the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, thought slavery was morally corrupt, how did they reconcile owning slaves themselves, and how was it still built into American law?

Two arguments offer the bare beginnings of an answer to this complicated question. The first is that the desire to exploit labor was a central feature of most colonizing societies in the Americas, especially those that relied on the exportation of valuable commodities like sugar, tobacco, rice and (much later) cotton. Cheap labor in large quantities was the critical factor that made these commodities profitable, and planters did not care who provided it – the indigenous population, white indentured servants and eventually African slaves – so long as they were there to be exploited.

To say that this system of exploitation was morally corrupt requires one to identify when moral arguments against slavery began to appear. One also has to recognize that there were two sources of moral opposition to slavery, and they only emerged after 1750. One came from radical Protestant sects like the Quakers and Baptists, who came to perceive that the exploitation of slaves was inherently sinful. The other came from the revolutionaries who recognized, as Jefferson argued in his Notes on the State of Virginia , that the very act of owning slaves would implant an “unremitting despotism” that would destroy the capacity of slaveowners to act as republican citizens. The moral corruption that Jefferson worried about, in other words, was what would happen to slaveowners who would become victims of their own “boisterous passions.”

But the great problem that Jefferson faced – and which many of his modern critics ignore – is that he could not imagine how black and white peoples could ever coexist as free citizens in one republic. There was, he argued in Query XIV of his Notes , already too much foul history dividing these peoples. And worse still, Jefferson hypothesized, in proto-racist terms, that the differences between the peoples would also doom this relationship. He thought that African Americans should be freed – but colonized elsewhere. This is the aspect of Jefferson’s thinking that we find so distressing and depressing, for obvious reasons. Yet we also have to recognize that he was trying to grapple, I think sincerely, with a real problem.

No historical account of the origins of American slavery would ever satisfy our moral conscience today, but as I have repeatedly tried to explain to my Stanford students, the task of thinking historically is not about making moral judgments about people in the past. That’s not hard work if you want to do it, but your condemnation, however justified, will never explain why people in the past acted as they did. That’s our real challenge as historians.

purpose of declaration of independence thesis

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Declaration of Independence

By: History.com Editors

Updated: March 28, 2023 | Original: October 27, 2009

july 4, 1776, the continental congress, the declaration of independence, the american revolution

The Declaration of Independence was the first formal statement by a nation’s people asserting their right to choose their own government.

When armed conflict between bands of American colonists and British soldiers began in April 1775, the Americans were ostensibly fighting only for their rights as subjects of the British crown. By the following summer, with the Revolutionary War in full swing, the movement for independence from Britain had grown, and delegates of the Continental Congress were faced with a vote on the issue. In mid-June 1776, a five-man committee including Thomas Jefferson , John Adams and Benjamin Franklin was tasked with drafting a formal statement of the colonies’ intentions. The Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence—written largely by Jefferson—in Philadelphia on July 4 , a date now celebrated as the birth of American independence.

America Before the Declaration of Independence

Even after the initial battles in the Revolutionary War broke out, few colonists desired complete independence from Great Britain, and those who did–like John Adams– were considered radical. Things changed over the course of the next year, however, as Britain attempted to crush the rebels with all the force of its great army. In his message to Parliament in October 1775, King George III railed against the rebellious colonies and ordered the enlargement of the royal army and navy. News of his words reached America in January 1776, strengthening the radicals’ cause and leading many conservatives to abandon their hopes of reconciliation. That same month, the recent British immigrant Thomas Paine published “Common Sense,” in which he argued that independence was a “natural right” and the only possible course for the colonies; the pamphlet sold more than 150,000 copies in its first few weeks in publication.

Did you know? Most Americans did not know Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence until the 1790s; before that, the document was seen as a collective effort by the entire Continental Congress.

In March 1776, North Carolina’s revolutionary convention became the first to vote in favor of independence; seven other colonies had followed suit by mid-May. On June 7, the Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies’ independence before the Continental Congress when it met at the Pennsylvania State House (later Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. Amid heated debate, Congress postponed the vote on Lee’s resolution and called a recess for several weeks. Before departing, however, the delegates also appointed a five-man committee–including Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York–to draft a formal statement justifying the break with Great Britain. That document would become known as the Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson Writes the Declaration of Independence

Jefferson had earned a reputation as an eloquent voice for the patriotic cause after his 1774 publication of “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” and he was given the task of producing a draft of what would become the Declaration of Independence. As he wrote in 1823, the other members of the committee “unanimously pressed on myself alone to undertake the draught [sic]. I consented; I drew it; but before I reported it to the committee I communicated it separately to Dr. Franklin and Mr. Adams requesting their corrections….I then wrote a fair copy, reported it to the committee, and from them, unaltered to the Congress.”

As Jefferson drafted it, the Declaration of Independence was divided into five sections, including an introduction, a preamble, a body (divided into two sections) and a conclusion. In general terms, the introduction effectively stated that seeking independence from Britain had become “necessary” for the colonies. While the body of the document outlined a list of grievances against the British crown, the preamble includes its most famous passage: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

The Continental Congress Votes for Independence

The Continental Congress reconvened on July 1, and the following day 12 of the 13 colonies adopted Lee’s resolution for independence. The process of consideration and revision of Jefferson’s declaration (including Adams’ and Franklin’s corrections) continued on July 3 and into the late morning of July 4, during which Congress deleted and revised some one-fifth of its text. The delegates made no changes to that key preamble, however, and the basic document remained Jefferson’s words. Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence later on the Fourth of July (though most historians now accept that the document was not signed until August 2).

The Declaration of Independence became a significant landmark in the history of democracy. In addition to its importance in the fate of the fledgling American nation, it also exerted a tremendous influence outside the United States, most memorably in France during the French Revolution . Together with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights , the Declaration of Independence can be counted as one of the three essential founding documents of the United States government.

purpose of declaration of independence thesis


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What is the thesis of the Declaration of Independence?

Image of MikeMaloney, author

Yesterday was the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and most of the Op-Ed pieces written in celebration of the event have focused on the first sentence of the second paragraph. However, that most famous sentence is not the thesis of that paragraph or of the Declaration as a whole. First, let’s take a look a the plan of the Declaration.

First, the Declaration has a clear four part structure. 1) The 1st paragraph states that a people in revolt should declare their reasons for doing so. 2) The 2nd paragraph provides the intellectual or philosophical framework that sets forth the conditions that may justify a revolt. 3) The third section consists of a list of offenses by the King of England that purports to satisfy the conditions of paragraph 2. and 4) The closing paragraph contains the formal declaration that separated the colonies from the Crown.

The cornerstone, which was quite radical, is the second paragraph which is the focus of this essay.

All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times . . . Abraham Lincoln — 1859

We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.   Much can and has been written about this sentence, but, I repeat, it is not  the thesis of the paragraph that follows. 

Jefferson continues:  ​ That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Here is the thesis not only of the paragraph, but of the entire document; for if this proposition is false, then the cause of the revolution is baseless. Not only, the does this proposition lay the foundation for the initial revolt of the colonies, but it is also the basis for our continued revolution every time we cast a vote. 

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First Amendment Exhibit Historic Graphic

New exhibit

The first amendment, we the people, the declaration of independence and its influence on the constitution.

June 20, 2019

In honor of the anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution, June 21, and the upcoming Independence Day holiday on July 4 – today’s episode celebrates the influence of the Declaration of Independence on the Constitution and constitutional movements throughout history. We explore how the Declaration influenced the drafting of the Constitution itself; the abolitionist movement and Abraham Lincoln’s conception of a new birth of freedom after the Civil War; the Seneca Falls Convention and the campaign for women’s suffrage; the Progressive movement and the New Deal; Dr. King and the Civil Rights revolution; through to the modern conservative originalist movement as well as progressivism today. Host Jeffrey Rosen is joined by Danielle Allen – James Bryan Conant University Professor at Harvard and author of the book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality – and Ken Kersch – professor of political science at Boston College and author of Conservatives and the Constitution: Imagining Constitutional Restoration in the Heyday of American Liberalism .



Dr. Danielle Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She is also the principal investigator for Harvard’s Democratic Knowledge Project. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought, and is the author of numerous books including Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.

Dr. Ken Kersch is professor of political science at Boston College studying American political and constitutional development, American political thought, and the politics of courts. He is the author of four books, including Conservatives and the Constitution: Imagining Constitutional Restoration in the Heyday of American Liberalism , and of the University of Maryland Law Review article “Beyond Originalism: Conservative Declarationism and Constitutional Redemption”.

​​​​​​ Jeffrey Rosen is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Constitution Center, the only institution in America chartered by Congress “to disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a nonpartisan basis.” 

Additional Resources

  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Gettysburg Address
  • Declaration of Sentiments from Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention
  • Commonwealth Club Address by Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  • Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the United Nations

This episode was engineered by Kevin Kilbourne and produced by Jackie McDermott. Research was provided by Lana Ulrich, Jackie McDermott, and Michael Boyd.

Stay Connected and Learn More Questions or comments about the show? Email us at [email protected] .

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Please subscribe to   We the People   and our companion podcast,   Live at America’s Town Hall , on Apple Podcasts ,  Stitcher , or your favorite podcast app.

This transcript may not be in its final form, accuracy may vary, and it may be updated or revised in the future.

Jeffrey Rosen: [00:00:00] I'm Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, and welcome to We the People, a weekly show of Constitutional debate. The National Constitution Center is a non-partisan non-profit, chartered by Congress to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people. June 21st is the anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution and in honor of that anniversary and the upcoming July 4th Independence Day holiday, today's episode explores the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

The Declaration has been invoked by constitutional thinkers throughout American history, and joining us to discuss the relationship between the Declaration and the Constitution are two of America's leading historians and scholars about both documents. It's such an honor to have both of them and to introduce them to you, dear We the People listeners. Danielle Allen is James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She is principal investigator for Harvard's Democratic Knowledge Project, she's the author of pathbreaking invaluable books, including Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. Danielle, it is an honor to have you back with us.

Danielle Allen: [00:01:30] Thank you, Jeff, it's an honor and a pleasure to be here.

Rosen: [00:01:33] And Ken Kersch is professor of Political Science at Boston College, studying American political thought and constitutional developments. He has written several books on this subject, including the forthcoming American Political Thought: An Invitation, and I must make a plug for Ken's most recent book which I have just devoured with great profit and interest, Conservatives and the Constitution: Imagining Constitutional Restoration in the Heyday of American Liberalism. Ken, it is an honor to have you as well.

Ken Kersch: [00:02:04] My pleasure to be here, Jeff.

Rosen: [00:02:07] Danielle, let's jump right in. The Declaration has been invoked by constitutional movements on both the left and the right throughout American history and we're going to explore each of those movements, but just to introduce our listeners, tell us about the broad ways that the Declaration has been invoked by progressive movements on behalf of equality.

Allen: [00:02:29] The wonderful thing about the Declaration is that it has a principle of change in it, it endorses a principle of change. When you take that all important second sentence about the self-evident truths, it concludes by saying that it's the right of the people to alter or abolish the government if it's not doing its job of securing rights, and institute a new version thereof, and that principle of change has been picked up throughout time. Lincoln, of course, re-founded the polity on the principle of equality invoked at the Declaration and so many of his political choices were motivated by it. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights moment, is another figure who drew intensely on the language and ideals and principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Up to the present day, I think you'll find that ... I like to say it's really ... it belongs to everybody. The Tea Party was motivated by a lot of people who grabbed the Declaration and used its text history to write out a new series of grievances and progressives operating now in the wake of Donald Trump's election are doing the same thing with the Declaration of Independence. It really ... It's a text that belongs to everybody and has a principle of change in it and therefore has been an engine of progressive action in the country throughout its history.

Rosen: [00:03:35] Ken, as Danielle says, the Declaration belongs to everyone and has and has been invoked by everyone and it has been also specially invoked by conservatives throughout American history, starting with the founding. Give us a sense of some of the leading invocation by conservatives' movements, of the Declaration.

Kersch: [00:03:55] I certainly agree with Danielle, not only that the Declaration of Independence belongs to everybody, but I'd make a related statement about that and that is that it has been ubiquitous in American political thought throughout the country's history. The Declaration of Independence has always been cited on diverse sides of important political struggles in American history, and the categories of progressive and conservative obviously change over time. One thing I would say about the Declaration of Independence and its relation to the Constitution and ultimately to conservatism, is that the Declaration of Independence is what scholars have referred to as a credal document.

It states fundamental principles of free governments in liberal regimes and many thinkers across American history, I'll just cite Abraham Lincoln who is obviously one of the most prominent, famously referred to the Constitution, I mean, the Declaration of Independence as the apple of gold in a picture of silver. The apple of gold being the Declaration and the picture of silver, by that, Lincoln means a picture frame of the Constitution. The conservative thinker, Harry Jaffa, referred to the Declaration with his own metaphor, as the soul of the American political regime and the Constitution is its body.

I would say that contemporary conservatives have invoked the Declaration very prominently in recent years, but if we look back across American history, one thing and we can talk more about this, is that different types of conservatives have invoked the Declaration for different propositions over the course of American history. Frankly, that depends on whether or not they are liberal conservatives who tend to emphasize limited government and natural rights, or whether they are traditionalist conservatives. In the past there has been a tradition of conservatives, some sliver of conservatives, particularly before the Civil War, denying the principles of the Declaration of Independence and natural equality, while also emphasizing things like government by consent and limited government and contract. Within the conservative thought, it actually is invoked for different purposes, and has been over the course of American history.

Rosen: [00:07:03] Thank you for introducing us to the distinction among conservatives who have invoked the Declaration and also for introducing us to a concept that you've called, declaration-ism, namely that the Constitution is best interpreted in light of the principles of the Declaration. Danielle, let's now begin at the beginning, around the Founding Era, and give us a sense of the first time that the Declaration was invoked on behalf of constitutional arguments as early as the Founding Era abolitionists, such as the African American abolitionist, David Walker, born in 1796, invoked the Declaration on behalf of the self-evident claim that all men are created equal and the slavery itself violated principles of natural rights. Were those the first invocations of the Declaration? Give us a sense of how the Declaration was invoked.

Allen: [00:07:54] I'm going to take you earlier than that, two important moments. You're right about one, abolitionism, the other is, just as Ken was saying, the Constitution. On the front of abolitionism, the very first person, period, to use the Declaration for something other than the purposes of independence was a free African American in Boston named Prince Hall. He invoked the language of the Declaration, the nature of inalienable rights and the creation of all to have these, (inaudible) submitted it to the Massachusetts Assembly into, sorry, January of 1777, seeking an end of slavery in Massachusetts and emancipation.

His petition was not immediately successful, but in fact by 1780 in the state constitution, Massachusetts did also use the language of the Declaration of Independence. That then was followed by Supreme Court decisions in the state of Massachusetts in 1783, ruling slavery unconstitutional in the Massachusetts State Constitution. Abolitionism crystallized in those years, between 1777 and 1783, by drawing on the language of the Declaration of Independence. People don't realize that that key moment, the Declaration launched abolitionism and slavery was ended in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont by that point, early in the 1780s. That's one really important invocation.

The second one is that James Wilson, founding father signer of the Declaration and the Constitution and one of the first Supreme Court Justices, stood up in the Constitutional Convention and read the Declaration in full to the assembled gathering to make the case that the new country had been founded on a complete people, a whole national people, not on a treaty among separate states. He provided the intellectual basis for a popular founding for the country and nationalists founding throughout the Constitutional Convention, he consistently referred back to the Declaration to make that argument. Those are your two earliest uses of the Declaration to redefine domestic politics, the case of abolitionism with Prince Hall and James Wilson providing an intellectual grounding for the Constitution at the convention.

Rosen: [00:10:02] Wow! That is so fascinating. We have at the Constitution Center, Wilson's original draft of the Constitution, the very first draft and as you say, his notion that we, the people of the United States as a whole where sovereign was key to Lincoln's insisting that the session was unconstitutional. I hadn't known that he invoked the Declaration and thank you so much for teaching us about those two crucial connections and early invocations of the Declaration. Ken, can you beat that and tell us about early invocations of the Declaration, either before the Constitution was ratified or just after, and did the Framers of the Constitution themselves think that the Declaration had legal or constitutional relevance or status?

Kersch: [00:10:42] I can't beat that. However, I would say that in a way, while the particular in vocation of it, that Danielle spoke of, is especially interesting because it's abolitionism. Most people tend to date the abolitionist movement when the Declaration was perhaps most famously and broadly invoked to the 1830s and I think what Danielle very interestingly in line with some recent scholarship has emphasized is that this really, these invocations go back to the very founding. Again, I want to underline that I think invocations of the Declaration of Independence very much from the moment it was ratified were ubiquitous, and they were ubiquitous anytime someone claimed that their fundamental God-given rights had been violated. Or, conversely, anytime someone claimed that the government was surpassing its powers that had been delegated to it by the people.

Therefore, when I say the Declaration of Independence is credal, it's almost impossible to separate out political discussion in America across its entire history from invocations of the Declaration of Independence because anytime you ask about ... Anytime the issue of fundamental liberty comes up, anytime the issue of equality comes up and any time the issue of government by consent comes up, the Declaration of Independence and for that matter, July 4th, comes up as a touchstone of argument about those broader credal principles of the American polity.

Rosen: [00:12:51] Danielle, is there anything more you can tell us about invocations of the Declaration in the Constitution making era at the convention and then take us up through the abolitionist period and describe the invocation of the Declarations by abolitionists in the years leading up to the Civil War?

Allen: [00:13:07] Thanks Jeff. Yes, there is a really important moment in the convention that deserves attention. The all important sentence that I mentioned, the sentence about self evident truths lays out the job of citizens of a democratic republic. That job is to judge whether their government to securing their rights and then if it's not, to lay the foundations to institute new government. It says, “Laying the foundation on such principle and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall see most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” This division between the foundation and principle and how you organize the powers of government was fundamental to how they thought about the work of building a democratic republic.

In that moment, in June of 1776, when they decided to pursue the question of independent states, simultaneously set up a committee to write the Declaration, the preamble, the statement of principle and a committee to draft the Articles of Confederation, the document that would organize the powers of government. When we come to the Constitutional Convention, this notion that there are two tasks for citizens of a Democratic Republic returns and the Committee of Detail, which James Wilson served on, they paused, they had been ... They were a smaller committee within the convention who in the middle of the summer were given the job of actually nailing down the text.

They paused, as they sat down to do their work, to ask the question of, “Do we need a new statement of principle or is it just our job to redo the instrument organizing the powers of government?” They determined that they did not need a new statement of principle, that they were only going to reorganize the powers of government. That is an implicit endorsement of the Declaration in its role as that statement of principle, that credal document as Ken was saying, to explain the meaning, the weight, the haves, the content, the aspiration, the goals of the document, the constitution that would organization the powers of government.

Wilson was ... He read the Declaration, he invoked it regularly in the convention, and then in the context of this small committee he served on, they'd directly engage the question of whether it would stand as that foundational principle and the decision was, yes, it was going to stand. That's how important it was to the founding. You're right that after the founding, it was primarily abolitionists who picked up its language and you mentioned David Walker, who was an incredibly famous African American writer, thinker who really helped motivate people to rethink the ideals of American independence and what that meant for individuals as well as for collective society.

Of course, interestingly abolitionists very quickly became connected as well to the efforts of women to make space for themselves inside the ideals of the Declaration. In the middle of the 19th century, you get the Seneca Falls Declaration, where we get the rewrite in words, all people are created equal, all human beings are created equal, not just men, and women, self consciously right themselves into the story of the Declaration of Independence.

Rosen: [00:15:52] Ken, you mentioned Harry Jaffa, a conservative thinker and his notion that Lincoln's invocation of the Declaration were central to conservative thought. Lincoln was such a devotee of the Declaration that he stood in front of Independence Hall in 1861, and gave a speech saying, “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than abandon the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” It's an unforgettable speech and we have here at the Constitution Center in our new exhibit on the constitutional legacy of the Civil War and reconstruction, the flag that flew over Independence Hall when Lincoln gave that speech. Tell us about the significance of the Declaration to Lincoln, who famously in the Gettysburg Address, referred not to the founding but to the July 4th, 1776 four score and seven years ago to the date of the Declaration. What was the constitutional significance of the Declaration for Lincoln and his new birth of freedom?

Kersch: [00:16:47] Let me frame this, including Lincoln's thought and including Jaffa's thought, by going back to the time of the drafting of the Declaration itself, by Thomas Jefferson and the committee. One of the key things to recall about the dynamics of the Declaration of Independence is that even as it was being written, there was a deep suspicion that the country ... Even as this great credal document about liberty and equality and popular government and government by consent was being written and praised by the likes of James Wilson and many others as July 4th was being celebrated, there was this undercurrent of unease. The unease of course, was that because of chattel slavery, the country at the moment it was articulating this creed, was also violating the creed and at the moment of declaring it, they were repudiating it.

Chattel slavery became the preeminent example of this, although as Danielle noted, other groups, including women, the women at Seneca Falls, would come to argue that their rights under the Declaration of Independence, their natural rights to be treated as equals were being violated. I want to emphasize that that suspicion was a dynamic that was with the country from the start, that it was betraying its creed, that the Declaration of Independence was insincere or as Frederick Douglass put it in his very famous oration from the 1850s, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” Lincoln was someone, particularly in his debates, in his senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, essentially raised this issue of whether or not the country was going to live up to the claims of the Declaration.

Lincoln, in the Lincoln–Douglas debates in a way split the baby. Lincoln was not an abolitionist, the issue was would slavery be recognized and even protected in the new territories as the country expanded westward. In the Lincoln debates, I say Lincoln split the baby, he did not call for the elimination of chattel slavery immediately. That is because he agreed to honor the original constitutional compact that was made by We the People under the principles of the Declaration. However, he simultaneously declared chattel slavery to be a violation of fundamental rights under the principles of the Declaration.

Therefore, Lincoln drew a line and he said essentially that, “We will tolerate it where it exists. It's an abomination, but we will not allow it to spread any further beyond its current borders.” That is a statement for which Harry Jaffa, which you mentioned in your question, really placed a lot of emphasis on and Jaffa, the conservative from the mid 20th century, characterized Lincoln's position in the following way. He characterized it as a foundational articulation of the view that the core American principle under the Declaration is the equality of natural rights. He posited that as Lincoln's argument against Stephen Douglas, who was articulating the view that law comes from the people, we call that in law positive law.

The Lincoln's view was a natural law view, that rights come from God, from the Creator and they are eternal and they are permanent and they never change. That is called natural law, that there are certain timeless principles of how God created man, that man is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to use the language of the Declaration. Stephen Douglas in Jaffa's characterization and an accurate one, is that Stephen Douglas held to the view that law comes from man, it is made by people and you are obligated to follow the positive law. For Harry Jaffa, Lincoln and Douglass, in their debates, stood for an epic debate over the supremacy of natural or positive law, of God's law, the law of the Creator, the law of nature and nature's God versus the law of mere human beings.

Rosen: [00:22:43] Danielle, do you agree or disagree about Ken's characterization of Lincoln's relationship with the Declaration being one of the equality of natural rights? Tell us about Lincoln's relationship to the Declaration and the relationship with the Declaration to the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution, which enshrined the principle of equal protection under law into the Constitution.

Allen: [00:23:07] The question of Lincoln's relationship to slavery is immensely complex. There's the question of what he thought about slavery as an institution, and that's distinct from the question of what he understood to be the politics of addressing slavery. With regard to what he thought of slavery as an institution, I think the best way of encapsulating that is in his remark, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. That's the only definition of democracy that I know." I may have gotten that slightly wrong in essence but that's the best definition of democracy. I can't remember exactly, but that key phrase, as I would not be a slave so I would not be a master, really encapsulates Lincoln's fundamental commitment to equality.

Each of us should be the author of our own lives, but also means being a co-creator of our public life together through political participation and political empowerment. There should be no slaves, there should be no masters, so my view is that he had a steady and unyielding repudiation of slavery in his thought all the way through. His politics adjusted as he proceeded politically, as he sought ways of addressing that truth about slavery within the confines of the rule of law. He bound himself by the existing rules of the game, but pursued the truth as he saw it within those rules, hence the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation applying to those who were enslaved under the territory of the adversary, the military adversaries.

He took the law of war that permitted him to have control over the contraband, taken from the enemy, and use that to free slaves in those occupied area. He was a very legalistic thinker and that legalism is another expression of his commitment to be equality in so far as his belief was that because we have rules of the game because we can adhere to them, that's actually how we protect our equality with each other. He pursued equality for all in the context of also advancing a project of institutionalizing equality through the rule of law. That's how I see Lincoln's view about equality there. I think Ken did hit on one of the fundamental places where you do get a divergence between progressive and conservative interpretations of the Declaration.

It came out in the phrase he quoted when he referred to the laws of nature and nature's God as being the basis of the arguments in the Declaration. He's right, that is the basis of the argument there, this idea that there are the laws of nature and of nature's God, but that sentence is in some sense a belt and suspenders sentence. It means that for those who have a view that is a deist few or even an atheistic view, but nonetheless think that there are patterns in human life that support to the notion that things like the rule of law bring peace and so forth and those are durable universal patterns, they don't necessarily need a concept of a god to anchor them.

The phrase, laws of nature and nature's God gives you a basis both in a theological perspective and in a secular humanistic perspective for endorsing the ideals of the Declaration. Conservative interpretations have tended to, to rely heavily on a religious or theological interpretation, progressive interpretations have tended to rely more heavily on a secular humanist interpretation. That's an important thing to recognize because even at the moment of the writing of the Declaration in 1776, the question of the role of religion in the foundation was a matter of compromise where there was an overlapping consensus, not shared agreement. For example, in fact, Jefferson did not put the key terms about religion in the Declaration, he did not put in the language about divine providence or the supreme judge, Congress added those additions.

He didn't even put in the word creator, that came in from either Ben Franklin or John Adams. The point is that the language and the Declaration is capacious, it permits people to embrace it regardless of whether their foundation for doing so is a secular humanistic foundation, or theologically inspired foundation. Importantly, none of the religious words in the Declaration connect to a specific doctrinal tradition, they're not specifically Christian, they're not specifically Judaic, et cetera. At any rate, the point was that they developed open-ended language, yet the controversies, the disputes, disagreements among us with regard to interpretations at the Declaration tend to come because people pick one or the other pillars of justification and foundation for their ideals in the text.

Rosen: [00:27:34] How fascinating to learn that Jefferson's really draft did not refer to the creator.

Allen: [00:27:40] He used the verb create, just to be vivid, he did use the verb create, but then Franklin and or Adam's turned that into creator.

Rosen: [00:27:47] I have to ask, was it, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created with certain unalienable rights? What was the sentence?

Allen: [00:27:55] That's exactly right. Something like that, yes.

Rosen: [00:27:58] Ken, take us to the Reconstruction Amendments. One of the really exciting things we have in our new exhibit about the Civil War and reconstructions is interactive as which will be online in September that allow you to look at early drafts of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. We see that an early draft of the 13th Amendment, had kind of Equal Protection Clause proposed by Charles Sumner, who insisted that equality of rights is the first of rights and invoked the Virginia Declaration of Rights written by George Mason saying that all men are free and equal in their life, liberty and property and endowed by their creator as such. Tell us more about the influence of the Declaration, which after all channeled Mason's Declaration on the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

Kersch: [00:28:47] The angle light I'd like to take that on is related to that, but somewhat different, and that is the role of government and in particular the national government in making the enjoyment of these natural rights a reality. I'm not abandoning your question because of course, Charles Sumner and what we call the radical Republicans, which is a controversial term, their view was not only that these rights are foundational, inalienable, but that the government ... that governments generally and the federal government had new powers to make the enjoyment of these rights a reality. In fact, that was the major issue or one of the major issues with the Civil War or Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

What I'm saying is the issue is less the principal than the constitutional mechanism for making sure that that principle is now enforceable by the government of the United States, going forward from the Civil War. The language of rights ... The 13th Amendment basically declares that chattel slavery, or involuntary servitude, unless in punishment for a crime for which one is duly convicted, shall not exist within the United States. All of these ... The 14th Amendment, besides doing a lot of other things, guarantees the rights to privileges and immunities of all citizens, equal protection of the law and the due process of law, and the 15th Amendment concerns voting rights.

What I would say in answer to your question is particularly relevant to the Declaration of Independence in its own way, is that for many people, the Declaration of Independence was a charter of limited constrained government. Jefferson himself viewed government as a necessary evil and that is because he thought governments were the primary threat to individual rights. At the same time, however, there is this paradox or irony in the Declaration of Independence that it justifies and legitimated the establishment of a powerful government that itself implicitly is indispensable to the protection of rights.

The political theory of the Declaration of Independence both empowers and legitimates government to protect rights and at the same time, says that governments are the greatest threat to rights. I think that tension, if not contradiction, has carried through all of American history and at the time of the drafting of the Civil War Amendments, one thing that changed with regard to the principle of the equality of natural rights was that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendment, all were not only Declarations of rights and additions to rights of the Constitution, but they each had as concluding section that said, “The Congress shall have the power to enforce this provision by appropriate legislation.”

Actually, the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments added to Article One's grant of power to the national government and specifically to the US Congress. For Conservatives and liberals, this is going to be a point of contention ever since, many conservatives today still look back to the 18th century and view the Declaration as a charter of very limited government, but the Civil War Amendments, and this is what Lincoln meant in part by a new birth of freedom, is that we've learned from slavery that governments are not necessarily the chief threat to rights, that federalism does not protect rights as we might have initially thought, and that we need a newly empowered Congress and national government to enforce rights.

In that sense, Lincoln, and certainly the radical Republicans, really were conceiving of a new understanding of the constitution and a new addition to powers of the national government to protect rights of people.

Rosen: [00:34:19] Danielle, we have at least three more eras to get through so let's get to it. I'm going to ask you now about the Progressive Era and you'd mentioned the invocation of the Declaration by women's suffrage advocates at Seneca Falls. Tell us about that and of other indications of the Declaration during the Progressive Era, including by conservatives on behalf of property rights.

Allen: [00:34:45] The key feature of the Progressive Era is of course the achievement of the right to vote for women, and we are all just going through our conclusions of celebrating that 100th anniversary on that front, and the language of the Declaration was a very common feature of that effort. I think it's important then also to recognize that the nature of the conversation about rights has itself been one always about the evolution of context and the concept there. FDR for example, then famously elaborated an argument about four freedoms but those four freedoms stand in a slightly different relationship to the kinds of freedoms articulated in the Declaration.

They include, the freedom from want and freedom from fear alongside the freedom of religion and your more conventional views about freedom. This is a moment in the 20th century where a question is being put on the table about social rights alongside political and civil rights. At the founding, the concepts of freedom and equality were really tied to a picture of political equality and where what you were talking about was the right to participate in the political process, to run for office, to vote. Those were restricted rights to start but the rights continually broadened. Then we include new groups in those political and civil rights, but then in the early 20th century, what you start seeing is the conversation about expanding the rights category to include social rights.

That then really crystallizes in the UN Declaration of Rights, which lays out a big picture of human rights, which includes the political and civil rights that have always been a part of the American tradition and also includes economic rights and social rights. This is the point at which the conversation starts to take on a really different shape as a big human rights discourse also begins to evolve. All of that, which we're now very familiar with in the early 21st century, does have its origins in the Declaration of Independence, but it's really important to see the way in which that progressive moment, that mid century World War II moment, begin to add social rights and economic rights into the discussion of what kinds of rights a government has an obligation to secure.

On that last point, I think it's important to say that again, the Declaration itself is a motor of change because when it lists those core rights, it does so as providing a set of examples. It says, “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” That, "Among these, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That list of three is ... it's a set that are examples, “Among those inalienable rights are these three.” That of course leaves open the question, well, what other rights fit underneath that umbrella of unalienable rights? That's really the topic that the mid 20th century takes up as social rights and economic rights come into view for deliberation and consideration as basic things the government ought to secure and protect.

Rosen: [00:37:46] Ken, as Danielle so powerfully said, the Declaration discourse was expanded during the Progressive Era to include not only the 18th century natural rights, but also social and economic rights and Franklin Roosevelt in his Commonwealth Club Address on the Declaration of independence in 1932, invoked the Declaration on behalf of the protection of social and economic rights. Later, in his Four Freedoms speech, he invoked the Declaration on behalf of a second Bill of Rights, which included the right to a remunerated job, adequate clothing and so forth. Conservatives responded to the new deal by objecting to its expansion of government authority and its attempt protect social economic rights.

What's so fascinating for our discussion, is that in their reaction to the new deal, they once again invoked the Declaration in attempting to repeal it. This is a story that you tell so powerfully in your new book, Conservatives and the Constitution: Imagining Constitutional Restoration in the Heyday of American Liberalism. Give us a sense of the different strands of the conservative movement that invoked the Declaration in their opposition to the new deal.

Kersch: [00:39:04] Well, Jeff, progressives at the time spoke to different categories of thinking about the Constitution that get to the question that we're talking about today. Progressives, and I'll talk about conservatives next because obviously that's the other side of the coin here, progressive historians distinguished between what they called the spirit of the Declaration versus the spirit of the Constitution. For progressives, the spirit of the Declaration meant democracy, the power of the people to set their own direction, to make their own laws that they think will best serve their needs and advance their rights. The spirit of the Declaration embraced change, it embraced revolution, it embraced popular sovereignty.

I think the way progressives would think about the developments that Danielle was talking about towards social and economic rights, and certainly FDR invoked the Declaration of Independence for this very purpose in his famous Commonwealth Club Address is, he invoked the Declaration for first of all, the idea that the Constitution is a ... that the polity is based on a fundamental compact. FDR said that essentially, the country is not ... the government is not living up to its compact with the people. That the people are suffering, they are not able to exercise their rights, they are not able to make them a reality in their day to day lives and therefore the compact and the compact theory that underlies the Declaration and also its promise of popular sovereignty was being violated.

FDR was invoking the spirit of the Declaration that progressives were talking about and of course he got his start as assistant secretary of the navy in the Wilson, he came out of the Progressive Era . For their part, the progressive's said, “The barrier here, is the spirit of the Constitution,” which they identified with conservatives. This is the natural rights view, and the Conservatives at the time said, “Well, yes, of course we believe in democracy, but we believe in constitutional democracy, which is premised on the idea of limited government, property rights and the rights of minorities.” And, “The Constitution was there, where appropriate, to check the majorities and to limit the powers of government.”

In the Progressive Era , the conservatives identified progressives as upholders of the constitution and they viewed that many progressives, particularly the radicals as a negative but they appealed to the spirit of Declaration Independence in the positive. Let me just add, to move forward to the new deal and the things that Danielle was talking about, one of the things that changes under Franklin Roosevelt is current conservatives basically label new deal liberalism, just another form of progressivism. By that they mean, it's purely majoritarian democratic and it does not heed the spirit of the constitution that I just mentioned, protection for minority rights, protection for property rights and adherence to constitutional principles of limited government.

I think what changes under FDR, particularly because of what's happening in the broader world with the rise of Nazi-ism and World War II and Hitler, is that FDR, unlike the progressives or most progressives, re-embraces the language of rights and implicitly re-embraces the limited government spirit of the Declaration while also embracing an active government spirit of the Declaration. Therefore, he affects a synthesis. To conclude, I would just say, what are the four freedoms, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion. Those are what we call negative liberties, they are restrictions on the power of government and in that sense they are very Jeffersonian.

But then, FDR also says, “Freedom from want and freedom from fear, which call upon the government to act.” That, I would argue is Lincolnian. That is in the spirit of the Declaration as refracted through the Civil War Amendments that calls for more government. The Four Freedoms speech, FDR synthesizes that and says the issue isn't government limiting government or empowering government, it is doing one in one case, doing the other in the other case, to fulfill our contract to the people to advance the public interest and to advance the common good of our constitutional democracy.

Rosen: [00:45:02] Well, it's time for closing arguments in this fascinating debate. Danielle, my question is, are progressives in the post New Deal era from 1936 to the present, also continuing to invoke the Declaration on behalf of efforts continually to expand equality and popular sovereignty, or has Declaration language fallen out of fashion among progressives in recent years?

Allen: [00:45:28] As Ken said earlier in this conversation, use of the Declaration is ubiquitous and so you can find it all over progressive or left leaning political movements as well. It's relevant to this effort to do Equal Rights Amendment and women's rights, it comes up in various places in that context. Again, of course Martin Luther King so famously invokes it in a letter from the Birmingham jail, the Black Power movement even repurpose the language of the Declaration. Then you find surprising things outside of this country, like Ho Chi Minh's rewriting of the Declaration as he tries to establish independence for Vietnam, so it's uses are astonishingly wide and varied.

I will just share that I myself, a couple of years ago, published an op-ed in The Post, rewriting the Declaration to argue for a Declaration of Independence from the war on drugs. You could call that a kind of blend of progressive and libertarian position. It really is a rich document because it does set up a framework for judging what the purpose is of a democratic government should be, what our responsibilities are to one another and what the tools are that we have for bringing about adjustments to the framework for mutual living arrangements. As I said at the start, it's for everybody, it has been used as much on the left as on the right.

I think perhaps the conversations are more consolidated on the right than on the left, they're perhaps a bit more spread out and disparate on the left so perhaps not as visible, but the text and the ideals of the Declaration are very much alive across the political spectrum.

Rosen: [00:46:59] Ken, the last word is to you. How are conservatives continuing to invoke Declaration language in our constitutional debates today ranging from abortion and fetal life to gay marriage and the scope of limited government?

Kersch: [00:47:15] As you mentioned, Jeff, the Declaration of Independence plays a major role in contemporary conservative thought and contemporary conservative constitutional thought, particularly within the conservative movement generally but also in some cases on the Supreme Court, and I believe you mentioned Clarence Thomas in that regard, who is acknowledged as someone who's picked up on this. I think we might see even more of it in the future on the Supreme Court, as a new Republican justices are appointed. Essentially the work that citations to the Declaration of Independence are doing in the contemporary conservative movement, is really to emphasize that conservatives believe that this country is founded upon certain timeless principles of natural rights, natural right and also natural law.

They essentially argue that progressives and their legatees ever since the Progressive Era , have repudiated the framework that the polity needs to be anchored in certain grounding foundational principles. They charge progressives and liberals with essentially abandoning both the principles of the Declaration of Independence and relatedly, the Constitution, which they argue is inextricably linked to the Declaration of Independence. As far as the particular issues you mentioned, abortion, fetal personhood, gay rights, conservatives have a particular reading of the meaning of the Declaration of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence.

There's a considerable debate about the terms of this, but much of what's driving this is broadly a statement that Jefferson and the Founders believed in natural law. Essentially, they end of the argument and obviously in some sense that is true. I'm not going to go into it, but I would dissent a bit from Danielle Allen saying that the creator reference, which is an interesting point that she has made and an interesting argument, but essentially what the concurrent conservatives are doing is that ... are arguing is that because of the Declaration and Lincoln's importation of it into the Constitution, that natural law is inherent in the Constitution itself. I think that's fairly clear.

I think what's controversial certainly to me, is that they then say, and this is why the Declaration has been so important to the Christian and the culture wars, they then say, “Well, what is the content of natural law?” Different aspects or strains of the conservative movement say, “I'll tell you what the content of the natural law is, this is something we've thought about quite a bit. If you want to know what the natural law is, why not look to Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica?” Liberals will say, "That's importing your Christian views into the Constitution, that's theocracy. Jefferson would not have agreed with that."

Christian conservatives would say, “No, it's not the fact that it's Catholic, it's not the fact that we think of a natural law in Evangelical Christian terms. It's that these understandings of natural law are true and it is true that these religious thinkers had explicated the natural law, but that natural law is reasonable and it is sensible.” Therefore, the Declaration, and it's commitment to, quote unquote, “natural law,” is taken within the conservative movement as a conduit for traditional Christian understandings of right and wrong. The argument is essentially that abortion can never be a right because it violates the moral law, the fetus is a person because it's consistent with moral law, there can be no gay rights because that is inconsistent with the moral law.

By returning to the Declaration as a foundation and importing that into the Constitution, they are essentially working to align the Constitution with their understandings of right and wrong, which are found in natural law and in correct thinking, understandings of natural rights. They wanted to return ... By the way, I would just add, they said that was understood clearly at the time of the founding, the Founders operated within that framework, and the progressives repudiated it and it's time for us to return to the original understanding in which it is not only the correct understanding of rights, but also was part, implicitly, of the bargain, the compact, the contract of the original Constitution that was ratified by the American Founders.

Rosen: [00:53:19] Thank you so much, Danielle Allen and Ken Kersch, for an absolutely riveting, rich and illuminating discussion of the relation between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution throughout American history. Danielle, Ken, thank you so much for joining.

Allen: [00:53:33] Thanks a lot, Jeff. Ken, great to talk with you.

Kersch: [00:53:35] Great to talk with you, Danielle. My pleasure, Jeff.

Rosen: [00:53:41] Today's show was engineered by Kevin Kilbourne and produced by Jackie Mcdermott. Research was provided by Lana Ulrich and the constitutional content team. Dear We the People friends, your homework this week is obvious. Please read Ken Kersch's new book, Conservatives and the Constitution: Imagining Constitutional Restoration in the Heyday of American Liberalism, and Danielle Allen's book, Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. If you succeed in both homework assignments, then write to me and tell me what you thought of both books, [email protected] .

Please rate, review and subscribe to We the People on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts, and recommend the show to friends, colleagues, or anyone everywhere who's hungry to understand the relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Always remember, We the People friends, that the National Constitution Center is a private nonprofit. We rely on the generosity, passion, engagement, and hunger for constitutional light, of people like you across the country who are taking the time to educate yourself about the Constitution and the Declaration. Please support our mission by becoming a member at constitutioncenter.org/membership, or give a donation of any amount to support our work, including this podcast, at constitutioncenter.org/donate. On behalf of the National Constitution Center, I'm Jeffrey Rosen.

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Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Jefferson's Three Greatest Achievements
  • The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson is considered the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, although Jefferson's draft went through a process of revision by his fellow committee members and the Second Continental Congress.

How the Declaration Came About

Map of the British Colonies in North America in 1763

America's declaration of independence from the British Empire was the nation's founding moment.  But it was not inevitable.  Until the spring of 1776, most colonists believed that the British Empire offered its citizens freedom and provided them protection and opportunity.  The mother country purchased colonists' goods, defended them from Native American Indian and European aggressors, and extended British rights and liberty to colonists.  In return, colonists traded primarily with Britain, obeyed British laws and customs, and pledged their loyalty to the British crown.  For most of the eighteenth century, the relationship between Britain and her American colonies was mutually beneficial.  Even as late as June 1775, Thomas Jefferson said that he would "rather be in dependence on Great Britain, properly limited, than on any nation upon earth, or than on no nation." [1]

But this favorable relationship began to face serious challenges in the wake of the Seven Years' War.  In that conflict with France, Britain incurred an enormous debt and looked to its American colonies to help pay for the war.  Between 1756 and 1776, Parliament issued a series of taxes on the colonies, including the Stamp Act of 1765, the Townshend Duties of 1766, and the Tea Act of 1773.  Even when the taxes were relatively light, they met with stiff colonial resistance on principle, with colonists concerned that “taxation without representation” was tyranny and political control of the colonies was increasingly being exercised from London.  Colonists felt that they were being treated as second-class citizens.  But after initially compromising on the Stamp Act, Parliament supported increasingly oppressive measures to force colonists to obey the new laws.  Eventually, tensions culminated in the shots fired between British troops and colonial militia at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.

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purpose of declaration of independence thesis

The Legacy of the Declaration

purpose of declaration of independence thesis

The story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull; image courtesy Architect of the Capitol

Despite the outbreak of violence, the majority of colonists wanted to remain British.  Only when King George III failed to address colonists' complaints against Parliament or entertain their appeals for compromise did colonists begin to consider independence as a last resort.  Encouraged by Thomas Paine ’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” more and more colonists began to consider independence in the spring of 1776.  At the same time, the continuing war and rumors of a large-scale invasion of British troops and German mercenaries diminished hopes for reconciliation.

While the issue had been discussed quietly in the corridors of the Continental Congress for some time, the first formal proposal for independence was not made in the Continental Congress until June 7, 1776.  It came from the Virginian Richard Henry Lee, who offered a resolution insisting that "all political connection is, and ought to be, dissolved" between Great Britain and the American colonies. [2]   But this was not a unanimous sentiment.  Many delegates wanted to defer a decision on independence or avoid it outright.  Despite this disagreement, Congress did nominate a drafting committee—the Committee of Five (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman)—to compose a declaration of independence.  Thomas Jefferson, known for his eloquent writing style and reserved manner, became the principal author.

Rough Draft of the Declaration

As he sat at his desk in a Philadelphia boarding house, Jefferson drafted a "common sense" treatise in “terms so plain and firm, as to command [the] assent” of mankind. [3]   Some of his language and many of his ideas drew from well-known political works, such as George Mason's Declaration of Rights.  But his ultimate goal was to express the unity of Americans—what he called an "expression of the american mind"—against the tyranny of Britain. [4]

Jefferson submitted his "rough draught" of the Declaration on June 28. Congress eventually accepted the document, but not without debating the draft for two days and making extensive changes. Jefferson was unhappy with many of the revisions—particularly the removal of the passage on the slave trade and the insertion of language less offensive to Britons—and in later years would often provide his original draft to correspondents.  Benjamin Franklin tried to reassure Jefferson by telling him the now-famous tale of a merchant whose storefront sign bore the words: "John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money;" after a circle of critical friends offered their critiques, the sign merely read, "John Thompson" above a picture of a hat. [5]

Pressured by the news that a fleet of British troops lay off the coast of New York, Congress adopted the Lee resolution of independence on July 2nd, the day which John Adams always believed should be celebrated as American independence day, and adopted the Declaration of Independence explaining its action on July 4. 

The Declaration was promptly published, and throughout July and August, it was spread by word of mouth, delivered on horseback and by ship, read aloud before troops in the Continental Army, published in newspapers from Vermont to Georgia, and dispatched to Europe.  The Declaration roused support for the American Revolution and mobilized resistance against Britain at a time when the war effort was going poorly.

The Declaration provides clear and emphatic statements supporting self-government and individual rights, and it has become a model of such statements for several hundred years and around the world.

  • Printing and Signing the Declaration »
  • The Legacy of the Declaration »

Further Sources

  • Allen, Danielle S. Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2014.
  • Armitage, David.  The Declaration of Independence: A Global History .  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007.  An examination of the Declaration of Independence from a global perspective.
  • Boyd, Julian P. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. Issued in conjunction with an exhibit of these drafts at the Library of Congress on the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson. Washington: Library of Congress, 1943. Reprinted 1945, 1999.  Contains facsimiles of the known extant drafts of the Declaration.
  • Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Principles of Freedom: The Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution . This extensive site includes an excellent timeline of the creation and signing of the Declaration.
  • DuPont, Christian Y. and Peter S. Onuf, eds. Declaring Independence: The Origin and Influence of America's Founding Document: Featuring the Albert H. Small Declaration of Independence Collection . Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library, 2008.
  • Ellis, Joseph J., ed. What Did the Declaration Declare? Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.
  • Gerber, Scott Douglas. The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2002.  A useful book discussing documents which influenced the Declaration, and also other documents influenced by the Declaration.
  • Hazelton, John H.  The Declaration of Independence: Its History .  New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1906.  Reprinted 1970 by Da Capo Press.  In-depth look at the creation of the Declaration of Independence. An appendix contains transcriptions of contemporary letters and annotations on the various drafts and changes to the Declaration.
  • Maier, Pauline.  American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence .  New York: Knopf, 1997.  An excellent scholarly overview of the creation of the Declaration.
  • National Archives. America's Founding Documents. " The Declaration of Independence ."  The National Archives presents a rich set of material on the Declaration, including transcripts and articles on the creation and history of the Declaration. 
  • Milestone Documents In The National Archives. The Declaration of Independence. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., 1992.  Focuses on the history of the engrossed parchment after 1776.
  • The Declaration of Independence read by Bill Barker, who interprets Thomas Jefferson for Colonial Williamsburg
  • Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The Monticello Classroom. "Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence" . An article written for elementary- and middle-school-level readers.
  • Look for more sources in the Thomas Jefferson Portal on the Declaration of Independence

1. Thomas Jefferson to John Randolph, August 25, 1775.  Transcription available at Founders Online.

2. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 , ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 5:425 .

3. Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825. Transcription available at Founders Online.

5. Enclosure with Jefferson to Robert Walsh, December 4, 1818, in Ford 10:120n .

ADDRESS: 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway Charlottesville, VA 22902 GENERAL INFORMATION: (434) 984-9800

America's Founding Documents

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The Declaration of Independence: What Does it Say?

refer to caption

Pulling down the Statue of King George III

After a public reading of the Declaration of Independence at Bowling Green, on July 9, 1776, New Yorkers pulled down the statue of King George III. Parts of the statue were reportedly melted down and used for bullets. Courtesy of Lafayette College Art Collection Easton, Pennsylvania

The Declaration of Independence was designed for multiple audiences: the King, the colonists, and the world. It was also designed to multitask. Its goals were to rally the troops, win foreign allies, and to announce the creation of a new country. The introductory sentence states the Declaration’s main purpose, to explain the colonists’ right to revolution. In other words, “to declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” Congress had to prove the legitimacy of its cause. It had just defied the most powerful nation on Earth. It needed to motivate foreign allies to join the fight.

These are the lines contemporary Americans know best: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” These stirring words were designed to convince Americans to put their lives on the line for the cause. Separation from the mother country threatened their sense of security, economic stability, and identity. The preamble sought to inspire and unite them through the vision of a better life.

List of Grievances

The list of 27 complaints against King George III constitute the proof of the right to rebellion. Congress cast “the causes which impel them to separation” in universal terms for an international audience. Join our fight, reads the subtext, and you join humankind’s fight against tyranny.

Resolution of Independence

The most important and dramatic statement comes near the end: “That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.” It declares a complete break with Britain and its King and claims the powers of an independent country.

Back to Main Page How did it happen?


Declaration Of Independence Thesis

Causes of declaration of independence essay.

Lets first talk about both countries gaining their independence. In 1849, France began to take over Guinea, a country located in western Africa in 1849. Before then, they country were being ruled by the Muslims. Alongside, other European countries such as the Portuguese people, and British also began to take over other African countries such as Liberia, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, etc. At this point, all the African countries were being taken over by the three European countries.

Personal Declaration Of Independence Essay

Personal Declaration of Independence It seems that the time of cutting specific things out of my life has come around, certain reasons have gave me reason to believe that it is a need not a want, and this is not a plea but a declaration. I want to cut off all friends that destroy dreams by smoking, drinking, and making bad choices in general. There is no benefit or good reason to keep them around if they’re just going to hold me back. In that case I’d also like to declare that I will be leaving my neighborhood.

Essay On The Principles Of The Declaration Of Independence

The Principles in the Declaration of Independence I believe that the United States upholds the principles of the Declaration of Independence most of the time. Times have definitely changed since the Declaration of Independence was written which does make things a little more complicated. Now that things are so different from back then, it does make it harder to follow the principles of the Declaration of Independence but yet I feel like the United States does a pretty good job of it. When people think U.S., they think freedom and I believe that we gained this reputation by trying our best to stick to the principles.

Declaration Of Independence Dbq Essay

Declaration of Independence: The Struggle for Equality DBQ After nearly one-hundred and fifty years of living in the New World, the colonists were anxious to be separated from their mothering country, England. Thomas Jefferson and other colonists got together to write an official document called the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776 to send to King George III. This document stated how the colonists were being treated unjustly and how independence should be granted to the citizens. The Declaration of Independence promises natural rights for all men, however, some rights such as suffrage, are not realized for some disenfranchised groups.

Ideals Of The Declaration Of Independence Essay

The Ideals of the Declaration: Which is Most Important? There are four ideals in the Declaration of Independence. The American Government became independent in July 1776. Five men wrote the Declaration of Independence, the main one being Thomas Jefferson.

An Evaluation Of The Declaration Of Independence By Thomas Jefferson

Evaluation of The Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence is a significantly important and well presented argument as to why the colonies should not be under the ruler of King George III of England. Jefferson provides a clearly laid out yet strongly worded reason using basic syllogisms which lead any reader into believing the argument provided. The rhetoric used outlines the deistic nature of the writers, the overarching theme of equality through parallelism, and especially the that it is not a “revolt” or “rebellion” against England but rather a natural order that requires the colonies to become an independent nation.

Declaration Of Independence DBQ Essay

In 1776 the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence stating the separation of the American colonies from Britain. The Declaration states traditional American values that were meant to define America forever. However, in the 1800’s some of these traditional principles, to an extent, were being reformed with new values and ideologies, such as Abolitionism, Feminism, Public Education, Prison Rehabilitation, Utopianism, and Nativism. Overall, the reforms of the Antebellum Period were consistent with original American principles of democracy, equality, and reform. Public Education, Prison Reform, and Universal Suffrage all were consistent with the traditional principle of democracy.

Personal Essay: My Declaration Of Independence

My Declaration of Independence When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to completely abolish my doubt. I will not let the pressure consumed by doubt suppress me from living my life. Doubt has already altered my life so much but I will not give in anymore. I hold these truths to be self-evident that as a person my life should not be delayed because the doubt adapted by me and the people around me.

The Founding Document: The Declaration Of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is America’s political tradition founding document. It expresses the underlying ideas that form the nation of American, that is, all men are created equal and free and hold the same inborn, natural rights. Therefore lawful governments must be based on the approval of the governed and must secure their rights. The Declaration of Independence notified the world of the unanimous decision of the 13 American colonies to detach from Great Britain.

Declaration Of Independence: The Greatest Impact On Revolutionary America

This essay will explain why the Declaration of Independence has had the greatest impact on revolutionary America, why it also overthrows the importance of the book “Common Sense” and which author had the greatest impact on the current wars. When these two historical figures are examined, everyone should know that they were successful at a variety of things. For example, Thomas Jefferson is the author of the widely known Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, and Thomas Pain, another well-known author who created the Pamphlet “Common Sense”. Paine was also an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist and revolutionary.

The colonists desired a sense of freedom and power that was not obtained by the sovereign rule of England, so they instituted an improved governmental system that resolved most of their concerns, but was not without faults. The way England was controlling and monarchially put doubts and frustration in the minds of the commonfolk in America who felt used and dissatisfied (Doc 1). As a result, the Declaration of Independence was written that renounced the jurisdiction of Great Britain and gave themselves the independence. This also had the negative impact of the descent into fighting and the allegiance issue (Doc 2). Shown in document 3, there was a separation of the population in the colonies because some remained loyal to the crown.

Thesis Statement For American Independence

What is America ? Early America was a formation of colonies formed into one united nation. The founding fathers of America shaped all of America 's ideas, and also structured the american democracy which is still present today. The American colonies now free from British rule could act freely and establish Their own new formation of Government, the declaration of independence, which separated them from British rule, and the Bill of rights.

Reflection Of The Declaration Of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was written on July 2, 1776, but then approved by congress on July 4th 1776. The Declaration of Independence was written when the 13 colonies were no longer part of the British Empire and were now their own independent states. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” For me, the theory of Natural Rights, and equality in a government is a must. Because of natural rights, oppressive taxation, and equality, I have decided that I would sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 if I were living in that time.

The Declaration Of Independence Literary Analysis

During the writing of “The Declaration of Independence”, Thomas Jefferson go to great lengths to describe why the colonies were choosing to separate themselves from Great Britain. This is done not only so readers will have a detailed description of what the American people were facing while being ruled by the King. The vivid depiction of all the cruelty he has shown towards the people. Furthermore, the lengthy, highly descriptive examination of all the wrongs and showing that the colonists made many appeals to the King but also the people of Britain that the reader now feels as if it is wrong for the Colonies to be under Great Britain. Thomas Jefferson begins by detailing the ethical standings of all people that live within the colonies.

Declaration Of Independence Research Paper

The Declaration Of Independence was an image all colonists wanted to live up to. They wanted all men equal, and the government to be fair. The American Revolution was a political upheaval that took place between 1765 and 1783.The Declaration stated all of this and the colonists said it would be. After securing enough votes for the passage, independence was voted for on July 2nd. The Declaration Of Independence, drafted largely by Thomas Jefferson, marked the formation of a new sovereign nation, which called itself the United States Of America.

More about Declaration Of Independence Thesis

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  • United States Declaration of Independence
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The Purpose of the Declaration of Independence Essay Example

The Declaration of Independence is an essential document in America’s history. It sets the standing American doctrine and basis on how America should be governed. The Declaration had a significant impact on America’s political culture and America's well-being. The Declaration is one of the first documents that was for the newly established U.S, that is an agreement from the American people and the government stating that the people agree to be governed. It provides America with three critical factors that make America different from other governments. The ideas of universal truths, social contract theory, and natural rights are all embedded into the Declaration of Independence, making America a unique nation unique

Universal Truths in the Declaration of Independence are stated as self-evident truths(Jefferson, 1776). Self-evident means something obvious to one’s self and everyone else. In the Declaration of Independence, the self-evident truths are “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”(Jefferson 1776). These self-evident truths were said to be visible and made sense to everyone; however, some scholars would argue that these self-evident truths were not and still are not evident to the public (Coleman 2004; Zuckert 1987). Self-evidence is much challenged today because words can have various meanings to different people. In 1776, self-evident had a different meaning than it has today (Zuckert 1987).

Today, the truths listed in the Declaration of Independence would not be called self-evident at all. All men were not created equal, and all men did not have the right to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness, and some still do not have these rights. These Universal Truths were meant to only apply to a particular group of people for a long time: White, straight, and wealthy men. It was not until the Reconstruction Amendments that these rights were expanded to include black men, and it was not until the 19th Amendment that these rights were to include women. Today, gay men and women are now just getting their right to love whomever they choose. In 1776, these truths were self-evident because African Americans were not seen as humans at this time. Evident changes throughout time and has evolved to fit that specific generation and history.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher and was said to be one of the founders of modern American political philosophy, which introduced the concept of social contract theory. It was a new concept of having men giving authority to other men to represent them in the government. John Locke, who was another English philosopher, was influenced by Thomas Hobbes and introduced the social contract theory again but more in-depth. Hobbes argued that men are naturally free because of the social contract where people sacrifice some of their rights to the government so that the government can protect their rights (Tuckness 2018). Today, the social contract can be defined as a theory where the people in a country agree to be governed by a legitimate government that protects their rights as people.

The people who agreed to be governed also had to sacrifice some of their liberties and happiness to ensure their government would protect their rights (Hobbes, 2008).Social contract theory is written all over the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was made not only to denounce King George III but also to instill a new government that was instituted among the people. This type of social contract government was not new to the States at all. One of the first examples of the theory was the Mayflower Compact. The Mayflower Compact was based on the consent of the people, which means it also had the social contract theory embedded into it. The Declaration of Independence is a social contract between the consenting populace and the government. The social contract is a very critical aspect of the Declaration of Independence. The social contract, the basis of which provides the people’s consent to be governed and their natural rights: essential elements of any form of government.

Natural rights or any rights are essential in any legitimate government and are rights that anyone should be entitled to during their life (Schmidt, etc. 2012). The writers of the Declaration of Independence made it clear that any man who is a citizen of the United States of America would have “certain unalienable rights”(Jefferson 1776). These unalienable rights are often referred to as natural rights. These natural rights were: the right to live, the right to liberty, and the right to seek out and achieve happiness. Many scholars would argue that the natural right to seek out and achieve satisfaction could be done in any way by a man’s definition of happiness and would be perfectly aligned within the Declaration. (Conklin 2015).  When the Declaration was written, women or slaves were not paid any attention to.

They had no rights or a voice in any of the decisions that were made or going to be made. These rights were not truly unalienable if more than half the population were not granted these "natural rights”(Penack 1990). White, wealthy men were given these rights at this time, and no one else was. Even poor whites did not have these same rights as the wealthy ones did. The right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”(Jefferson 1776). Were not the only natural rights that the men had that were stated in the Declaration. Men also had a right to create their governments and approve of them. Only men were given this right. Women, slaves, and especially poor people from every race were not. So, all the minorities were being excluded in this statement. The most famous saying all men were created equal also comes back to mean all white, rich men are created equal. All men were not created equal at this time. It was believed that they never would be,  either. However, this phrase would change through history and time through the labor movement, all the way to the women's movement and today. 

The statement that all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence has changed throughout history and even to present day time; it was initially meant to only apply to wealthy white men who owned property (Tsesis 2012). The property that could be anything from actual land to slaves- which were considered as property and not people at this time. Women at this time were also disregarded, and so were poor people. This statement was proven wrong many times, starting with kicking the Native Americans out of their native home to the enslavement of another race (Friedman 2008, Tsesis 2012). The statement of men being created equally went on to change after the African American revolution.

This revolution did not change the Declarations “all men are created equal” statement, but it changed the people's mind and perspective of how this quote means. During the labor movement, the idea of the word men (white, wealthy men with property) also changed to poor men without as much capital. During the Reconstruction period (1865–77), the idea of men changed from just white men to include men of color. Finally, during the women's revolution, they turned the Americans people’s perspective of the word men again and changed it to include women; all men and women are created equally. 

The idea that all men are created equal has consistently been challenged and changed in our society year after year. As the American mindset has changed throughout the years, so has different words, phrases, and sentences all evolved different meanings as more or less important than others (Curry, 2017). This phrase is an excellent example of how modern American political culture was influenced by the Declaration and in return has changed the Declaration of Independence. 

The American political culture has changed over the years, but at the same time, stayed the same. Political culture is how we see the government; it's where shared beliefs and values are carried out.(Schmidt et al., 2012) The values that can be most connected to modern American political culture are liberty or freedom, equality, and democracy (Wilson 1997). The Declaration of Independence influenced modern American political culture starting with freedom first. The dictionary says that freedom is the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. (Harper 2019). The Declaration’s primary purpose was to announce freedom from Britain (Brannigan 2014).

It also stated multiple times that the colonies are “free and independent States.”(Jefferson 1776). The Declaration influences modern political culture in addition to equality. “All men are created equal”(Jefferson,1776) was the famous saying that changed American culture the most, but as time went on, political culture influenced the Declaration's equality statement. Americans preached about equality the most but were often called hypocrites because of their practices of holding slaves and denying rights to certain people of class, sex, and race. (Pencack 1190; Maier 1999). However, as time has gone by, Americans have slowly been making everybody from different cultures, races, and sexes equal.

America's political culture today still has issues of inequality and the idea of what is balanced. Equality is a subjective word and can lead to different designs or ideologies, different from generation to generation (Maier 1999). Democracy is the American’s primary type of political system that Americans choose to adopt. Democracy, defined by Peter Zitko is a  “Political system in which the population participates, there are competitive elections, and both human and civil rights are protected” (Zitko,2019). American Democracy is a government based on the consent of the people who are being governed; democracy was the whole thing that started the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration or in essence, started the country as a whole. Modern American political culture is influenced heavily by democracy. Today, Americans have the opportunity to participate in democracy for personal and general issues. Democracy, freedom, and equality are the backbone of America and shines through on daily interactions to once in a lifetime interactions. The Declaration of Independence is the spine in modern American political culture. 

The Declaration of Independence is significant to American society today and was very important to the American community in the past. The Declaration provides many backbones in America. It was made not only to denounce King George III and to separate from the rule of Great Britain but also to apply one vital feature of how the Separatists wanted to be governed. The Declaration of Independence was not the first document to break up with a country and had the idea of social contract theory. The Declaration of Independence was made out of 3 crucial key features that makes it unique to all else. Universal truths, natural rights, and the social contract theory. America draws its most essential ideas from the Declaration itself. All three of these critical factors helped shape America into what it is now. 

Works Cited

Brannigan, Gabrielle. “An Analysis of the Declaration of Independence.” Digital Commons @Brockport, The College at Brockport 2014 State University of New June 28 York, digitalcommons.brockport.edu/honors/90/.

Coleman, William Thaddeus. “Truths That Unfortunately Were Not, and Still Are Not, Sufficiently Self-Evident.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 148, no. 4, 2004, pp. 434–454. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1558139.

Conklin, Carli N. “The Origins of the Pursuit of Happiness.” vol. 7, no. 2, 2015, Washington University Jurisprudence Review www.openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1123&context=law_jurisprudence. 

Curry, Robert. “Jefferson, Locke, and the Declaration of Independence.”  The Claremont Institute,2017 www.claremont.org/crb/basicpage/jefferson-locke-and-the-Declaration-of-Independence/.

Friedman, Milton, and Rose D. Friedman. Free to Choose: A Personal Statement. New York, New York, Paw Print, 1980. Print

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Simon & Schuster, 1660. Print

Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence: Full Text.” Ushistory.org, Independence Hall Association, 4 July 1995, www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/.

Maier, Pauline. "The Strange History Of “All Men Are Created Equal.”Scholarlycommons.Law.Wlu.Edu, 1999, scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1547&context=wlulr. 06/24/19

Maxwell, William Earl. American Government and Politics Today: Texas Edition, 2011-2012. Wadsworth, 2011.

Pencak, William. “The Declaration of Independence: Changing Interpretations and a New Hypothesis.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, 1990, pp. 225–235. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27773386.

Tsesis, Alexander. “Self-Government and the Declaration of Independence.”Cornell Law Review. vol. 97, no. 4, May 2012, pp. 711. scholarship.law.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3236&context=clr. 

Tuckness, Alex, "Locke's Political Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/locke-political/>.

Wilson, Richard W. “American Political Culture in Comparative Perspective.” Political Psychology, vol. 18, no. 2, 1997, pp. 483–502. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3791777.

Zitko, Peter. “Introduction to American Politics and Government.” Introduction to Political science, Solano Community College. Powerpoint Presentation.

Zuckert, Michael P. “Self-Evident Truth and the Declaration of Independence.” The Review of Politics, vol. 49, no. 3, 1987, pp. 319–339. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1407839.

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