Declaration of Independence
“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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
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.
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
The Declaration of Independence in a Global Context
Being an American
Bill of Rights Institute
The Argument of the Declaration of Independence
Declare the Causes: The Declaration of Independence
The Purpose of the American Union
The Founders’ Understanding of Equality