In "The Declaration of Independence" what is the purpose of the first paragraph?
The purpose of the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence was to inform the British Parliament and King George III of the intentions of all thirteen American colonies to separate from English rule.
In fact, King George played a huge part in hastening the advent of the American Revolution. Shortly after the events of the Boston Tea Party, the king argued before Parliament that England's leniency led to acts of disgraceful insubordination.
He supported stronger measures to bring the American colonies to heel and was inordinately pleased when the British Parliament passed the infamous Intolerable or Coercive Acts. These oppressive laws galvanized the Americans and led them to recognize the necessity of a Declaration of Independence (and war).
Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson's original draft referred to the subordination of Americans; however, the final text of the Declaration of Independence merely stated that it was time for the American "people to dissolve the political bonds which [had] connected them with another . . . "
The first paragraph also explains that it will "declare the causes which impel them to the separation." In other words, the purpose of the first paragraph was to reveal the colonists' intentions and to prepare King George III for the paragraphs ahead that explained the rationale for their actions. The leaders of the American colonies wanted to leave little doubt in King George's mind as to why a political separation from England was necessary.
The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence does not have a major significance. It is simply an introductory paragraph telling what the purpose of the document is.
The first paragraph first states that the colonies are going to become independent -- they are going 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...
By saying this, the authors of the Declaration state what they are going to do -- they are going to break away from England. This is the most important purpose of the first paragraph.
The rest of the paragraph simply says that the authors feel that they need to tell why they are breaking away from England. By saying this, they are introducing the next part of the Declaration, which is much more important because it states the political philosophy that underlies their rebellion.
So, the purpose of the first paragraph is to state what they are going to do (declare independence) and state that they are now going to say why they are doing it.
The first paragraph of the Declaration is its Preamble, that is its introduction and statement of purpose. Preambles are quite common in many legal documents, they typically (but not always) begin with "whereas...." Jefferson wished to properly introduce the topic, and inform those reading the document that it was necessary for those declaring their independence to state their reasons why. Its language has no particular legal significance; it is merely informative. The rest of the document, of course, is based on Locke's Second Treatise on Civil Government in which Jefferson explains the right of the colonies to declare their independence, and their reasons therefor.