The Declaration is first and foremost the
document that founded the
new nation of the USA. But Jefferson was a gifted writer, so that the political
document is also a literary and cultural text. that
in some respects rises to the category of poetry or scripture.
that in some respects rises to the category of poetry or scripture.
The Declaration may be regarded as a “creation story” or “origin story” for the United States, especially for the USA’s dominant culture of immigrants and their descendents.
/ Origin Stories” do not only tell of the beginning of a
world or system; they also declare, both explicitly and implicitly, the values
of the world being created. (For instance, the Judeo-Christian
Genesis story models relationships between humanity
and Yahweh, humanity and nature, men and women, etc.)
Compare to other “creation / origin
slave narratives for African America,
Native American origin stories, the “Virgin of Guadalupe” for
Correspondingly, Jim Cullen in The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation (2003) describes the Declaration’s premise “that all men are created equal” with “Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as the “source code of the American Dream” (36).
Questions for discussion re The Declaration of Independence
1. As a “Creation / Origin Story,” what narratives or models of human identity, behavior, or community does the Declaration model?
2. What racial / ethnic or gender groups are excluded from
the Declaration's community?
That is, when the Declaration says that “all men are created equal,” who is
and isn’t indicated by “men?” What are the requirements for being
3. In what ways does the Declaration embody "the American Dream?" In what ways does the narrative or pattern of action in the Declaration resemble an immigrant narrative?
4. Compare and contrast "the American Dream" of immigration and the Declaration with Dr. King's "Dream."
Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,
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.
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.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. —Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain [George III] is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
[In the passages below, note the positive references to immigration, representation, and rights; negative references to taxation and government "offices"; and complicated references to American Indians and African Americans, our nation's original and enduring minority groups.]
He [King George III of England] has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands. ["Naturalization" is the making of immigrants to citizens; e.g., the INS = Immigration and Naturalization Service]
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent [i.e., no "independent" judiciary] on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. ["anti-government" spirit of Declaration—"Substance" would be "livelihood" or "property," which bureaucracy may diminish]
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures. [Only beginning in the 20th century did the USA maintain large permanent armed forces]
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power. [In contrast, the Constitution makes the civilian President of the US "commander in chief" of the armed forces, limiting opportunities for military takeover of government]
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections* amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages*, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions. . . . [*"domestic insurrections" = slave revolts, supposedly instigated by the British to weaken American war effort; **Indians as victims of immigration and population growth; Indian warfare depicted as terrorism]
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
The signers of the Declaration represented the new states as follows: . . . [see bottom of webpage]
Section of Declaration drafted by Jefferson but omitted from final copy by committee:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. (determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold,) he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce (determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold): and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Standard questions or challenges:
When the Declaration says that "All men are created equal," who counts as "men" and "equal?"
Modern default answer: "Men" means "all people," as in "mankind."
Answer in 1776: "Men" meant white, property-owning men—"equality" was determined by race, class, and gender,
. . . and so was inequality: non-whites, common people, and women did not have equal rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Many men who signed the Declaration were slaveholders. American women couldn't vote until 1921.
Jefferson did not write "rich white men" but "men," which can mean "mankind" or "humanity"—as it now signifies.
As with scripture or poetry, simultaneous simplicity and suggestiveness of language make a concept adaptable or open to interpretation for future generations.
Instead of an achievement, equality for everyone—first not just property-holding white men, then non-white men (tentatively), then all women, and recently, alternative genders.
Equality becomes an ideal to be pursued (or opposed), with the American nation or government more or less committed to the achievement of equality in some sense, usually legal and moral but sometimes economic.
The story of America since its founding may resemble a romance narrative in which a hero quests or journeys through tests and trials to achieve a goal
Progress of equality:
Class barriers fell first, in the early 1800s with rise of Jacksonian democracy and gaining of vote and power by "the common man."
Racial barriers began to fall in 1860s with American Civil War and 13th & 14th Amendments to U. S. Constitution
Gender: Women gained some citizens' rights in 19th
century and right to vote in 1920 with 19th Amendment.
Do alternative genders have equal rights to marriage, voluntary family relation? (Yes, according to U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015)
Do species other than human beings have rights to life, liberty, etc.? For example, primate rights, endangered species protection, tree protection / replacement.
Can modern western culture move beyond a culture of rights to one of reponsibilities? (Communitarian instead of individualistic?)
Echoes of the Declaration
The excerpts below, arranged chronologically, are from important texts in American or world literature that react to or extend the Declaration's language and themes.
Margaret Fuller, The Great Lawsuit, 1843
. . . Though the national independence be blurred by the servility of individuals, though freedom and equality have been proclaimed only to leave room for a monstrous display of slave dealing and slave keeping; though the free American so often feels himself free, like the Roman, only to pamper his appetites and his indolence through the misery of his fellow beings, still it is not in vain that the verbal statement has been made, "All men are born free and equal." There it stands, a golden certainty, wherewith to encourage the good, to shame the bad. . .
We have waited here long in the dust; we are tired and hungry, but the triumphal procession must appear at last.
Of all its banners, none has been more steadily upheld, and under none has more valor and willingness for real sacrifices been shown, than that of the champions of the enslaved African. And this band it is, which, partly in consequence of a natural following out of principles, partly because many women have been prominent in that cause, makes, just now, the warmest appeal in behalf of women . . . .
Declaration of Sentiments, from the "Woman's Rights Convention" at Seneca Falls, NY, 1848; printed in Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences (1898).
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one 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 that impel them to such a course.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . . .
Frederick Douglass (author of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845), "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (An Address Delivered in Rochester, NY, on 5 July 1852),"
Fellow-citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? . . .
I see this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave's point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mind, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! . . .
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; . . . your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery . . .
Abraham Lincoln, "Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863."
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little not, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget wheat they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 10 Dec. 1948.
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . .
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience . . . .
Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. . . .
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude . . . .
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. . . .
Article 16. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion . . . .
Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression . . . .
Article 26. (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.
Martin Luther King, "I Have a Dream," 28 August 1963 [March on Washington, D. C., delivered at the Lincoln Memorial] (from A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. J. M. Washington [SF: Harper & Row, 1986], pp. 217-220]
. . . Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. . . .
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free; one hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination; one hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity . . . .
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note in so far as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, American has given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." . . .
So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. . . .
The signers of the Declaration represented the new states as follows:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton
John Hancock, Samual Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark
Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross
Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean
Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton
George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton