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The Declaration of Independence | Study Guide

Thomas Jefferson

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The Declaration of Independence | Main Ideas


The Declaration of Independence uses deductive reasoning, which is the logical process of coming to a conclusion based on a series of true premises. Each main idea of the Declaration of Independence logically connects to the next to justify the Continental Congress's decision to leave the British Empire.

Natural Rights of Man

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (preamble) says each man is given rights at birth that can't be taken away. These rights are the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness. This is an interpretation of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke's belief in the right to life, liberty, and property. All people are born with these rights, which makes all people equal. Still, the Declaration and its signers have frequently been criticized for their use and definition of the word "man," by which they clearly intend white male landowners, as later documents such as the Constitution clarify.

The preamble also draws upon the Enlightenment idea that humans are born into a state of nature. This essentially means they are free. It is their choice to form societies. When those societies become large enough it is their choice to give up some of their freedoms to ensure the success of all. This generally requires the establishment of a government. Governments "deriv[e] their own just powers from the consent of the governed." That means it is the right of a government's people to take away the government's powers if the government is not doing its job.

British Government Violates Colonial Rights

The natural rights of man in relation to government continues to the next main idea of the Declaration of Independence. This idea is that the British government, particularly the king, is violating the rights of its colonial citizens. Evidence of this claim is presented as a list of grievances, which includes:

  • The king's refusal to approve laws meant to improve the lives of the American colonists
  • The disregard for and dissolution of local government bodies
  • The unlawful addition and increase of taxes
  • Stacking the judicial system against colonial citizens
  • Waging war against his own subjects

The 27 listed grievances are all examples of things that violate the American colonists' right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Instead of looking out for the welfare of his subjects, the king is trying to "establish ... an absolute Tyranny over these states." He puts his needs above those of his subjects, which is a violation of the social contract between a society and its government.

The Colonies Are an Independent Nation

As stated in the preamble, citizens whose rights are continuously violated by their government have the natural right to abandon that government for a better one. The king of Great Britain is in violation of the colonists' rights. It is only logical the colonies sever political ties with Great Britain in favor of a new government. Instead of aligning with another world power, the colonies have decided to unite as an independent nation. This unification gives them the right to function as any other country. They can form alliances, take part in free trade, start wars, and declare peace just like other nations. They should be treated as equal partners in world matters, not as subjects of the British crown.

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