The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson

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What is the main contradiction in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights?

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The main contradiction inherent in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights at the time they were written is the difference between the words in the documents and their practical application. For instance, the Declaration of Independence, publicly announced on July 4, 1776, states:

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.

The Bill of Rights, ratified on December 15, 1791, is comprised of the first ten amendments to the US Constitution. The first amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The contradiction is that the rights of equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of speech, and the right of people to assemble and petition the government when they had grievances applied only to white males.

Most African Americans, for instance, were still bound in slavery at the time these documents were written and approved, and so these rights did not apply to them. In fact, many of the founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners.

The rights in these documents also did not apply to Native Americans. Although they lived on the land comprising the new country of the United States far longer than anyone else, they were not even considered citizens.

Women were another group that the rights in these documents did not cover. In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John Adams urging him to "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors." However, it was not until August 18, 1920, that the nineteenth amendment was ratified and women received the right to vote.

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The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are two of the US's most important documents, but at the time they were written they were not applicable to a majority of the population. The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was one of the richest slaveowners in Virginia. When he wrote that "all men are created equal," he certainly did not mean his slaves. He also did not mean the Native Americans who were fighting to stay on their land or the women in America. At the time when the Declaration of Independence was written, many colonies had property requirements that people had to meet in order to vote and/or run for public office. Also, during the war, it was unpopular to speak out against the patriot side in the colonies. The colonists were not homogeneously in favor of the revolution and after the war, many of these people who favored British rule were blackballed from politics and society. The Bill of Rights guarantees rights to a free press and free speech, but during the Revolution and immediately thereafter these rights were curtailed when they were determined to be unfavorable to the government.

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One significant contradiction with the Declaration of Independence is that while we were fighting for freedom from Great Britain because we felt that they were violating our rights, the Declaration of Independence only stated that all men are created equal.

The contradiction occurs in several ways. First, all men weren’t created equal. The colonists held slaves who didn’t have rights. It also implied that women weren’t equal to men and shouldn’t have the same rights as men had.

Since we were fighting for freedom and for our rights, it seemed odd that the Declaration of Independence would not state that all people are created equal. Slaves didn’t get their freedom until after the Civil War. Even then, there were many methods used to restrict their rights after Reconstruction ended. Women fought for many years to get the same rights that men had. One example was the right to vote. In some ways, women still are fighting for equal rights. An example would be equal pay.

Thus, in some ways, the ideals of the Declaration of Independence didn’t match the reality that some people faced.

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Rather than saying that there are contradictions within the Declaration of Independence, it is more accurate to say that there are contradictions between the words of the Declaration of Independence and the actions of the people who signed it.

The main contradiction is in the idea that “all men are created equal” and that they have the inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  This is not contradictory in itself, but it is contradictory when it is seen in light of American society at that time.  It is contradictory because this was a society in which slavery was accepted and which was, in the South, based on slavery.  It is contradictory to say that all men have the right to liberty while keeping them enslaved.  It is contradictory to say that all men have the right to life while allowing slave owners to kill slaves if they wished. 

The spirit of the Declaration, if not its letter, is also contradicted by the fact that women were denied rights by the same men who signed off on the Declaration.

Thus, the major contradiction is between the idealistic words of the Declaration and the less idealistic society created by the people who signed it.

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