Declaration of Independence

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Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776. This work, assembled by John Binns in 1819, surrounds a facsimile of the document's text with portraits of George Washington, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson, along with the seals of the 13 original states. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
The Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776. This work, assembled by John Binns in 1819, surrounds a facsimile of the document's text with portraits of George Washington, John Hancock, and Thomas Jefferson, along with the seals of the 13 original states.

Since its creation in 1776, the Declaration of Independence has been considered the single most important expression of the ideals of U.S. democracy. As a statement of the fundamental principles of the United States, the Declaration is an enduring reminder of the country's commitment to popular government and equal rights for all.

The Declaration of Independence is a product of the early days of the Revolutionary War. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress—the legislature of the American colonies—voted for independence from Great Britain. It then appointed a committee of five—

John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston—to draft a formal statement of independence designed to influence public opinion at home and abroad. Because of his reputation as an eloquent and forceful writer, Jefferson was assigned the task of creating the document, and the final product is almost entirely his own work. The Congress did not approve all of Jefferson's original draft, however, rejecting most notably his denunciation of the slave trade. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia were not yet ready to extend the notion of inalienable rights to African Americans.

On July 4, 1776, the day of birth for the new country, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the people living in the American colonies. The Declaration served a number of purposes for the newly formed United States. With regard to the power politics of the day, it functioned as a propaganda statement intended to build support for American independence abroad, particularly in France, from which the Americans hoped to have support in their struggle for independence. Similarly, it served as a clear message of intention to the British. Even more important for the later Republic of the United States, it functioned as a statement of governmental ideals.

In keeping with its immediate diplomatic purposes, most of the Declaration consists of a list of 30 grievances against acts of the British monarch George III. Many of these were traditional and legitimate grievances under British Constitutional Law. The Declaration firmly announces that British actions had established "an absolute Tyranny over these States." Britain's acts of despotism, according to the Declaration's list, included taxation of Americans without representation in Parliament; imposition of standing armies on American communities; establishment of the military above the civil power; obstruction of the right to trial by jury; interference with the operation of colonial legislatures; and cutting off of trade with the rest of the world. The Declaration ends with the decisive resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."

The first sentences of the document and their statement of political ideals have remained the Declaration's most memorable and influential section. Among these sentences are the following:

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,—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.

Ever since their creation, these ideas have guided the development of U.S. government, including the creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The concepts of equal and inalienable rights for all, limited government, popular consent, and freedom to rebel have had a lasting effect on U.S. law and politics.

Scholars have long debated the relative importance of the different sources Jefferson used for his ideas in the Declaration. Most agree that the natural rights philosophy of English philosopher John Locke greatly influenced Jefferson's composition of the Declaration. In particular, Locke advanced the ideas that a just government derives its legitimacy and power from the consent of the governed, that people possess inalienable rights that no legitimate government may take away, and that the people have the right and duty to overthrow a government that violates their rights. Jefferson also paralleled Locke in his identification of three major rights—the rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"—though the last of his three is a change from Locke's right to "property."

Jefferson himself minimized the Declaration's contribution to political philosophy. In a letter that he wrote in 1825, 50 years after the Declaration was signed, he described the document as "an appeal to the tribunal of the world." Its object, he wrote, 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. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.

Although the Declaration of Independence stands with the Constitution as a founding document of the United States of America, its position in U.S. law is much less certain than that of the Constitution. The Declaration has been recognized as the founding act of law establishing the United States as a sovereign and independent nation, and Congress has placed it at the beginning of the U.S. Code, under the heading "The Organic Laws of the United States of America." The Supreme Court, however, has generally not considered it a part of the organic law of the country. For example, although the Declaration mentions a right to rebellion, this right, particularly with regard to violent rebellion, has not been recognized by the Supreme Court and other branches of the federal government. The most notable failure to uphold this right occurred when the Union put down the rebellion by the Southern Confederacy in the Civil War.

Despite its secondary authority, many later reform movements have quoted the Declaration in support of their cause, including movements for universal suffrage, Abolition of Slavery, women's rights, and Civil Rights for African Americans. Many have argued that this document influenced the passage and wording of such important developments in U.S. law and government as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which banned slavery and sought to make African Americans equal citizens. In this way, the Declaration of Independence remains the most outstanding example of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of U.S. law.

Further readings

Cunningham, Noble E., Jr. 1987. In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State Univ. Press.

Gerber, Scott Douglas, ed. 2002. The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press.

Levy, Michael B. 1982. Political Thought in America. Home-wood, Ill.: Dorsey Press.

Machan, Tibor R., ed. 2001. Individual Rights Reconsidered: Are the Truths of the U.S. Declaration of Independence Lasting? Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution.

Murray, Charles. 1988. In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government. New York: Simon & Schuster.


"Declaration of Independence" (Appendix, Primary Document); Fourteenth Amendment; Thirteenth Amendment.

Declaration of Independence

In Congress, July 4, 1776 The Unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

The Declaration of Independence, perhaps the most famous document in U.S. history, was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. The preparation of the declaration began on June 11, when Congress appointed a committee composed of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Jefferson actually wrote the declaration, appropriating some of the language in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Jefferson's famous phrase concerning "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" is a slight reworking of the wording of the Virginia declaration.

After debate on Jefferson's draft, the Congress made several changes, yet the document remained an expression of the liberal political ideas articulated by John Locke and others. The second section, with its reference to "He," is an indictment of the actions of King George III. Like Common Sense, this section destroyed the aura surrounding the monarchy and helped move the colonists toward psychological as well as political independence from Great Britain.

For the members of the Continental Congress, the declaration served as a vehicle for publicizing their grievances and winning support for the revolutionary cause. It affirmed the natural rights of all people and the right of the colonists to "dissolve the political bands" with the British government. Later generations have laid more stress on the political ideals expressed in the declaration and, in particular, have found inspiration in the phrase "all men are created equal." Source: The United States Government Manual.

Declaration of Independence

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.—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.—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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.—Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.—He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.—He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.—He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.—He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository or their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.—He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.—He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.—He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.—He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.—He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.—He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.—He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies, without the Consent of our legislatures.—He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.—He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:—For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:—For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:—For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:—For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:—For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:—For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:—For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:—For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:—For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.—He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.—He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.—He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.—He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.—He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. In every state of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms. Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.—

WE, THEREFORE, the REPRESENTATIVES of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally disolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.—And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

John Hancock
Button Gwinnett
Lyman Hall
Geo. Walton
Wm. Hooper
Joseph Hewes
John Penn
Edward Rutledge
Thos. Heyward, Jr.
Thomas Lynch, Jr.
Arthur Middleton
Samuel Chase
Wm. Paca
Thos. Stone
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe
Richard Henry Lee
Th. Jefferson
Benj. Harrison
Thos. Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Carter Braxton
Robt. Morris
Benjamin Rush
Benj. Franklin
John Morton
Geo. Clymer
Jas. Smith
Geo. Taylor
James Wilson
Geo. Ross
Caesar Rodney
Geo. Read
Tho. M. Kean
Wm. Floyd
Phil. Livington
Frans. Lewis
Lewis Morris
Richd. Stockton
Jno. Witherspoon
Fras. Hopkinson
John Hart
Abra. Clark
Josiah Bartlett
Wm. Whipple
Saml. Adams
John Adams
Robt. Treat Paine
Elbridge Gerry
Step. Hopkins
William Ellery
Roger Sherman
Sam. Huntington
Wm. Williams
Oliver Wolcott
Matthew Thornton

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. This is a state paper issued by the congress of the United States of America, in the name and by the authority of the people, on the fourth day of July, 17 76, wherein are set forth:
     2.-1. Certain natural and unalienable rights of man; the uses and purposes of governments the right of the people to institute or to abolish them; the sufferings of the colonies, and their right to withdraw from the tyranny of the king of Great Britain.
     3.-2. The various acts of tyranny of the British Icing.
     4.-3. The petitions for redress of these injuries, and the refusal. to redress them; the recital of an appeal to the people of "Great Britain, and of their being deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity.
     5.-4. An appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of the intentions of the representatives.
     6.-5. A declaration that the United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connexion between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be dissolved.
     7.-6. A pledge by the representatives to each other, of their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
     8. The effect of this declaration was the establishment of the government of the United States as free and independent) and thenceforth the people of Great Britain have been held, as the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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