The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson
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In the Declaration of Independence, what is the purpose of the first paragraph?

The purpose of the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is to introduce what will be explained in the rest of the document, which is that the colonies are exercising their right to declare independence from Great Britain.

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The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence introduces the topic at hand. Similar to an essay one may write for a literature or history class, this paragraph serves to ensure that the purpose of writing is clear to the intended audience.

In the case of the Declaration, the intended audience is King George III of Great Britain and his government. In this first paragraph, the writer, Thomas Jefferson, explains that when it becomes “necessary” for one group of people to break away from the “political bands which have connected them with another,” they should be respectful and decent men and “declare the causes which impel them to separation.” In other words, he is saying that when a group of people declares independence from another, they should explain why they are doing so. Jefferson also states that a group declaring independence is entitled to do so because of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God," which means that the colonies feel they have a natural, God-given right to do what they are doing.

Although this paragraph does not specifically mention the colonies or Great Britain by name, it suggests that the following documents will explain that the colonies are exercising their right to separate themselves from the British and why they are doing so. Thus, the purpose of the first paragraph is to introduce what will be discussed in the rest of the document.

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The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is purely a preamble that introduces the main thesis of the following document. It consists of a single long sentence that states that the following declaration is necessary and proper whenever a country wishes to establish itself. It states that the following document will provide clear and concrete reasons that justify the need for the revolution. This implies what is later backed up by the long list of grievances against the English king: that the colonies have suffered enough that they must establish a new nation separate from the one under which they have previously existed.

The first paragraph does not provide any of the philosophical reasons for independence so eloquently described in the following paragraph. It does not mention any of the complaints against the English Crown. It is a pure and simple preamble. Preambles were elements of important documents written at the time. Their purpose was to state the purpose of the rest of the document without providing any of the specifics. You will find a similar preamble in the US Constitution and it may be insightful to look for similarities in purpose by comparing these two documents.

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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. 

 

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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.

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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.

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