Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence stands as a rejection of British tyranny as well as the emboldened embrace of a republican form of democracy that has, albeit imperfectly, stood the test of time in America. The Declaration of Independence draws from and expanded upon a notion of natural rights—the principle that government’s role in relation to its people is to provide for the protection of certain key rights that derive from nature and are therefore inalienable and fundamental. After brief introductory remarks regarding the need for independence, the often quoted second paragraph begins: ‘‘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.’’ It continues by describing the role of government in a republican democracy so as to secure these rights and describes the foundation for government as not being divined from the heavens (as in the British system), but from the people.

It is no surprise that Jefferson then outlined the many colonial grievances against British rule, including taxation without representation, since the notion of a people-based democratic rule constituted an overwhelming rejection of the tyrannical rule of unchecked power over the citizenry the colonists had suffered at the hands of the English. The Declaration of Independence persists as an outline of American popular governance. Since government derives its sovereignty from the people via the polls, it is thus subject to ongoing revision through the casting of ballots by the electorate. Next, the government cannot infringe on certain core ‘‘unalienable rights’’ of the people, such as the right to due process of liberty or the protection against governmental takings of property without just compensation. There is also a lasting irony in the notion that while the founding fathers rejected the subservience of British rule, they at the same time struggled with the enslavement of African Americans on their own shores. Slavery in America defied some of the principles of freedom for all, a notion that embodied the words of American independence.

JAMES F. Van ORDEN

References and Further Reading

  • Becker, Carl. The Declaration of Independence. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1922.

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