Declaration of Independence
Since its creation in 1776, the Declaration of Independence has been considered the single most important expression of the ideals of U.S. democracy. As a statement of the fundamental principles of the United States, the Declaration is an enduring reminder of the country's commitment to popular government and equal rights for all.
The Declaration of Independence is a product of the early days of the Revolutionary War. On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress—the legislature of the American colonies—voted for independence from Great Britain. It then appointed a committee of five—
JOHN ADAMS, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, THOMAS JEFFERSON, ROGER SHERMAN, and Robert R. Livingston—to draft a formal statement of independence designed to influence public opinion at home and abroad. Because of his reputation as an eloquent and forceful writer, Jefferson was assigned the task of creating the document, and the final product is almost entirely his own work. The Congress did not approve all of Jefferson's original draft, however, rejecting most notably his denunciation of the slave trade. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia were not yet ready to extend the notion of inalienable rights to African Americans.
On July 4, 1776, the day of birth for the new country, the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS approved the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the people living in the American colonies. The Declaration served a number of purposes for the newly formed United States. With regard to the power politics of the day, it functioned as a propaganda statement intended to build support for American independence abroad, particularly in France, from which the Americans hoped to have support in their struggle for independence. Similarly, it served as a clear message of intention to the British. Even more important for the later Republic of the United States, it functioned as a statement of governmental ideals.
In keeping with its immediate diplomatic purposes, most of the Declaration consists of a list of 30 grievances against acts of the British monarch George III. Many of these were traditional and legitimate grievances under British CONSTITUTIONAL LAW. The Declaration firmly announces that British actions had established "an absolute Tyranny over these States." Britain's acts of despotism, according to the Declaration's list, included taxation of Americans without representation in Parliament; imposition of standing armies on American communities; establishment of the military above the civil power; obstruction of the right to trial by jury; interference with the operation of colonial legislatures; and cutting off of trade with the rest of the world. The Declaration ends with the decisive resolution that "these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."
The first sentences of the document and their statement of political ideals have remained the Declaration's most memorable and influential section. Among these sentences are the following:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That
to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.
Ever since their creation, these ideas have guided the development of U.S. government, including the creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. The concepts of equal and inalienable rights for all, limited government, popular consent, and freedom to rebel have had a lasting effect on U.S. law and politics.
Scholars have long debated the relative importance of the different sources Jefferson used for his ideas in the Declaration. Most agree that the natural rights philosophy of English philosopher JOHN LOCKE greatly influenced Jefferson's composition of the Declaration. In particular, Locke advanced the ideas that a just government derives its legitimacy and power from the consent of the governed, that people possess inalienable rights that no legitimate government may take away, and that the people have the right and duty to overthrow a government that violates their rights. Jefferson also paralleled Locke in his identification of three major rights—the rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"—though the last of his three is a change from Locke's right to "property."
Jefferson himself minimized the Declaration's contribution to political philosophy. In a letter that he wrote in 1825, 50 years after the Declaration was signed, he described the document as "an appeal to the tribunal of the world." Its object, he wrote, was
[n]ot to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. 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, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.
Although the Declaration of Independence stands with the Constitution as a founding document of the United States of America, its position in U.S. law is much less certain than that of the Constitution. The Declaration has been recognized as the founding act of law establishing the United States as a sovereign and independent nation, and Congress has placed it at the beginning of the U.S. Code, under the heading "The Organic Laws of the United States of America." The Supreme Court, however, has generally not considered it a part of the organic law of the country. For example, although the Declaration mentions a right to rebellion, this right, particularly with regard to violent rebellion, has not been recognized by the Supreme Court and other branches of the federal government. The most notable failure to uphold this right occurred when the Union put down the rebellion by the Southern Confederacy in the Civil War.
Despite its secondary authority, many later reform movements have quoted the Declaration in support of their cause, including movements for universal suffrage, ABOLITION of SLAVERY, women's rights, and CIVIL RIGHTS for African Americans. Many have argued that this document influenced the passage and wording of such important developments in U.S. law and government as the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments, which banned slavery and sought to make African Americans equal citizens. In this way, the Declaration of Independence remains the most outstanding example of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of U.S. law.