Declaration of Independence

In Summary

Works related to the Declaration of Independence from JMC programs for teachers.

“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.”

Declaration of Independence


The Declaration of Independence can be understood to have two purposes: (1) its practical purpose was to formally separate the British colonies from England and (2) its philosophical purpose was to assert the natural equality of all men.


Abraham Lincoln called the Declaration the “standard maxim” of the nation, “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” Martin Luther King, Jr. called it a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


Throughout history the Declaration has guided Americans through political and social turmoil and has inspired people across the world to form governments based on fundamental equality and liberty for all. Learn more about the Declaration and its legacy below and on the Declaration of Independence Discovery Page.

JMC Resources

Civil War envelope with drummer boy and American flag



As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson thought and wrote extensively about its principles. Some of his most revealing writing can be found in his personal letters to his contemporaries.


Thomas Jefferson letter to John Holmes, 1820


Thomas Jefferson letter to Jared Sparks, 1824


Thomas Jefferson letter to Roger C. Weightman, 1826

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Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. each use the Declaration to call the American people to a higher good – to improve society based on the universal truth of natural equality among men. The speeches below offer meaningful insight into the Declaration and all that it stands for.


Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” 1852


Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision, 1857


Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” 1963

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The Declaration of Independence is the foundational document of the United States. In a series of videos produced by JMC, leading scholars of American political thought explore the philosophical and political implications of the Declaration. They discuss principles of liberty and equality, how the Declaration laid the groundwork for the Constitution, and how the Founders thought about slavery in the future of the nation. See the links below for all of the videos:


Liberty in the Declaration of Independence


The Declaration in a House Divided


Interview with James Ceaser on the Declaration of Independence


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Essays & Other Writing


Though Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, his first draft was not unanimously approved by other Founders. Significant portions of the draft were removed before the document became official.


Thomas Jefferson’s First Draft of the Declaration of Independence


Though he asserted the inherent equality of all men in the Declaration, Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. Not unaware of his own hypocrisy, Jefferson writes about the injustice of slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia. See selected sections below:


Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

Query XIV: The administration of justice and the description of the laws?


Query XVIII: The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in the state?


Before the American Founders declared independence from Britain and established a new form of government, English philosopher John Locke wrote his Second Treatise of Government. A preeminent Enlightenment thinker, Locke’s ideas inspired many of the principles expressed in the Declaration. Read some chapters here:


John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1689

Chapter 1, An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government


Chapter 2, Of the State of Nature


Chapter 3, Of the State of War


Chapter 4, Of Slavery


Chapter 5, Of Property


In 1775, the year before the Declaration of Independence was written, Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense. A 47-page pamphlet that argued for independence from Britain, Common Sense became the most widely distributed written work in American history.


Thomas Paine, selections from Common Sense

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The Declaration in the Classroom


JMC Teacher Education Fellow, Dr. Danton Kostandarithes, has developed learning modules to bring the Declaration of Independence to students. The first activity below challenges students to imagine themselves at the Continental Congress in contentious debate with one another about the content of the Declaration. The second activity asks them to compare and contrast the American Declaration with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.


The Continental Congress Creates the Declaration of Independence

Teacher Document

Student Worksheet


The Declaration of Independence in a Global Context

Teacher Document
Student Worksheet


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