Thomas Jefferson Knowledge Institute

The Declaration of Independence Part 1

Declaration Image

Not only did the Declaration lead to revolution, it was itself revolutionary. "It was conservative and represented the action of the colonists to maintain their constitutional rights which from time immemorial had been guaranteed to them under the law of the land. It was not because it was proposed to establish a new nation, but because it was proposed to establish a nation on new principles..."1

The Declaration opens with a careful rationale for its arguments: When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people 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, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

It is presumed that people have the right to "assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station" and that people are entitled to this right by "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

Then follows the most famous words of the Declaration: 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. "This principle [that all men are created equal] had not before appeared as an official political declaration of any nation. It was profoundly revolutionary. It is one of the corner stones of American institutions."1

  • All men are created equal. No person is created as inferior or superior to another. It is this premise that makes the Declaration uniquely American.
  • You have certain unalienable rights, meaning rights that are an integral part of you. These rights were "endowed" to you by your Creator, meaning once given to you, they cannot be taken away, unlike "rights" given to you by government. What government gives, government can take away.
  • "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" are some, but not all, of your unalienable rights.

"In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man -- these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause.

"About the Declaration there is a finality that is exceedingly restful. It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us a great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.1

Who were these men who crafted the Declaration? "Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. Before we can understand their conclusions we must go back and review the course which they followed. We must think the thoughts which they thought. Their intellectual life centered around the meeting-house. They were intent upon religious worship. While there were always among them men of deep learning, and later those who had comparatively large possessions, the mind of the people was not so much engrossed in how much they knew, or how much they had, as in how they were going to live. While scantily provided with other literature, there was a wide acquaintance with the Scriptures. Over a period as great as that which measures the existence of our independence they were subject to this discipline not only in their religious life and educational training, but also in their political thought. They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.

"No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.1

Next section

1Speech on the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence by President Calvin Coolidge, July 5, 1926 at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Entire speech

The Declaration of Independence at the National Archives

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich 1837 (7mB file)