Adopted on July 4, 1776, by the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence is the founding document of the United States of America. In addition to the Congress’s official explanation of “the causes which impel” Americans to declare their independence from Great Britain, the document also identifies the founders’ political philosophy of limited government dedicated to the protection of individual rights.
On June 11, 1776, anticipating a vote on Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee’s resolution calling for independence, Congress appointed a five‐man committee to draft a declaration justifying that momentous step. The committee members were John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert Livingston of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Jefferson was assigned the task of drafting the document.
Late in life, Jefferson wrote that the purpose of the Declaration was “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify” American independence. In drafting the document, he sought to express “the harmonizing sentiments of the day,” the views of Americans’ rights, and their violation by the British government—subjects, he maintained, on which “all American whigs thought alike.” “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.”
In making the case for American independence, Jefferson employed the language of 18th‐century logic and rhetoric. The argument of the Declaration is in the form of a syllogism, with a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Jefferson supplemented those basic components of the syllogism with corollary principles that reinforced the overall argument.
The second paragraph, which states the major premise, posed the greatest difficulty for Jefferson as the many changes he marked in his “original rough draught” attest. “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable,” he originally wrote, “that all men are created equal & independent, and from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness.” After Jefferson substituted the more precise term self‐evident for the phrase sacred & undeniable, he made further changes suggested by Franklin and Adams, resulting in the familiar language: “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, & the pursuit of happiness.”
The concept that all men equally enjoyed certain natural rights was one of the “harmonizing sentiments of the day” to which Jefferson later alluded; it reflected the influence on Jefferson and other American Patriots of a variety of sources, including 17th‐ and 18th‐century Enlightenment treatises and English radical Whig writings, particularly John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. Although much of the language in the second paragraph of the Declaration closely paraphrases passages from Locke’s work, Jefferson departed from Locke’s identification of “life, liberty, and property” as the three fundamental natural rights. Contrary to what some modern scholars have asserted, however, in substituting pursuit of happiness for property, Jefferson was not devaluing property rights. Rather, following the ideas of the Swiss natural rights philosopher Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, he understood that more fundamental than property itself was the right to pursue happiness, which included the rights of acquiring, using, and disposing of property, as many early American state constitutions affirmed.
The rest of the second paragraph identified the other “self‐evident truths” that constituted the major premise of the Declaration’s argument: “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”; and “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and institute new government.” Those principles also derived from English radical Whig philosophy, and particularly from John Locke’s Second Treatise, which identified the protection of individual rights as the essential purpose of government and also justified revolution against an existing government when it violated the ends for which it was established. Jefferson added the corollary principle that the right of revolution was not to be exercised by a people for “light and transient causes,” but only when “a long train of abuses and usurpations … evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism.” In such a case, however, “it is their right, it is their duty,” to throw off such a despotic government and “to provide new guards for their future security.”
The main body of the Declaration provides the minor premise of its argument: a long list of George III’s “unremitting injuries and usurpations,” showing the King’s design to establish “absolute tyranny” over the American colonies. The first 12 counts against the King concerned abuse of executive power, including such offenses as dissolving colonial assemblies, making judges dependent on his will, keeping standing armies, and making the military superior to the civil power. The 13th count charged that the King had given his assent to various “acts of pretended legislation” passed by the British Parliament, including efforts to tax the colonists without their consent and to restrict their trade. Counts 14 through 18 charged that the King had “abdicated government” by declaring the colonies out of his protection and had made war on the colonies using not only British troops, but “foreign mercenaries,” “merciless Indian savages,” and the Americans’ own black slaves. The 19th and final count against the King related the fact that, “in every stage of these oppressions,” the Americans had petitioned for redress, but their “repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injuries.” The King, therefore, was shown to be “a tyrant” and “unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free.”
Although many of those charges against George III were recognized in English constitutional law as tyrannical acts that would justify rebellion against a king, others were peculiar to the American quarrel with the British government, such as the complaints against Parliament taxing the colonists and regulating their trade. Significantly, the Declaration did not mention the British Parliament by name; it voiced these complaints in terms of the King conspiring “with others” to subject Americans to “a jurisdiction foreign to our constitutions and unacknowledged by our laws.”
When Congress debated the text of Jefferson’s draft on July 2–4, 1776, it made many changes in wording and two major deletions: a clause that blamed King George for slavery and the slave trade, and a clause that denounced the British people as “unfeeling brethren.” With a few additional changes in the wording of the final paragraph—including the incorporation of the words of Lee’s resolution declaring that the colonies “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states”—Congress concluded the Declaration’s argument for American independence.
The 56 men who signed the Declaration pledged their “lives,” their “fortunes,” and their “sacred honor,” and many of them paid the price for this courageous act of principle that British authorities viewed as treason. Although Benjamin Franklin allegedly had encouraged his fellow delegates to sign the document by quipping, “If we don’t hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately,” none of the signers was executed. Some, however, were captured by the British military and held as prisoners, including three of the four signers from South Carolina. Several died of wounds received or hardships suffered during the Revolutionary War, and many had their homes and property destroyed or lost their wives or children. Half of the signers held public office in the United States—Adams and Jefferson as president and others as members of Congress, governors, or state legislators—and a number of them helped adopt the U.S. Constitution.
Late in life, Adams and Jefferson took special pride in their roles in drawing up the Declaration of Independence. They kept track of the surviving signers, realizing they were among the last. Their final words concerned the document—Adams proclaimed, “Jefferson still lives,” whereas Jefferson asked, “Is it the Fourth?”—on the day they both died, July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration’s adoption by Congress.
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