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Analysis of the Declaration of Independence

Updated on August 16, 2014

The Declaration of Independence is divided into five sections: (l) the preamble; (2) a succinct statement of underlying political theories; (3) a series of charges against George III of Britain; (4) a general description of unsuccessful attempts to secure redress of grievances within the empire; and (5) an assertion of the independent status of the 13 states.

Interest over the years has centered primarily on the second and third sections.

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Submitted as evidence that 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," the list of charges in section three took up the most space and seems to have been regarded as the most important part of the document by the men who adopted it. These charges, 18 in all, were inspired by and patterned after the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the earlier lists of rights and grievances included in the several state papers of the Stamp Act Congress and the First and Second Continental Congress, Jefferson's own recital of "usurpations" in his influential pamphlet A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) and his preamble to the Virginia constitution, and George Mason's Declaration of Rights from the same constitution.

All of the charges referred to actions taken by agencies or representatives of the British government during the reign of George III (from 1760), and, although Parliament had been responsible for those actions that the colonists found most offensive, every grievance was charged directly to tl1e King. This fact has led many historians to underestimate the importance of these grievances to the men of the Revolution, and a few have even argued that most of them did not constitute bona fide issues. But a careful scrutiny of the pre-revolutionary period reveals that the list of grievances is an accurate and inclusive statement of the substantive issues of the Revolution as they were seen by the dominant political group in the colonies at the time the declaration was adopted. By placing such a heavy burden of responsibility on the King, Jefferson and his colleagues were making the declaration consistent with the popular theory that the British Empire was a coalition of several independent and sovereign states bound together only through their mutual allegiance to the crown and having no legal or constitutional connection with Parliament.

Political Philosophy

If, however, it was the list of grievances that seemed most significant to the men of the Revolution, it has been the political philosophy underlying the declaration that has chiefly interested later generations of Americans.

Among the major components of that philosophy that have never been subjects for serious debate in American social and political life are the familiar ideas:

(1) that there are "laws of nature," which transcend and provide an objective standard against which the laws of men can be measured;

(2) that all men have certain natural or "unalienable rights";

(3) that the most important of those rights are "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness";

(4) that the function of government is to protect those rights;

(5) that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed" and depend, therefore, on a contract between the governors and the governed, in which the governors promise to perform the legitimate functions of government in accord with the desires of the governed; and

(6) that whenever governments cease to perform their proper functions, and governors seek, instead of protecting the people's rights and securing "their Safety and Happiness," to "reduce them under absolute Despotism," the people have a right-indeed, an obligation-to revolt, "to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security." What has been especially controversial is the meaning of the phrase "all men are created equal." The controversy has largely centered on whether the state of equality referred to persisted after men had left the state of nature and entered into civil society and, if so, in precisely what sense and to what extent they were equal and whether that equality applied to all men or only to certain categories of men. Although the dominant interpretation of this phrase has varied from generation to generation and from group to group within American society, it has had a more profound appeal than any other clause in the declaration. Social and political reformers from the abolitionists in the decades before the Civil War through the advocates of women's suffrage in the early 20th century to the post-World War II civil rights proponents have found in it both a goal and an inspiration, with the result that the concept of equality in American life has come to be ever more broadly defined.

Like the grievances against the crown, these basic political concepts were not invented by Jefferson and his fellows for the occasion but were drawn from the rich heritage of the political culture of western Europe and, more particularly, from the Anglo-American tradition. They could be found in some part in the writings of classical thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero; of 17th century legal and political theorists like Sir Edward Coke, Thomas Hooker, John Milton, and, especially, John Locke; of 18th century British opposition writers such as Viscount Bolingbroke, John Trenchard, and Thomas Gordon; and of Continental Enlightenment thinkers including Samuel Pufendorf, Emerich de Vattel, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, and Montesquieu.

The political concepts of the declaration represented, in Jefferson's own words of a half century later, an obvious "expression of the American mind," a successful "harmonizing [of the] sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney." Precisely because these concepts rested on such a broad foundation, they could indeed serve as unifying and "self-evident" truths for the men of the Revolutionary generation ; and because those truths were so "self-evident," the declaration itself could become a document of continuing relevance to the American people.


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