What the Declaration of Independence Said and Meant

What the Declaration of Independence Said and Meant

by ads Converclick on July 04, 2024

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in American history. It not only announced the colonies' break from British rule but also laid the foundation for the nation's principles of freedom, equality, and democracy. This comprehensive article explores what the Declaration of Independence said, what it meant at the time, and its enduring legacy.

The Adoption of the American Theory of Government

The Declaration of Independence officially adopted the American theory of government: "First Come Rights; Then Comes Government to Secure These Rights." This principle, drawn from the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, emphasized that natural rights are inherent and not granted by governments. Governments are created to protect these pre-existing rights.

The Context of the Declaration

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. This act constituted high treason against the Crown, and every signatory would have been executed as traitors if captured by the British. The Declaration was not just a statement of intent but a legal document justifying the colonies' actions and explaining why they were not truly traitors. It served as an indictment of the Crown and Parliament, detailing a "long train of abuses and usurpations."

The Preamble: A Statement of Principles

The preamble of the Declaration is perhaps its most famous part. It asserts several key principles:

Equality and Inalienable Rights

"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 and the pursuit of Happiness."

This line has become iconic, symbolizing the belief in equality and the inherent rights of all individuals. It acknowledges that rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable and cannot be surrendered, even if one consents to do so.

The Purpose of Government

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

This statement outlines the fundamental purpose of government: to protect the natural rights of individuals. It emphasizes that governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, not from divine right or hereditary privilege.

The Right to Alter or Abolish Government

"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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

This principle asserts that the people have the right to change or overthrow a government that fails to protect their rights. It underscores the revolutionary nature of the Declaration, providing a justification for the American colonies' decision to seek independence.

The List of Grievances

Following the preamble, the Declaration lists specific grievances against King George III. These grievances illustrate the systematic abuses and usurpations that justified the colonies' break from British rule. Some of these grievances later influenced the provisions of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The Influence of Enlightenment Thinkers

The ideas expressed in the Declaration were heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. John Locke's theory of natural rights and the social contract was particularly influential. Locke argued that individuals have fundamental rights to life, liberty, and property and that governments exist to protect these rights. If a government fails to do so, the people have the right to overthrow it.

The Role of the Declaration in Abolition and Civil Rights

The Declaration's assertion that "all men are created equal" had profound implications for the abolitionist movement and later civil rights struggles. Although the United States did not immediately abolish slavery, the principles outlined in the Declaration provided a moral foundation for abolitionists.

Early Abolition Efforts

The public affirmation of the Declaration's principles led to the gradual abolition of slavery in several states and the Northwest Territory. For example, Rhode Island's gradual abolition law of 1784 declared that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, deeming slavery repugnant to these principles.

The Nineteenth-Century Abolition Movement

In the nineteenth century, the Declaration became a lynchpin of the moral and constitutional arguments of abolitionists. Figures like Abraham Lincoln frequently referenced the Declaration to highlight the inconsistency of slavery with American values. Lincoln's famous "apple of gold" metaphor described the Declaration as the core principle of liberty, with the Constitution and the Union as the protective frame.

The Declaration and the Constitution

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are distinct yet interconnected documents. The Declaration outlines the philosophical foundation of American government, while the Constitution establishes the framework for its operation. The Declaration's principles of natural rights and government by consent underpin the Constitution's design.

The Role of Natural Rights

The Constitution is based on the premise that individuals possess natural rights that predate the formation of government. The Bill of Rights, added to the Constitution in 1791, enumerates specific protections for these rights, reflecting the Declaration's influence.

The Consent of the Governed

The Declaration's assertion that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed is reflected in the Constitution's establishment of a representative democracy. This principle ensures that governmental power is exercised with the people's consent, through their elected representatives.

The Declaration's Enduring Legacy

The Declaration of Independence remains a powerful symbol of American values and aspirations. Its principles continue to inspire movements for freedom and equality both within the United States and around the world.

The Civil Rights Movement

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. invoked the Declaration's promise of equality. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, referenced the Declaration as a "promissory note" to which every American was entitled.

Contemporary Relevance

Today, the Declaration's principles continue to resonate. Debates about individual rights, government power, and social justice often return to the foundational ideas articulated in the Declaration. It serves as a reminder that the struggle for freedom and equality is ongoing and that the principles of the Declaration remain as relevant as ever.


The Declaration of Independence is more than a historical document; it is a statement of enduring principles that continue to shape the American experience. Its assertion of natural rights, the purpose of government, and the right of the people to alter or abolish oppressive regimes laid the groundwork for the nation's development. As we celebrate Independence Day, it is important to reflect on what the Declaration said and meant, and to recommit to the values it embodies.

Happy Independence Day!