The Declaration of Independence is an act adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, proclaiming American independence from Great Britain. The committee members charged with drafting the Declaration were Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, and Robert R. Livingston of New York. Because of his reputation as a good writer, Thomas Jefferson was asked by the other members to draft the Declaration. In his writing, he drew on commonplace philosophical and political ideas already articulated by himself and others, including A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774); a congressional pamphlet he had helped to write in 1775 titled A Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms; The Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), drafted by James Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee; Thomas Jefferson’s own drafts of the Virginia Constitution; Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776); the English Declaration of Rights (1688–89); and John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690). Thomas Jefferson turned familiar expressions, phrases, and ideas from these different texts into a rhetorical and elegant tour de force affirming natural rights, portraying King George III of Great Britain as a tyrant, justifying a change of government, and declaring the United States a new nation.
The text can be divided into four parts: the introduction (the first paragraph), the preamble, the indictment of King George III and the condemnation of the British people, and the actual declaration (the last paragraph). The introduction solemnly declares the opportunity of the act, asserting that this is an inescapable moment in the history of the colonies when these need to form an independent nation to secure “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” The invocation of these rights connects secular government to Christian, Calvinist theology, essentially arguing that for human laws and governments to succeed they need to conform to God’s law. Certain of God’s special dispensation, the Declaration invokes him twice in the actual proclamation of independence “for the Rectitude of our Intentions” and “with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence.”
The preamble invokes the “self-evident” truths, including equality and the God-given rights of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration then discusses an idea that is at the heart of American democracy, that is, power comes from the consent of the governed, and government is established to secure the God-given rights. When governments fail to protect these rights, the people are justified in altering their government and putting in place a new one that will function to their satisfaction.
The idea of equality reflects John Locke’s sense of political equality: all men are created equal as members of the human race with the same faculty and the same advantages from nature. This view rejects birth-earned authority and instead establishes the idea that only the consent of equals should determine who has power and how it is shared by different structures of government.
The other “self-evident” truths were adapted from John Locke’s expression “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Property” in Second Treatise of Government. Locke posited that humans naturally compete for possessions and status, and conflict in this competition is only averted by the “Law of Nature” that requires respect for the rights and property of others. Because some people do not play fairly, the government must protect the natural rights of everybody.
After the introductory phrase of the preamble, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” we have three clauses that have the same structure: “that all men are created equal,” “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and “that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Within the last part, there is another balanced structure, also with three elements: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration is a revolutionary document that calls for a drastic act—altering government—with great potential of violence. In using an orderly, formulaic structure (called “membrum” in rhetoric), the text conveys revolutionary ideas in a nonthreatening, reassuring way in an unjust and chaotic world created by King George III. The use of this well-established rhetorical strategy throughout the text (including within the last sentence—“we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor”) imposes a sense of order, harmony, and dignity to a grave situation while, at the same time, it radically alters the course of history.
The preamble ends with an appeal to the unbiased, just, “candid world” to consider the articles of indictment of King George III. The phrase “To prove this” prepares the audience for a long list of facts that leave no doubt in the mind of the “Whole Mankind” and the “Candid World” about the “repeated injuries and usurpations” of King George III.
The indictment consists of a list of twenty-eight grievances that condemn King George III for his abuse of power, his conspiracy against the American people, his use of violence and cruelty, and his failure to respond to “repeated injury” in spite of “repeated petitions.” The grievances against the king are followed by a paragraph denouncing “the British Brethren” for their failure to disavow the policies of their king and their legislature.
The last paragraph declares the independence of the United States of America as an inescapable conclusion. With these words a new nation is born, with full power to do all the things that other nations of the world do, such as levying war, concluding peace treaties and alliances, and establishing trade relations with other nations. Again, this is done in the name of the people and with the certitude of divine protection.
The Declaration of Independence is the most important founding document in that it provided the founding principles for the republic and its Constitution and influenced the legislative checks and balances, different state constitutions, and local government texts. The same principles were embraced by many nations and have inspired subsequent generations of American leaders dealing with critical national problems such as Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War (1861–65) and Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Scott Douglas Gerber, ed., The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2002); and Allen Jayne, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy and Theology (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998).