Why is the Declaration of Independence important today?

The Declaration of Independence is important today because it holds out a radical vision of equality that has never truly been achieved at any point in American history. It therefore acts as an ideal that society should strive toward.

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The Declaration of Independence has no legal standing today but is important as a foundational document that has helped create the American identity and mythology of a nation based on equality. The first paragraph is the one we usually read: the subsequent outlining of King George III's tyrannies are not of as much interest to us today.

The opening paragraph, which Jefferson borrowed and modified from John Locke, forcefully and stirringly expresses the United States's founding myth:

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

Most Americans know these words: they are part of the life's blood of how we define ourselves as a people. At the time that they were written, they expressed a radical new vision vis-a-vis European society (some scholars have argued that in addition to Locke, this vision was influenced by European-American's encounters with Native American cultures). At that time, European societies were organized on the principle of hierarchy, with a royal family on top, aristocrats below, and then the common people. Equality was not part of the picture.

We call the Declaration of Independence a part of the American mythology because equality has always been an ideal, not a reality. It is true that the US Constitution forbids the creation of an aristocracy, but at the time the declaration was written, men like Jefferson owned slaves, while women and Native Americans were treated inferiorly. The United States has struggled throughout its history to create true equality, but it is nevertheless important that the country holds that as a foundational and aspirational value.

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Though it was written just less than two and a half centuries ago, the Declaration of Independence still enjoys considerable relevance today. That is because its radical vision of equality—“All men are created equal”—has never, at any point in American history, been truly realized.

Even today, the United States remains profoundly unequal in terms of the distribution of wealth and opportunity. There is also substantial evidence of systemic racism in American society, particularly in relation to the provision of jobs and housing and in the workings of the criminal justice system. Widespread voter suppression tactics also prevent Black citizens from exercising their right to vote.

With all that in mind, we can see Jefferson's inspiring words as an ideal to which we should always strive to fulfill. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be a day when we can say with confidence that all Americans are equal, however one wishes to define equality.

But at least concrete steps can be taken to make equality a reality for more Americans than at present. In taking these steps, we will be breathing life into the radical concept of equality that remains, after 245 years, the most noteworthy feature of the Declaration of Independence.

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The Declaration of Independence has a strong claim to being, more than any other document (including the Constitution), the founding document of the United States. It set out a justification for the American Revolution, but even more than that, it set out and defined the core principles the revolution pursued. As a result, this document has had a lasting role in shaping the political identity of the United States, and this has continued well into the present.

Of particular relevance, I think, is the following passage:

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.—That to secure these rights, 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, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

This section lays out the core foundational principles and values of United States democracy and outlines from where a government receives its fundamental purpose and from where it is understood as receiving its legitimacy. This is the chain of reasoning that ultimately lies behind the Bill of Rights, as well as behind American ideas concerning rights in general. In this, the Declaration of Independence has remained as significant today as it was when it was first written: as a core statement of democratic values and how legitimate governments ought to be defined.

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The Declaration of Independence is still important today because it signifies the birth of a nation, instructs free citizens and provides hope for all people who want to be free.

The Declaration is the birth certificate of America.  It is the document formally declaring the intent of the colonies to govern themselves apart from the English crown.  The Fourth of July is celebrated just as we celebrate a person's birthday.  It stands as the symbol of the beginning of a powerful statement; the power of the government comes from those governed.

It also serves as instructions to American citizens.  The Declaration commands the people to "alter or to abolish" any government when it becomes destructive and fails the people.  It is important because it reminds us it is the responsibility of the citizen to take part in the government.  It also reminds us the reasons the United States separated from England.  The listing provides valid reasons then, and they have not grown any less valid over time.

Finally, the Declaration serves as a beacon of hope to anyone enslaved.  Many countries in Latin and South America base their Constitutions on the United States.  These countries followed the pursuit of freedom outlined in the Declaration of Independence.  Although it specifically outlines the grievances with the King of Great Britain, it also speaks of "governments" in the generic form, sparking the imagination that no government is beyond reproach.

The Declaration of Independence is important because it assures Americans of our past, reminds us to be participants in our present and provides a beacon of hope to the world for the future.  It is our history, our lineage and our legacy to uphold.  

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