The Declaration of Independence

by Thomas Jefferson

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What are Jefferson's four main arguments in the Declaration of Independence?

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Jefferson's Declaration of Independence presents four main arguments: Firstly, all men are created equal with inalienable rights. Secondly, government's purpose is to protect these rights. Thirdly, if a government violates these rights, people have the right to alter or abolish it. Lastly, the Declaration asserts that Britain, specifically the king, has violated this contract through a series of abuses, justifying the colonists' right to separate.

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The four main components to Jefferson's argument in the Declaration of Independence are contained within its introductory paragraph. The first is that, as Jefferson wrote, that "all men were created equal," and that they were endowed with rights that could not be taken away. These rights, Jefferson wrote, could not be taken away. The second aspect to his argument relates to the purpose of government. Jefferson writes, in a statement of what is often called the "social contract" theory of government: that government is established by people in order to protect or preserve their rights. A third conclusion follows, namely that if governments, having been established by free rights-bearing people, violate the rights of these same people, then the people have the right to "alter or abolish" them.

Finally, the fourth component to the argument of the Declaration of Independence is established in the end of the introduction as well as the long list of grievances that compose the rest of the document. In short, the signers argued that Britain, or more specifically the king, had violated the "contract" by engaging in a "long train of abuses." Because Britain was not only protecting the rights of the colonists, but was actively violating them, the Declaration argues, the colonists had the right to separate. This claim is very carefully advanced, articulated, and expanded upon over the course of the Declaration.

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Background Information

Borrowing heavily from John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers from Britain and France, Thomas Jefferson was the principal author amongst the Committee of Five who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Aside from Jefferson (Virginia), the Committee included John Adams (Massachusetts), Benjamin Franklin (Pennsylvania), Roger Sherman (Connecticut), and Robert Livingston (New York). Congress further edited it, completely taking out two entire sections:

  1. a section censuring the British, for fear of being too offensive
  2. a section condemning the importation of slaves from Africa, for fear of alienating the southern colonies who had no interest in halting the slave trade

The final document, finalized July 3rd (following a formal vote for independence on July 2nd) and adopted July 4th, contained four sections:

  1. a formal introduction of the document and its purpose, and philosophical justification for a people to abolish their government
  2. the political and philosophical ideas framing their intentions and guiding their actions (this part borrows heavily from ideas of Enlightenment thinkers)
  3. a long list of grievances against King George III and British rule
  4. a basic list of rights and powers asserted by the newly created nation—a formal declaration of independence and sovereignty

Somewhat aligned with that four-part structure (No. 1 below is explicitly written at the start of Part 2 above), Jefferson et al. espoused four main ideas throughout the document.

The Four Main Ideas

  1. "All men are created equal." This is bluntly asserted, that all are inherently equal to each other, but the question of who were included in "men" has been reinterpreted over the years. Today's interpretation - as what was likely originally meant in the most hypothetical/philosophical sense, but maybe purposely made vague to allow for less shocking interpretation/practice in those times of control by only white men - is more liberal to include all humans.
  2. All human beings have certain inherent and inalienable (cannot be taken away) rights. These ideas are heavily borrowed from the Enlightenment thinkers of Britain and France, primarily John Locke. These rights include "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" (compare to Locke's "life, liberty, and estate [property]"), are naturally endowed by virtue of being a human being and should not be abridged by any government. This idea is coupled with the previous idea.
  3. A government has certain obligations to the people. Among others, a legitimate government must not only abridge or impede those inalienable human rights, but actively secure and protect them for the people. To restate the sentiment most directly: The purpose of a government is to safeguard the natural rights of its citizens.
  4. The people have a right to amend or abolish a government that is not properly serving them. In conjunction with ideas 2 and 3, people are entitled to pursue the protection of their natural rights through control of their government. If a government is abridging or impeding said freedoms—whether through action or inaction— the people have the right to change or completely depose the government so that they may have their due protection.
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In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had four main arguments or points he was trying to convey to the world. The first main point was that when a group of people believes they need to break free from the rule of another group of people, they must tell everybody why they want to do this. The second argument was about the rights people have.  Jefferson believed that people have certain rights that they can’t give up nor can they be taken away. These rights, called unalienable rights, are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  A third argument or main point in the Declaration of Independence was that government must protect the rights of the people. Jefferson maintained that when government doesn’t protect the people’s rights, the people have no choice but to get rid of that government and replace it with a new government that will protect their rights.  Finally, Jefferson believed it was important to list all of the complaints the people had against the King of England and the British government.  Jefferson had four main points or arguments in the Declaration of Independence.

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