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How the Declaration of Independence Birthed the American Nation

Declaration of independence painting, founding fathers
This painting by John Trumbull shows the Founding Fathers with the Declaration of Independence. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Abraham Lincoln knew exactly why the Declaration of Independence was such a profoundly important political document.

"I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence," said Lincoln in an improvised speech on the eve of his first inauguration. "I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time."

Lincoln was one of many American leaders and civil rights activists who challenged the nation to live up to its founding principles as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

But there's much more to the Declaration of Independence than that one unforgettable sentence. In 1,337 words, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the Continental Congress made the case to their fellow Americans and the world that they had suffered abuse and mistreatment under King George III and that the British parliament intended to take away their freedoms. Colonists had no choice but to cut ties with Great Britain and declare themselves "free and independent states."

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What's Inside the Declaration of Independence?

The Declaration of Independence is organized into five main sections. First comes the introduction, a paragraph-long sentence that sets the stage for the philosophical arguments to come and places the call for independence in the broader "course of human events" as "necessary" under the "laws of Nature."

the Declaration of Independence
In 1820, the Declaration of Independence was already showing signs of age. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams commissioned printer William J. Stone to make a full-size copperplate engraving to print copies. The 1823 Stone engraving is the most frequently reproduced version of the Declaration.
National Archives

Then comes the preamble, which begins with those immortal words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal... " and manages, in just five sentences (202 words), to lay out the entire American philosophy of government. Namely that "just" governments derive their powers "from the consent of the governed," and that the people have the right to organize their government based on principles that "shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

The third and longest section of the Declaration is the list of grievances against George III, who Jefferson boldly labels a "tyrant." Modeled after much older founding English documents like the Magna Carta (1215) and the Petition of Right (1628), this lengthy indictment of the king's various abuses against the natural rights of the colonists lays down the "facts" of the case for independence.

The next, much shorter section extends the king's indictment to the British people, who had ignored the pleas of their "common kindred" and been "deaf to the voice of justice." For that reason, the Americans had no choice but to consider their former countrymen "enemies in war, in peace friends."

The final section or conclusion wraps up the colonists' case in largely formulaic language common to political documents. But it ends with an emotional zinger that rings through the ages: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

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One Document, Four Audiences

The Declaration of Independence was written for several audiences with distinct political stakes in the fledgling nation, explains John Kaminski, director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The first audience was the American people, who remained divided between Loyalists and Patriots. The Declaration argued the cause of independence was just and that the price of freedom was one that Americans should be willing to pay.

The second audience was Great Britain, both its people and its government. As its name implies, the Declaration of Independence wasn't asking for permission to sever ties with the mother country — it was declaring independence, i.e. "this is happening and this is why we're doing it."

The third audience was less obvious and consisted of every country that had a beef with England. Kaminski says that France and Spain in particular had "great grievances" against Great Britain and expected to go to war with King George any day.

"One of the things that France and Spain were worried about was to enter into some kind of military alliance or commercial alliance with the Americans only to watch them go back and reconcile with Great Britain," says Kaminski. "France and Spain wanted to see a severance, and the Declaration of Independence was an announcement to them we're no longer with Great Britain. It's over."

The fourth audience was posterity. The Founding Fathers knew they were writing a somewhat radical document that had the potential to launch an entirely new kind of democratic enterprise.

"They were writing to us in the future,"says Kaminski. "They wanted to show what motivated them and why they took this drastic action."

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If 'All Men Are Created Equal,' What About Slavery?

To modern readers, this is one of the most glaring inconsistencies of the Declaration, that the Founders could claim that "all men are created equal" while allowing the practice of slavery and denying basic civil rights to black people and women.

To 18th-century readers, though, there wouldn't have been such a conflict, says Kaminski. They would have understood that Jefferson was writing philosophically. In other words, all men and women are created equal in the eyes of God, even if they're not equal here on Earth.

Jefferson might have also been speaking on a societal level, comparing Americans as "equal" to "all [other] men." At least that's what Jefferson was getting at in the introduction when he asserted that "among the powers of the Earth," the colonists occupied a "separate and equal station."

Interestingly, 19th-century Confederate secessionists took Jefferson at his word, believing that the Founders meant that all men, including free and enslaved blacks, were created equal, and that's why the South had to split from the Union.

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Was Jefferson the Sole Author of the Declaration?

On June 7, 1776, a "Committee of Five" was tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence: Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Robert Livingston. Once they agreed on the substance of the document, they debated over who should write the first draft.

Jefferson wanted Adams to do it, but the Massachusetts delegate refused in his typical colorful fashion. In an 1822 letter, Adams recounted how he convinced Jefferson to do it.

"Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can."

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What Was Cut From the Declaration of Independence?

Jefferson's original draft, written over three weeks holed up in his Philadelphia boarding house, went through heavy edits by the Continental Congress. In Jefferson's draft of the preamble, he held these truths to be "sacred and undeniable," not "self-evident." And the Founders added that shoutout to "divine Providence" in the final line.

But the biggest and most glaring change was the deletion of an entire lengthy paragraph about the Atlantic slave trade. Jefferson, who one scholar calls "maddeningly complex" on the issue of slavery, berated King George for refusing some colonists' calls to rein in or stop the slave trade from Africa.

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself," wrote Jefferson in his original draft, "violating it's [sic] most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."

Adams particularly loved this section of Jefferson's draft, but knew it would end up on the chopping block.

"I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose," wrote Adams.

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A Declaration Heard Round the World

The Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776, as is often thought. The Second Continental Congress voted to approve the resolution to legally separate from Great Britain on July 2. But the document was printed on July 4, so that's the date on the Declaration.

As Lincoln said, the Declaration of Independence is more than an American document; it's a declaration of liberty shared by all free people. Since 1776, there have been 120 declarations of independence issued by nations and other sovereign peoples.

Jefferson hoped that this would be true when he wrote a friend in 1795: "This ball of liberty...is now so well in motion that it will roll round the globe. At least the enlightened part of it, for light & liberty go together."

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