Study Guide

Declaration of Independence

By Thomas Jefferson

Declaration of Independence Introduction

This piece of parchment is the reason Americans sit outdoors grilling burgers and veggie dogs every 4th of July. It's the reason we chant USA! USA! USA! during the Olympics. It's the reason we get all teary-eyed when we hear Whitney Huston's rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" (and wince when other singers flub it).

Oh, yeah—and the Declaration of Independence is the reason America as a country exists. At all.

It was written to tell England: "We're done with your nonsense, stay over there and we're going to make our own thing over here, okay? Deal with it." Lo and behold, the United States of America was born.

Not only did the Declaration, for lack of better words, declare independence from England and King George III, but also Thomas Jefferson's words embody the founding ideas of the United States, which is why they're still often referenced today when discussing legal and social issues in the U.S.

Yeah. This document is a big, huge, red, white, and blue deal.

You've definitely heard or seen the phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" in some variation or other in your lifetime. Probably so many times that it has become just one those phrases you see on commemorative plates in generic gift stores, along with "Home Sweet Home" and "May the Force be with you."

How It Went Down

The Declaration was presented and approved (and signed by two people) on July 4, 1776. Thomas Jefferson (yup—the Thomas Jefferson) took about a month to draft it, as part of the appointed Committee of Five, which included big-deal names like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and lesser-known-big-deal names Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman.

The Committee of Five was formed following a resolution in the Second Continental Congress that the time had come for the colonies to make the case for their independence. After decades of increasingly strict legislation, forced conscription into the British Army, and a war that only benefited Great Britain the leadership of the colonies felt like it was time to peace out of the whole being-a-colony-of-the-British-Empire deal.

Once the Declaration was signed by almost every member of the Congress the American Revolution had truly begun. King George III had considered the American colonies to be in open rebellion since August of 1775, but now the battle was really on. (Source)

  

The Declaration of Independence was a new and radical way to a) start a country and b) establish that country with very definite principles about the relationship between government and the people. (Get it, Thomas Jefferson.)

We take for granted now the idea that government is supposed to represent and serve the people, and to be as helpful as possible, but this text is where that whole idea was first explicitly stated by Jefferson and the Continental Congress. Basically, Jefferson and the delegates are saying that a government cannot take advantage of its people, and if they do, those people are totally justified to pull a Katniss Everdeen and overthrow them (raises hand in a three-fingered salute).

And it's not like the idea of a government created by and for the people stopped with good ol' 'Murica. These ideas were adopted quickly around the world following the success of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. It contributed to other revolutions, like the French Revolution in 1789 (more on that later) and Venezuelan independence in 1811.

So the next time you don your star-spangled tank top, maybe you'll remember that Independence Day is the result of this single page of text…and that you're barbequing to commemorate the fact that America was born out of the conviction that government is responsible to its people.

But hey—maybe you'll forget all about the Declaration of Independence because you're too busy watching the fireworks display with your jaw open in amazement. That's cool too—after all, you're entitled to a little (or a lot) of the pursuit of happiness.

What is Declaration of Independence About and Why Should I Care?

Not going to lie to you: there are a bunch of reasons why you should care about the Declaration of Independence. Hey, this little doc created the United States, which is pretty huge. Pretty crazily, amazingly, literally-changed-the-face-of-global-politics huge.

The Declaration also established the extremely important idea, in a very official way, that the U.S. is a country where government comes from the people and so has to be responsible to them. Basically, the governmental body should be helpful leadership, not Prince Joffrey of Westeros.

This text also includes ideas that become central tenets of the Constitution in 1789—and some of these are still hotly debated or repeatedly invoked to this very day, especially when talking about government and social issues, like civil rights, religious freedom, and economic equality.

But—and we know this is a shocking statement after listing a bunch of Big Deal things resulting from a yellowing piece of parchment—the reason you should care (really, truly, madly, deeply care) about the Declaration of Independence is found in the preamble.

Here it is, because it can't be repeated too often:

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. (2)

All men are created equal. Brr. Those lines still give us some seriously patriotic chills.

Here's the thing—this was a pretty new idea way back when, when rights were often granted based on race or social class. And yes: when Jefferson penned those immortal words, slavery existed in the colonies, and women had few civil rights and almost no power. Both of those things are seriously jacked up.

But because those words were written and immortalized, the way was paved for all people to fight for equality. After all, the phrase all men are created equal is written in the dang Declaration of Independence.

This idea that (again, it can't be repeated too often) all men are created equal echoes down the years of American human rights history.

And yes—the document that legally paved the way for, say, marriage equality in 2015 is the Constitution. But that short-yet-massively important phrase—say it with us, now—all men are created equal!—is at the heart that landmark decision.

And we're just talking about a) a few of the human rights fights in b) the United States that have benefited from these five little words. The French Revolution created a piece of writing called The Declaration of the Rights of Man. Gandhi wrote a book called All Men Are Brothers. Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

Sound familiar?

Now we're not saying that all these fights for human rights are indebted to the good ol' Declaration of Independence. But what we are saying, unabashedly, is that you saw those famous words—all men are created equal—here first.

Declaration of Independence Resources

Websites

Gilder Lehrman Timeline
The Gilder Lehman Institute for American History has a nifty timeline of all the events leading up to and including the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War, which is very easy to read and navigate if you just need to brush up on your dates and events.

National Archives site on the Declaration of Independence
The site for the Declaration of Independence hosted by the National Archives, where the actual document is kept, has several articles and lots of useful historical information, as well as a high-quality images of the Declaration that you can download and zoom into to your heart's content.

World Digital Library on the Declaration of Independence
The Library of Congress links to this page, so it's fairly trustworthy. It includes basic information, as well as some links to other interesting related events and documents, like maps. Who doesn't love a good map?

Movie-TV-Productions

1776
Signing the Declaration of Independence: the Musical.

National Treasure
Nicholas Cage needs to steal the Declaration of Independence, because it has a treasure map on the back. Side note: this may not be historically accurate.

Articles-and-Interviews

Interview with "Thomas Jefferson"
Don't worry, Thomas Jefferson was real. Not in this case though, the interview is with an impersonator from Colonial Williamsburg. Although honestly, the guy playing Jefferson probably knows the man about as well as anyone could.

Video

Too Late to Apologize: A Declaration
Jefferson, Franklin, Sam Adams and company sing a familiar rock ballad, but with words dedicated to King George III. It includes an enthusiastic violin solo by "Jefferson" and Ben Franklin on electric guitar.

A Reading of the Declaration of Independence
In this video, a bunch of celebrities, including Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, and Renee Zellweger read the Declaration of Independence. The video's a little old, so you may marvel at how young everyone looks.

Schoolhouse Rock, "Fireworks"
If you've never experienced Schoolhouse Rock, you've been missing out. They write some of the catchiest educational songs out there—yes, it is possible to write a catchy educational song. "Conjunction Junction" will get stuck in your head like nobody's business.

Audio

John F. Kennedy Reads the Declaration of Independence
JFK read the Declaration on public radio on July 4th, 1957 as part of 4th of July celebrations. JFK plus the Declaration of Independence? If that's not pure America then nothing is.

Images

The Declaration of Independence
Here is the original signed copy of the Declaration, which resides in the National Archives. Contrary to some people's belief—*cough, Nic Cage, *cough—there is no treasure map on the back.

The Dunlap Broadside
Here's the printed version of the Declaration that was sent immediately to local assemblies and leaders starting on July 5, 1776.

John Trumbull, The Signing of the Declaration of Independence (1818)
You've probably seen this painting, as it's the most famous image of the signing of the document (although this event has somehow not been a major source of inspiration for artists). The picture hangs in the U.S. Capitol building.

Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Jefferson (c. 1821)
There are many portraits of Thomas Jefferson; apparently the guy was popular. This one is part of a set hanging in the National Gallery, done by Gilbert Stuart of the first five presidents.

The Declaration Today?
Ever wonder how Jefferson would handle text-speak? Wonder no more!