The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson
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What were some main ideas expressed in the Declaration of Independence?

The main ideas of Declaration of Independence include the notion that "all men are created equal" and that everyone has the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The Declaration of Independence says that the purpose of government is to protect these rights and values.

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One of the most important points made by Jefferson in the opening of the Declaration of Independence, one that is easy to overlook given what follows the first paragraph, is Jefferson's argument that one group of people has the right to separate from another group of people

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.

Jefferson's reference to two seemingly separate legal authorities here—Nature and Nature's God—have been the subject of intense speculation about whether Jefferson refers to two sources of laws or conflates Nature and God into a single entity. We know, based on Jefferson's writings, that he is skeptical of many aspects of biblical tradition and Christian doctrine—after all, he lives in and exemplifies the Age of Reason—but it is reasonable to conclude that his argument here is a rhetorical device to express the overwhelming legal justification for the separation. Syntactically, the two are separate and equal, but philosophically, they are one and the same. In short, Nature and God, although mentioned separately, are one and the same, and the laws of this collective entity justify the separation.

Another very important argument in the Declaration, existentially threatening to George III and other European monarchs, is Jefferson's belief that

... 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.

This argument shocked the monarchies of Europe because it relies on the premise that "just powers," not the divine rights of monarchs, form the basis for government. Even though Great Britain has a limited monarchy at this time, George III is still a powerful monarch in theory and in practice, and Jefferson's argument that the governed have a right, based on the exercise of unjust powers, to create a new government threatens the system that provides a monarch his or her power. In fact, Jefferson establishes a new paradigm for government rule that, in effect, obviates the monarchy.

After noting the many appeals the Americans have made to both Parliament and the King to redress what the Americans view as oppressive measures to punish and subjugate America, Jefferson places the blame fully on the titular head of Great Britain:

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.

Consistent with his earlier argument that a people has the right to institute its own government, should it suffer oppression from the present government, and mincing no words, Jefferson converts George III, who has abrogated his responsibility to govern justly, from prince to tyrant and pronounces him "unfit" to govern.

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The main idea expressed in the Declaration of Independence is that governments are human inventions. Contrary to what many people in Europe believed at the time, this document argued that governments are not divinely ordained—they are created by men for a specific purpose: to protect their inalienable rights. If, for whatever reason, a specific governmental arrangement doesn't protect those rights—such as British colonial government, for example—then "We, the People" are entitled to get rid of it and establish one that will.

This may seem like a perfectly commonplace idea today, but at the time when the Declaration was written, it was a very radical notion indeed. To reform specific abuses in government was one thing, but to get rid of an entire system of government altogether, and in support of abstract principles of natural rights, was wholly unprecedented. The Founding Fathers were effectively embarking upon a radical new experiment in government, which, as with all experiments, was by no means guaranteed to succeed.

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The Declaration of Independence expresses important ideas related to sovereignty and justice. The ideas of equality amongst mankind and the God-given rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are discussed precisely. According to the Declaration, the government, with the mandate of the people, is responsible for the protection of those rights. However, it has been pointed out that in the event that the government infringes on these rights and abuses the power bestowed upon it by the people, they have the power to disband that particular government and constitute another that adheres to its purpose.

Also, the Declaration highlights the idea of autocracy. The thirteen American colonies had undergone untold suffering under the rule of the King of Britain. Their God-given rights had been denied and their pleas for justice had been ignored. These conditions thus made it necessary for the colonies to declare their autonomy as states and denounce the autocratic leadership that was imposed on them by Great Britain.

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The Declaration contains the idea that if the government must be overthrown, a new government must be set up to safeguard equality and the God-given rights of the "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." In other words, contained within the Declaration is the idea that a subsequent revolution must incorporate the principles of the first revolution, not simply be a justification to devolve into anarchy or some form of despotism.

Second, the Declaration cautions us that a subsequent revolution may not be undertaken lightly, that only when "a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism" would another revolution be justified.

Finally, the Declaration contains a long list of what a ruler should not do, essentially to justify the revolution. There are twenty-six items on the list, which includes the major offenses of the king, for example, abolishing laws enacted within the colonies and taxing the colonies without their consent. Most of what is contained within the original United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which comprises the first ten amendments of the Constitution, reflects the founding fathers' determination to not do what King George did!

So, in addition to providing a declaration of independence and outlining the God-given rights people are entitled to, the document contains a justification for the actions to be taken and a very long list of what to avoid in the new nation.

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The most important ideas in the Declaration are found early in the document. In that part of the document, Jefferson is spelling out the theory that allowed the colonists to claim that they had the right to rebel against England. These ideas include:

  • All men are created equal.
  • All men have basic human rights given to them by God.
  • The only reason to have a government is to protect these basic human rights, which Jefferson lists as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
  • Government must be by the consent of the governed.
  • If these last two conditions are not met, the people have the right to rebel against and overthrow their government.
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