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The Declaration of Independence | Study Guide

Thomas Jefferson

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The Declaration of Independence | Quotes


We hold these truths to be self–evident, that all men are created equal.

The notion that all men (people) are created equal is based on the ideas of the Enlightenment philosophers, such as John Locke. They theorized God created all people with the same rights and privileges. This means no one person, such as a king, has the right to rule anyone else without the consent of those ruled.


Among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Thomas Jefferson writes each man is endowed with these basic rights and they can't be taken away. The Declaration of Independence justifies colonial separation from Great Britain by claiming King George III prevents the colonists from fulfilling these rights, making him an unfit ruler.


Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.

Social contract theory says a government is only allowed to govern with the permission of the governed. That means the colonists allow King George III and Parliament to rule them. If the king and Parliament do a bad job of governing, then the colonists are free to choose another form of government. This line of thinking is the Continental Congress's way of trying to avoid charges of treason (the criminal betrayal of one's government). Declaring independence from Great Britain may be illegal in the eyes of the British government, but it is allowed by natural law.


Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.

The Continental Congress realizes the enormity of its decision to leave the British Empire. It's not a decision colonial leaders take lightly. Until just a few months prior, most colonists wanted to repair the relationship with Great Britain, not break it entirely. The king's unwillingness to negotiate peace and his insistence on complete submission gave them no other option.


The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations.

This sentence leads to the list of 27 grievances against King George III. This was the most important part of the declaration, save its statement of separation from Great Britain, when it was first published in 1776. American colonists were more likely to side with the patriot cause if they were given proof as to why it was necessary. The grievances are that proof.


Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

The Declaration of Independence was far from the first time the colonists made their grievances against the British government known. For years they had protested various taxes and acts of legislation because they didn't have equal representation in Parliament. Sometimes it seemed as if progress was being made when a tax or law was repealed, but it was always reinstated later.


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.

A tyrant is a cruel and oppressive leader. Thomas Jefferson walks a fine line here by calling King George III a prince rather than a tyrant, but attributing to him the behaviors associated with a tyrant. But this characterization went a long way in portraying the king as the enemy of the colonists. This is what the Continental Congress wanted everyone to believe so they could gain support in favor of their decision to break from Great Britain.


Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren.

Colonists also have grievances against the British citizenry, namely that they knew how the government was treating the colonies yet didn't do anything about it. Thomas Jefferson's original draft included much stronger language against the British. But several people in Congress thought it imperative to maintain at least a few positive relationships across the Atlantic Ocean.


These United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.

This language comes directly from Richard Henry Lee's resolution for independence introduced to Congress on June 7, 1776. This statement was absent from Thomas Jefferson's original draft. He was persuaded to add it during the two days of congressional debates about the declaration on July 3 and 4. It was the right choice. This sentence plainly states the colonies' status, which is important for readers at home and in Great Britain. It is also important for leaders of other countries who may want to form alliances or do business with the colonists.


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.

This passage is another signal to international leaders. The Continental Congress knew it couldn't defeat Great Britain in battle unless it had the help of a much stronger and wealthier country. Though presented as a list of rights inherent to any free state, it also serves as a call for help to potential allies and a promise that debts will be honored.


We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The Declaration of Independence isn't a legal document. It can't be cited as precedent in a court of law, nor did it create any laws. It is a public justification of actions already taken. According to the British government, those actions were illegal. The Continental Congress knew that. The last sentence of the declaration is the acknowledgment of the great risks they were taking by even being associated with American independence. Their signatures are a show of support for their actions. If one is to be accused of treason, they all will be.

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