The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson

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What is the purpose of the first paragraph in the Declaration of Independence?

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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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What is the purpose of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence?

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence includes its most famous words:

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 ...

The words are very close to those used in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, written in 1690 at the end of a century of turmoil in English government. The purpose of the Declaration's preamble is to throw the down the gauntlet in opposition to the theory of the divine rights of kings and to instead use Enlightenment principles to establish a different basis for governance.

The Medieval doctrine of a great chain of being from which the divine rights theory was derived stated that the universe was a top-down structure: God created a clear hierarchy with God on top, angels beneath him, and below the angels, the kings that God directly anointed to be his spokespeople on earth. Kings ruled by divine right: God chose the king and to oppose the king was to oppose God himself.

During the seventeenth century the Stuart dynasty took this theory out to extremes, leading to a Civil War, a period of republicanism, and after the restoration of the monarchy, a quiet or "glorious" revolution in which James II was replaced by monarchs more amenable to a parliamentary system. Because of the monarchial abuses, and because rational, Enlightenment thought was taking hold in Europe, philosophers like Locke were inspired to develop a new theory of government. This theory was bottoms-up, declaring that all people were endowed with God-given natural rights. When a monarch violated these rights, the people had a God-given right to rebel. Jefferson is very clearly stating in the preamble that the American Revolution is based on this second concept of government.

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What is the purpose of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence?

The Declaration of Independence was by no means a rash or impulsive act. It came about after a lengthy process of deliberation. Those who signed the Declaration were all too aware of how momentous this document was and the serious consequences to which its publication would lead.

Technically speaking, the signatories were committing treason against the British crown, and as such, they ran the risk of being executed. That being the case, those who signed the Declaration were anxious to prove to the world that they had ample philosophical justification for taking such a drastic step and breaking free of British rule.

That's where the preamble to the Declaration of Independence comes in. It aims to give the document a certain respectability in the eyes of educated men, to convey to them just how long and hard its signatories thought before taking the plunge.

The preamble is steeped in the language of natural rights. This gives it a universal appeal that makes it more likely to secure the support of those in other countries who groan under the lash of tyranny and oppression. Among other things, the preamble is therefore an expertly constructed piece of propaganda that aims to invite sympathy for the American colonists' cause from all over the world.

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What is the purpose of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence?

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence establishes the philosophical and political underpinning to the new nation's decision to sever its ties to Great Britain. In the preamble, Jefferson calls on Enlightenment philosophy to explain why the new country is justified in breaking away from Great Britain. He writes about "the Laws of Nature" and laws that are "self-evident." These are references to the Enlightenment idea that people's right to choose their own government are inalienable, meaning that they cannot be taken away. Jefferson also refers to the rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," which is similar to Locke's idea that the government has the responsibility to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. Jefferson then writes about the social contract, the idea (from Locke and others) that people can overthrow governments that do not provide these rights to its people. The rest of the document is a list of the ways in which the British king has not afforded the colonists the rights to which they are entitled. Jefferson's purpose in the preamble is also to establish that the new nation is not undertaking this revolution lightly but is justified in doing so.

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What is the purpose of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence?

Essentially, the Preamble spells out the reasons why the Second Continental Congress was issuing the Declaration in the first place. It says that a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" requires that the revolutionaries provide a justification for declaring independence, and that they intend to do just that in the document itself. It also makes an important claim in itself, saying that the Americans were entitled by the "laws of nature and of Nature's God" to assert a position of independence, equal to all other nations. But the overriding purpose is to state that the declaration that followed would be a statement of independence, one that dissolved the political relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Much of this sounds like legal and diplomatic talk, and it was, but it was also important inasmuch as the revolutionaries desperately needed foreign recognition and aid, and it was essential that the leaders of Britain's rival kingdoms viewed the Revolution as at least somewhat legitimate. So the Preamble is almost explicitly addressed to those who could provide crucial help in actually gaining independence.

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