Skip to Main Content
Library and Tutoring homepage

Explore Voting & Elections in the United States of America: Declaration of Independence (1776)

This guide provides information & resources about civic literacy and the Florida civic literacy requirement..

The Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence, issued by the Second Continental Congress in July 1776, announced to the “candid world” the “causes” that “impelled” the Americans to separate themselves from, that is, to rebel against, Great Britain. Those causes amount to a general theory of legitimate government; thus this document has a place in American (and world) history far greater than the mere announcement of the reasons for the American Revolution. For the generation that made the Revolution and drafted the Constitution, it was the statement of the principles of political right on which they acted. It has since come to have the position of an American creed.


The background to the Declaration reaches far into the previous decade and the ever-escalating conflicts over British policy toward America. Particularly important had been the attempts by the British Parliament to tax the Americans in measures like the Stamp Act of 1765. The events that were immediate background were those set off by the Tea Party of December 1773, which drew harsh retaliation by the British. The first armed conflict occurred at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. In the context of the intense conflicts of early 1775, the Second Continental Congress convened in May of that year. Complete independence from Britain was not initially on this body's agenda, but subsequent events led to a dramatic shift within a year. The Congress first sought reconciliation by means of its Olive Branch Petition of July 1775. This conciliatory gesture was rejected outright by the king in August; he declared the colonies in “open rebellion.” Nevertheless, colonial opinion still remained divided about independence. Thomas Paine's publication in January 1776 of Common Sense, a pamphlet openly calling for separation, changed many minds. Some colonies, Massachusetts and Virginia among them, were more disposed to independence. Others-especially Pennsylvania, which was large and centrally located-were reluctant and sought to postpone a decision for independence.

Toward Independence

As spring 1776 ended and summer began, the pro-independence forces were gaining the upper hand. On May 10, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution calling on the colonies to form new governments; on June 7, Richard Henry Lee, a delegate from Virginia, proposed a resolution of independence: “that these colonies are, and of right, ought to be, free and independent states.” The delegates took nearly a month to overcome the hesitancy of some-John Dickinson of Pennsylvania among them-but on July 2, after a titanic debate in which John Adams played the leading role for the pro-independence forces, the Congress finally adopted Lee's resolution for independence.

Drafting the Declaration

Although the Continental Congress had not yet adopted Lee's resolution, on June 11 it appointed a committee to draft a statement justifying its declaration of independence. The committee included some of the brightest lights of the Revolutionary generation: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee delegated Jefferson to prepare a draft, because, as John Adams explained, he was known for his particularly felicitous pen and because he had already written some of the most significant documents of the pre-Revolutionary period. Jefferson drew from various earlier colonial statements, including George Mason's draft of a Declaration of Rights for Virginia. Jefferson's draft was passed on to the Congress by the committee with only minor changes.

Modifying the Draft

The Congress, which began debating the committee's draft on June 28, made some changes; many were merely editorial, but some were more substantial and significant. One change that particularly distressed Jefferson was the excision of his very strong denunciation of the king for protecting the slave trade against efforts by some of the colonies to suppress or end it. Jefferson had called the king's actions “cruel war against human nature itself.” This passage was removed, Jefferson later said, because two of the colonies, South Carolina and Georgia, had not attempted to suppress or control the slave trade and in fact very much wanted to sustain it. Moreover, Jefferson observed, some of the representatives of Northern colonies were uneasy with this part of the draft because they had been major participants in the slave trade. Perhaps the other most significant alterations made by the Congress were the addition of several references to God, such as the appeal at the end to “the protection of divine providence.”

The Document

The Declaration as adopted has five main parts. Its opening paragraph announces its purpose; its second paragraph puts forward a general theory of legitimate government; the third part presents a list of grievances, all intending to show that “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.” The fourth part explains the steps the Americans took to win redress of grievances; however, the British were “deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity,” and so, in the fifth and last part, the Americans draw the conclusion of independence, using the language of Lee's resolution.

Contrary to the assertions of some scholars, the organization of the Declaration is both coherent and logical. The general theory of government outlined in the second paragraph concludes with the claim that when any government becomes destructive of the ends for which government exists, the people have a right to alter or abolish it. The list of grievances, a detailing of a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” is meant to show that the king's government has, indeed, become destructive of the ends for which government exists. Given their general theory, and the specific facts they cite, the colonists conclude that they rightfully separate themselves from, that is, “abolish,” the government they were subject to.

In a letter written many years later, Jefferson explained his aim in preparing his draft: “Not 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… . [I]t was intended to be an expression of the American mind, [of] the harmonizing sentiments of the day.” It was meant, in other words, to express not the particular political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, but the consensus of the views of those Americans who had resisted British policies to that point and who now agreed on the need for independence.

The American Mind

The “American mind” that Jefferson attempted to express in the Declaration consisted of two sets of ideas: a theory of the imperial constitution, which set the terms of the relations between the American colonies and the motherland; and a theory of legitimate government, largely derived from the thought of the English political philosopher John Locke, who had written his Two Treatises of Government almost a century earlier.

The theory of a constitution espoused by the Declaration held that the American colonies were not subject to the British Parliament: neither to its power to tax nor to its power to make laws. The Americans believed, rather, that they were attached to Britain solely through the king, who possessed the same limited powers vis-à-vis them that he possessed vis-à-vis the British Parliament. The assemblies within each colony, the colonists maintained, stood on the same footing as that of Parliament. Just as the Virginia legislature could not presume to rule Britain, so Parliament should not presume to rule Virginia. The king, they thought, should have exercised his veto power over parliamentary efforts to tax and legislate for them, rather than joining in these assertions of usurped power. This constitutional theory is manifest in the Declaration in its address exclusively to the king and its failure to mention Parliament, except as unnamed “others” with whom the king “combined … to subject” the Americans “to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws.” Thus, even though Parliament actually had done most of what the colonists were objecting to, the colonists did not deign to take notice of it.

In the context, of course, the theory of the imperial constitution contained in the Declaration was of immense importance, but in the longer run the more important aspect has been the general theory of government contained in the second paragraph. That paragraph presents a series of six “truths,” “held” to be self-evident, although not actually said to be self-evident. The six are these: (1) “All men are created equal”; (2) “they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” and “among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; (3) “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men” (4) “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”; (5) “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish” the offending government; and (6) it is also the right of the people “to institute new government,” with principles and form such as “seem to them most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

That paragraph presents in extremely concise form the chief tenets of Locke's political philosophy.

Such concision is surely a virtue in a brief political document, but it has also led to difficulties in understanding the meaning of this important paragraph. Several of the ideas contained in it have been the subject of vigorous debate over the years. That second paragraph seems to consist of a number of separate large encapsulated ideas-equality, rights, consent, revolution, and so on. Since each receives only a brief clause, confusion over meaning is almost inevitable.

The key to understanding the theoretical second paragraph of the Declaration is to see that the list of truths contains a set of tightly interconnected concepts that present a kind of history of human political existence. The central (third and fourth) truths in the list tell of the making of government, how it is done (by consent of the governed) and why it is done (to secure rights). The first two truths tell of human existence prior to the making of government-all human beings are equal and possess unalienable rights. To speak of a situation before government is to speak of what Locke and others called a “state of nature,” defined by Locke as a “state of equality.” Thus, the Declaration's affirmation of “All men are created equal” is nothing other than an affirmation of a prepolitical situation in which human beings possess rights that are, however, insecure in that situation. Because rights are insecure without government, government must be made. Because natural authority is lacking-“all men are created equal”-government must be made by the governed themselves: authority or the “powers” of government derive from the consent of the governed. Since government is made for a definite purpose and its powers derive from the consent of the governed, governments that, through either malevolence or incompetence, do not secure rights may be “altered or abolished”-precisely the situation the Americans claimed they faced.

The Declaration thus offers a three-stage history: the prepolitical situation (equality and rights), the formation of government (by consent of the people to secure rights); and the stage of government gone wrong (with the rights to alter or abolish it and make a new government). This narrative makes sense of the ambiguous concepts, such as equality and consent, affirmed in the text.

A deeper understanding develops when we ask what ground might exist for such assertions as original equality and original possession of rights. These two are significantly connected. The core affirmation is the affirmation of rights-to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The list is internally coherent, as is the more common familiar list “life, liberty, and property.” Although the Declaration substitutes “the pursuit of happiness” for “property,” other documents of the Revolutionary Era make clear that this substitution does not necessarily signify a rejection of the right of property-many state constitutions contained both: obviously the one does not in any sense cancel the other.

The rights listed are also systematically coherent. The right to life is a right to what is most one's own, one's life. Given the nature of a human life, how could one's life be anything other than one's own? How could it in any sense belong to others? Given the dependence (or base) of life in or on the body, the right to life must contain a right to bodily immunity, the right not to have one's body seized, invaded, or controlled by others.

The right to liberty extends the right to life: not only does an individual possess a rightful immunity against the depredations of others over his or her body; an individual has the right to determine the use of the body. The natural right to liberty proclaims the prima facie rightfulness of active, intentional use of the body. The right to property involves an extension of rights from the spheres of one's own life, body, and actions to the external world. It proclaims the rightful power of human beings to make the external their own in the same way they can make their bodies their own.

The three basic rights together amount to the affirmation of a form of personal sovereignty-a rightful control over one's person, actions, and possessions in the service of one's legitimate intents and purposes. When seen as an integrated system of immunities and controls, the specific rights amount to a comprehensive right to pursue a shape and way of life self-chosen-that is, a right to the pursuit of happiness (self-determination).

If human beings possess such a right, then the equality affirmed in the Declaration follows naturally. However, if some possess a “natural” right to rule others, then those others do not have that right of self-determination or autonomy. Because the situation of natural equality is “insecure,” the creation of authority becomes necessary-this authority must derive from the consent of those who are to be subjected to it; there is no other possible source of legitimate authority.

The “unalienable rights” not only ground the original equality, but, most important, serve to mark the goal or purpose of political life. Human beings subject themselves to authority and constraint that they are not subjected to by God or nature, so that they may secure their otherwise insecure rights. Thus, the theory of the Declaration commits legitimate government to a limited purpose-the securing of rights-and implicitly rejects the wide variety of other goals to which political societies had been thought to aim. The point of political life is not to earn salvation or to produce a specific human type or adhere to a set of virtues. Accordingly, the Declaration points to a limited, that is, liberal, political society. At the same time, the Declaration affirms, if it does not quite embrace, democracy as the only legitimate form of government. The original equality and consent apply to the formation of government and the establishment of “its just powers,” affirming the right of the people to establish what form seems most likely to them to secure their rights. Almost from the start, however, Americans understood the principles of the Declaration to require republican, or what we would call democratic, governance. Thus, perhaps the most prominent legacy of the Declaration is the commitment to (liberal) democracy, which respects and protects rights, as the best-or even the solely legitimate-kind of government.

Before the Civil War, the Declaration was a major object of discussion and contention as all sides in the debates on policy about slavery sought either to claim its authority or to overturn it. In his Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln dated the birth of the nation to the issuance of the Declaration and stated the nation's principles to be those set forth in the Declaration. Almost every major political issue and movement since has involved it in one way or another. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. regularly quoted it and appealed to its authority.

The Declaration has also been a source of political inspiration far beyond the boundaries of the United States. When the French made their revolution in 1789, they looked to the Declaration and consulted Thomas Jefferson, its chief draftsman, for advice. When the Vietnamese sought to sever their colonial dependence on France in 1945, they adopted a declaration that quoted the American text. It is probably no exaggeration to say what American historian Moses Coit Tyler said of the Declaration: it is “the paper which is probably the best known that ever came from the pen of an individual.”

Michael Zuckert


Zuckert, Michael. "Declaration of Independence." Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History, edited by Andrew W. Robertson, vol. 1: Colonial Beginnings Through Revolution, 1500 to 1783, CQ Press, 2010, pp. 103-107. Gale eBooks, Accessed 5 Nov. 2021.

The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 by John Trumbull, American, 1756 - 1843

The Declaration of Independence

In Congress, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, 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.

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.--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.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish 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.

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.


Source: National Archives

The Declaration of Independence AP US History

What you might not know about the Declaration of Independence

A Virtual Journey of the Declaration of Independence: Thomas Jefferson and the Committee of Five

SJR State Library Books