Analysis of the Declaration of Independence
Ratified on July 4, 1776, The Declaration of Independence effectively formed the United States of America. It was signed by 56 delegates to the Continental Congress, and outlined both the philosophical and tangible reasons for becoming independent from Great Britain. The document contains a lot of meaning that I want to go over in-depth, and give history and meaning to each part.
While the document is not formally divided, it is divided into the five unofficial sections below, from the Introduction to the Conclusion. The text is too long to include fully in this hub, so I'll include the main pieces where I can.
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
The Declaration of Independence begins with what is commonly referred to the Introduction. Although it's actually just one, albeit long, sentence with a simple meaning, there's a lot we can take from it.
At a general level, the Introduction simply states why the document is even being written. The Founders thought that, out of respect, they should tell their former government, Great Britain, why they feel the need to leave.
Looking at the details, we see at first very elegant writing. From this, we take away that the Founders were very educated, and they were. They were all scholars of some field, and had vast knowledge, both about their present (and our present) and the past, on various topics, including politics. This elegant writing doesn't go away, not in this document, or the Constitution, or the Federalist Papers. In fact, it stays around even into the Civil War, where it's seen in the Gettysburg Address.
Next, I want to focus on the reference to god in the Introduction. The reason I don't capitalize "god" in the previous sentence is because I'm not referencing a specific god, and neither are the Founders. They simply include "Nature's God" and also include the "Laws of Nature," which, together, encompass all religions and atheists. The Founders believed strongly in religious freedom. Don't be fooled by the fact that they mention god, as it is just a general reference, not a specific reference to a specific god of a particular religion. This general reference to all gods will continue throughout the Declaration.
Last in the Introduction is the fact that this document is written mainly out of respect for the government that oppressed the writers. The end states: "decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation." In other words, leaving an entity requires that you, out of shear dignity and respect to the rest of the world, explain why. To not do so would be rude. This emphasis on respect espouses the importance the Founders placed on having good values and being an overall respectable person. They intended for the United States to be a nation that prided itself on respect for others (among other things).
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.
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, 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. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
From the Introduction we move to the Preamble, which is my personal favorite section. The Preamble discusses the philosophical reasons behind the Declaration, many of these reasons being attributed to John Locke, a famous philosopher. These ideas are timeless and apply to the entire world, not just the United States. The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence is probably one of the most important texts ever written, due to the fact that it exemplifies in elegant language inherent rights of people to live, govern themselves, and have liberty. These rights were unheard of at the time worldwide, at least for the common man.
The Preamble begins by listing a few "self-evident truths," or, in other words, truths that are inherent in people by the sole fact that a person is born. These rights include, but are not limited to, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These are not things that governments give you, but rather are things you inherit by simply being alive. Furthermore, no one or entity has the right to deprive you of them.
The document goes on to say that governments are merely instituted to protect these inherent rights; government has no more and no less duties than that. While protecting these rights may require the government to expand beyond an absolute basic structure, the ultimate purpose of government is to protect the rights of each constituent, whether it be from other citizens, foreign entities, corporations, or anything else. Beyond that, government has no purpose in everyday life.
In further discussion on the purpose and ideal setup of government, the document states that government has no more ability and power than the people grant it, implying that government is really just an extension of the people, and not a separate entity. The people own the government, not the other way around. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who was the lead author of the Declaration, said the following: "When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. When the government fears the people, there is liberty." In this powerful quote, Jefferson makes the simple point that the people, in a country filled with liberty as the United States, own the government, and are in total control. A disruption in this balance of power pushes a country towards a tyrannical state.
The Declaration also answers the philosophical question of what to do with a destructive government, one that has either overstepped its bounds or not fulfilling its purpose. The document states that people have a right, not just a privilege, to alter or all-out abolish the government, provided that the reason for doing so is not "light and transient." For such a change or abolition to be warranted, there must exist a "long train of abuses and usurpations." Note that this right to change the government at any time is on par with the rights to liberty, life, and pursuit of happiness. Rights are inherent and cannot be taken away. Yet this right to overthrow destructive governments was thought so important the Founders stated it to be not only a right, but also a duty, of the people. In other words, the decision of whether or not to overthrow a destructive government is, in the Founders' minds, not even a decision at all; we must do it, no questions. The answer is simple: "throw off such Government, and provide new Guards for their future security."
Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. 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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Following the Preamble is the Indictment. This section is primarily the list of grievances that have led the colonists to "dissolve the political bands which have connected them" to the British Crown. (I have included the opening of this section, but the full list is too long.)
The opening serves to connect the ideas expressed in the Preamble to the tangible obstacles the colonists were facing at the time. After initially establishing that the principles of self-governance and liberty for all apply to their current situation, the Founders accuse the King of Britain to be the persecutor and proceed to list out all the grievances they have against the King. There are a total of 27 of these grievances, which should tell you how aggravated the colonists really were with Britain. It wasn't just one thing that pushed the conflict this far; it was a "long train of abuses." The abuses had been occurring for easily a decade, too. Declaring independence was more of a last resort for the Founders than anything else. In fact, some of those at the convention wanted to delay independence even longer. Yet, as the Founders outlined in the Preamble, a situation such as theirs leaves no choice to the oppressed but to declare independence. The abuses had ceased to be "light and transient."
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
The Denunciation follows the Indictment and is a restatement of the fact that the Founders had been very patient with Britain. In other words, the Denunciation reinforces the idea that declaring independence was not the ideal situation for either party, but Britain had left them no choice. The blame for whatever follows is put on Great Britain.
We see in this section that the Founders had petitioned Britain, warned and informed Britain of how oppressive the King was being, and appealed to just the simple decency and humanity of Britain. Yet Britain was constantly silent (or, "deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity"), and thus the Founders and the rest of the colonists have no choice but to declare independence.
This section really shows how the Founders didn't exactly want to leave the rule of Britain. The whole section has a rather sad tone, implying this isn't what either party really wants. It is, however, the lesser of all evils, and thus is the course of action taken. All blame is pushed on the King. The colonies and Founders had tried to resolve the issue without disbanding the government structure, yet that didn't work. The only action left is to, as said earlier in the Declaration, "provide new guards for their future security."
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, 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; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. 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.
The Conclusion is the final portion of the Declaration of Independence and states simply what has been developed throughout the whole document: the colonies are independent states. This section may be short and simple on the surface, but there's a lot in here.
First is the important distinction that this Declaration does not actually form the United States of America as we know it today. In fact, this Declaration simply makes each colony its own country, and each colony thus has the right to levy war, contract alliances, and do all other things nations do, and do so separately of the other states. It reads, "These united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States" and "they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do." Note the plural use of the word "states." This distinction is not only important because I feel most people don't realize it, but also really because it shows the strong emphasis on states' rights that was and is still today so vital to the continuation of a strong America.
Lastly in here is the ending. The Founders, as tangible backing to the power and implementation of the Declaration, "pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." In other words, the Founders were dedicating all that they had to fulfill the implications of this Declaration, and were making it known to Britain. Think for a minute about the gravity of that statement. The Founders were so adamant about this Declaration, and had so much respect and dignity, that they gave every last thing they had to the cause. I can't see anyone doing that today. This powerful statement shows us the kind of people the Founders really were, and how everyone today should strive to have the same dedication and moral values as they did.
This concludes my analysis of the Declaration of Independence. I hope everyone learned at least something while reading. If there's one thing to take away from this Declaration, realize that the Founders were some of the most courageous men in all of history, and that, in writing this powerful and influential document, they really did risk their "Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor."
Which of these quotes is your favorite from the document?
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© 2014 Jason