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The Declaration of Independence | Study Guide

Thomas Jefferson

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The Declaration of Independence | Summary



Introduction and Preamble

Dated July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence outlines the reasons for the American colonies' separation from Great Britain. The first two paragraphs of the document serve as an explanation of the philosophy behind the colonies' succession from the crown and Parliament. It is the signatories' understanding that all men are created equal in the eyes of God. Everyone has the same "unalienable Rights," including "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Governments that impeded those rights are not just and fair. Should that happen, a citizenry has the right to form a new government. The signatories of this document do not take this decision lightly. They believe "Governments long established should not be charged for light and transient causes." But it is the duty of the people to distance themselves from a government known for "abuses and usurpations." They do this in order to secure their future happiness and prosperity.


The end of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence addresses the current king of Great Britain, King George III. The declaration says the king has repeatedly damaged the lives of his colonial subjects. He has restricted their personal, financial, and political power as a means of supporting his goal of "Tyranny over these States." This leads into a list of specific grievances. The list includes the king's disregard for colonial legislatures and law and unfair judicial practices. It goes on to condemn the use of British military force in the colonies, and the unfair imposition of taxes and trade restrictions.

The bulk of the colonists' problems with British rule has to do with the king's attitude about local government. For the most part, colonists aren't allowed to pass their own laws. Governors appointed by the crown even have a difficult time passing laws. They need the king's approval, which he is slow to give even in the most urgent situations. Before their complete abolition, local legislative bodies were forced to meet at inconvenient locations far from the documents they needed to do business. Many colonists interpreted this as an attempt to cause legislative havoc, which would "fatigue" colonial leaders. It would also force them to abide by the king's wishes.

The king disregards attempts by the colonists to govern themselves. But he fully supports colonial laws passed by Parliament. Many of these laws colonists view as punishments meant to restrict the physical and financial growth of the colonies. This includes the obstruction of immigration into the colonies, increases in taxes, and the closure of colonial ports. The colonists are also upset about Parliament's decision to allow a "neighboring Province [Quebec, Canada]" to expand its territory. At the same time, the province maintains the form of government it previously had under French rule.

King George III also insists on controlling judicial matters in the colonies. It is the British government, not the colonial legislatures, who pays colonial judges' salaries and determines their service length. The judges are therefore beholden to the king, not the people they serve. Colonists are also denied the right to a trial by jury. It is not unusual for colonists accused of crimes in the colonies to be transferred to England for their hearings. British soldiers accused of murder in the colonies are tried on British soil, far away from the people whose lives they have impacted.

The colonists detest the British Army's presence in the colonies. The signatories of the Declaration of Independence say this presence violates the king's promise to protect his subjects. American colonists are forced to provide provisions and housing for British troops. These troops are destroying towns and the lives of the people they should be defending. The colonists also take umbrage with the British government's invitation for other parties to strike against the colonists. These include German mercenaries, American Indians, and slaves. By virtue of all this, King George III has "abdicated Government" in the colonies, or renounced his right to rule.

Objections against the British and Conclusion

The final paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence reiterate the Continental Congress's disapproval of King George III. The colonists' continual efforts to get the king and Parliament to address colonial concerns "have been answered only by repeated injury." This behavior marks the king as nothing more than a "Tyrant ... unfit to be the ruler of a free people." This statement is followed by a condemnation of the British citizenry as a whole. They have ignored the colonists' repeated appeals "to their native justice and magnanimity [generosity]." The relationship between colonist and native British citizen has been downgraded from that of brotherhood to one of mere acquaintance.

The Declaration of Independence ends with an explicit statement of separation of the American colonies from the British government. As "Free and Independent States" the colonies have complete control over their economy, their laws, and their international relationships. The colonies are no longer subjects of the British crown, nor its legislative government. They are on their own.

The document ends with the signatures of 56 members of the Continental Congress.


Purpose and Audience

The Declaration of Independence is often mischaracterized as the document that officially separated the American colonies from Great Britain. In reality, the legal status of the colonies was changed from that of a colonial subject to an independent nation on July 2, 1776. That is the date when the Continental Congress voted in favor of separating from the British Empire. The declaration ratified on July 4 and made public on July 5 is Congress's justification of the decision to secede.

The Declaration of Independence was written for three distinct audiences: the British government, other international leaders, and the American public.

  • The British Government: The Declaration of Independence was Great Britain's official notice that the colonies would no longer follow British rules and regulations. The colonies had been ignoring British law for quite some time before the declaration's publication, but this document made it official. It was also an attempt at making the rebellion against Great Britain legal. Declaring one's independence from a sovereign, or all–powerful, state (such as Great Britain) is generally considered an act of treason, which is punishable by jail time or even death. The congressmen who approved Richard Henry Lee's resolution for independence on July 2 knew this. The Declaration of Independence is not a legal document. It contains no laws, nor can it be cited as a precedent within a court of law. But it argues Congress's acts are legal based on the theories of natural law. King George III and Parliament didn't buy that argument and still thought the colonies' rebellion treasonous. More than a few of the declaration's signers were harassed and even jailed for their approval of independence.
  • Other International Leaders: Skirmishes had broken out for more than a year before the resolution proposing independence was brought to the Continental Congress. Its members were well aware the colonies didn't have the money, the manpower, or the supplies to defeat the British on their own. They needed support from wealthier and more powerful nations, such as France and Spain. French leaders saw value in helping the newly minted enemy of their enemy. But they made it clear in 1775 they wouldn't even consider helping the American colonies unless political ties to Great Britain were completely severed. That's why the declaration says the newly independent nation has "full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, [and] establish Commerce." The Declaration of Independence is meant to assure potential allies (and Great Britain's international enemies) that no reconciliation with the British government is contemplated.
  • The American Public: The idea of independence was fairly new in the colonies when the Declaration of Independence was written in June and July of 1776. Many people had been unhappy with parliamentary rule since the late 1760s, particularly in regard to taxation on British goods. Yet very few considered independence to be an option until January 1776. That's when Thomas Paine published Common Sense, his treatise on the tyranny of King George and the unsuitability of a monarchical government. Paine was the first person to bring the idea of independence to the public sphere. He did so by writing in a way everyone could understand. Yet there were still naysayers, and those who worried the colonies couldn't survive without Great Britain's support. The Declaration of Independence capitalizes on Paine's ideas about natural law. It marries them to a list of wrongs King George III wrought on the colonies. This approach was a way of convincing colonial citizens independence was the right move. The Continental Congress wanted colonists, especially those in the Continental Army, to feel as if they were supporting the cause of America by supporting independence. It is much easier to fight for something when you believe in it, and the goal of the declaration was to make people believe.

Structure, Tone, and Rhetoric

The Declaration of Independence has three distinct parts, though some scholars subdivide it even further into five. The first part consists of the introduction and the preamble, which are the first and second paragraphs, respectively. The second part is the list of grievances. Some historians argue the grievances continue until near the end with the colonists' objections to the behavior and attitudes of the average British citizen. The third part is the conclusion, which is the last paragraph of the document. This structure lends itself to a deductive argument.

Deductive arguments begin with a factual statement, called a premise. Logic is used to build upon that premise to come to a conclusion. As long as the premise is true, so is the conclusion. The Declaration of Independence has three premises:

  1. "All men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."
  2. "Governments are instituted" "to secure these rights" and derive their powers from the governed.
  3. When governments become "destructive of these ends," people have the right to "abolish" them and "institute new" governments.

Any of these premises was and are grounds for criticism. Most notably at the time was the major premise that people have the right to rebel against their government if the government is not protecting the rights of its citizens. Many British citizens argued that other remedies remained, including appealing to Parliament. Of course, the colonials' earlier appeal removed that option from the table.

By the late 1700s, the second premise was widely accepted largely because of Enlightenment philosophers such as Jean–Jacques Rousseau, upon whose Social Contract Jefferson and other founding fathers relied heavily in designing the principles for American education. Although most political leaders in both the United States and Europe were at least nominally Christian, those who continued to argue in 1776 that the king held divine authority or was appointed by God were few indeed. Still, many British citizens felt the divine right of kings instinctively, and other monarchies recognized the danger of permitting the notion of self–rule to gain a foothold among their people.

The first premise, of course, remains problematic. Neither the United States nor other democracies globally have defined "equal" or "unalienable rights" or broadened the understanding of "men" to their citizenry's content. It was argued at the time and it continues to be debated today.

Still, as the validity of the major premises are discussed at length, the minor premise that King George III is violating the rights of the people is difficult to ignore. The list of grievances serves as a statement of fact, from which it can be reasoned that King George III isn't fit to rule the colonies. Since the people obviously have no remedies in Parliament, the natural conclusion is that the colonies should rebel against the British government and create their own. This conclusion is hard to dispute when the facts are all laid out. For this reason, both then and today, many detractors start by denying the major premise and insisting all men aren't created equal.

A literary tone is the attitude of the author toward his or her subject or audience. The words he chooses indicate how he feels. Jefferson is methodical when laying out his justification for leaving the British Empire. The language he chooses gives the Declaration of Independence a stately and dignified tone. For the most part, Jefferson's tone is unbiased and factual, but his anger at the king and Parliament becomes apparent toward the end. This shift is most noticeable while reading the list of grievances. At first, Jefferson uses neutral words to accuse the king of wrongdoings—he "refuse[s]," he "forbid[s]," he "endeavor[s]," and he "affect[s]." His tone changes once he gets to the section enumerating grievances about the war. The king is now someone who "plunder[s]," "ravage[s]," and "destroy[s]." Jefferson's characterization makes the king seem like an evil villain, especially when his partnership with "the merciless Indian Savages" is mentioned. King George's behavior during the Revolutionary War so angers Jefferson that he can no longer hide his fury. He dials it back for the concluding paragraphs, but never fully returns to the dignified tone at the outset of the document. The angrier tone toward the end is useful for Jefferson's cause. The pledge of "Lives ... Fortunes and ... sacred Honor" to the cause of independence rouses similar feelings of brotherhood and colonial duty in the reader.

In addition to his considerable political acumen, Jefferson was known as a gifted writer. His interest in and talent for rhetoric, or command of language, is legendary. In 1786 he wrote an essay about "the harmony of English prose and laws to those who make it." Jefferson paid just as much attention to the rhythm and timing of the words in the Declaration of Independence as to the meaning of the document itself. The outcome is a text that reads as if it is a piece of music. The preamble flows when read aloud. Each clause (or part) of each sentence moves seamlessly to the next. The ending thought ties each clause together in both style and meaning. Though Jefferson was notoriously shy and a subpar public speaker, his writing is quite fluid when read aloud.

Influence of Enlightenment Philosophy

Thomas Jefferson claimed not to have referred to outside texts during his writing of the Declaration of Independence, but he was very familiar with the work and philosophies of John Locke. Locke was one of the luminaries of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Enlightenment thinkers like Locke challenged how people traditionally thought about God, nature, and humanity, pushing aside religious beliefs, superstition, and tradition for logic and reason.

In his Second Treatise of Government (1689) Locke wrote all people are born with inalienable rights, or rights that can't be taken away. That is in part what makes them equal. According to Locke, these rights are life, liberty, and property, which Jefferson turned into "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Some scholars contend Jefferson merely substituted "happiness" for Locke's "property." Others contend Jefferson made this change because property is indeed alienable, or able to be taken away. The right to happiness, on the other hand, is endowed by God and can't be taken away. This is also the case for its predecessors in the declaration, life and liberty. The inclusion of "happiness" over "property" also speaks to a much wider cross–section of colonial citizens. Not everyone in the colonies owned property nor had the means to do so. There is no monetary cost for happiness, which broadens the appeal of Jefferson's argument.

Jefferson also adopted Jean–Jacques Rousseau's theory of a social contract, either explicit or implicit, between rulers and the people they rule. Essentially, social contract theory argues that people are free to act as they will while respecting the rights of others. As the population grows, one's personal freedom decreases and societies form. When societies are small, everyone has a say in how things are run. As societies grow larger, it is necessary to delegate decisions to individuals representing the whole. That's a government. The role of government is to protect the natural rights of its citizenry. If those rights are violated, the citizens have the right to abandon the old government and form a new one. Jefferson's entire argument as to the legality of an independent America comes directly from Enlightenment theory; specifically the principles outlined by Rousseau and Locke. Both form the basis of much of the governmental structure and purpose of the United States.

The Declaration as Propaganda

The Declaration of Independence is often viewed as an informative text. That's because it was used to tell people around the world about the American colonies' decision to leave the British Empire. But it is better characterized as a piece of propaganda, or material used to help or harm a cause. The word propaganda often has a negative connotation, or emotional association, because many people assume the content of propaganda materials is false, which is not always the case. The purpose of propaganda, which can take the form of an essay, a poster, or speech, is to persuade. At home, the Continental Congress was trying to persuade citizens who were uncomfortable with the idea of independence that this was the right thing to do. More public support meant more money could be spent on the war. More men and women would be willing to support the war effort, either by joining the Continental Army or rationing goods at home. They might even allow soldiers to camp on private property.

The problem was many colonists still felt loyal to the crown. They believed Parliament was manipulating King George III into enslaving the colonies for its own nefarious purposes. In reality, it was almost the opposite. King George III was often hasty in asserting his authority through the use of force and repressive laws. On the other hand, members of Parliament were on the whole more conservative in their responses. But the colonists didn't know that. They thought Parliament was the problem.

To gain full support for independence and for the ongoing war, the Continental Congress needed to turn people against King George III. That's why every line in the list of grievances starts with "He." "[H]e has refused," "[h]e has forbidden, [h]e has obstructed," puts all the blame for the "injuries and usurpations" against the colonists on the king. It's effective if a little misleading. Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy—its legislative body is responsible for making and passing laws, which is Parliament, not the king. Parliament passed restrictive trade laws and import taxes. Parliament granted Quebec the right to maintain its former system of government. Parliament is never mentioned by name in the Declaration of Independence, but rather as "others," as in "He has combined with others to subject us to ...". Though Parliament is alluded to, it is only the king who is explicitly mentioned. This tactic worked in the end, persuading many colonists independence was the best path forward.

Evolution of the Declaration's Importance and Impact

The list of grievances against King George III was the most important part of the Declaration of Independence at the time of its writing. It provided proof of the British government's misdeeds, which was necessary to justify the colonies' decision to separate from Great Britain. This is the section that was most widely discussed during the Revolutionary War Era, followed by the last paragraph, which explicitly states the colonies' secession. Some modern scholars argue the list of grievances is the weakest point of the Declaration of Independence. King George III was following the practices of his predecessors. He didn't mastermind all the policies and plans the colonists found so reprehensible, yet he is assigned all the blame.

The most well–known part of the Declaration of Independence today is the preamble. It begins, "We hold these truths to be self–evident ... ". Then it continues, "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 section was largely ignored until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Then abolitionists cited it as just cause for ending slavery. Since then it has been invoked by leaders such as President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) and Martin Luther King Jr (1929–1968), one of the foremost civil rights leaders of the 1960s.

The Declaration of Independence as a whole wasn't considered to be a particularly important document until the early 19th century. It was considered important following the War of 1812 (1812–1815), which saw the United States and Great Britain at odds over maritime, or sea, rights. Many people once suspected the declaration was nothing more than anti–British, pro–French propaganda. After the War of 1812, they understood just how important independence was to the former colonies and how Great Britain had previously taken advantage of them. The 50–year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence occurred in 1826. By then all Americans, not just abolitionists, were citing its words as inspiration for workers' and women's rights movements. Since then it has been referenced and outright copied in dozens of declarations by other oppressed states and peoples.

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