Study Guide

Declaration of Independence Quotes

By Thomas Jefferson

  • Dissatisfaction

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another... they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (1)

    Yep, this is very first sentence, and it might not seem like it's blaring the trumpet of dissatisfaction. This sentence is key for establishing a very important idea though—that independence is "necessary." Why is it necessary? Well, he goes on to explain all that, but the overarching theme is dissatisfaction with the current government, to such an extent that the colonies literally must separate themselves.

    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. (6)

    Clearly Jefferson (and company) is not terribly happy with the government he's describing here. He accuses that government of abuse and acting against the people's interest, suggesting that a new government by the colonists' hand will do much better. Generally speaking, people, especially those who are used to fairly lax government, don't appreciate being taken over by a tyrannical one. To each his own, of course, but history generally shows us that despotism doesn't go over well with the public.

    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. (13)

    The long list of abuses that Jefferson provides is all evidence and reason for the colonists' dissatisfaction with the British government. This line feels less like an accusation, and more like pure annoyance with King George III. What is Jefferson really accusing the British government of here, besides the specific action he describes? What does this particular action say about the relationship between the King and the colonies?

    For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent. (27)

    Taxation without representation is a huge theme in American history, starting with this very time and conflict. Again, this is part of that nice long list of complaints about the British government, from which you could choose pretty much anything as an example of dissatisfaction. However, given how big of a role taxes played in the lead-up to the Declaration of Independence, this particular phrase embodies decades of dissatisfaction with government policies.

    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…They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. (43-44)

    Most of the Declaration of Independence focuses on the British government, but Jefferson doesn't forget the rest of the British people. There's plenty of dissatisfaction about them too! The American colonists tried to get their fellow subjects across the Pond to take their side, but they were basically ignored, leading Jefferson to (very elegantly) call them out. What could the British people have done to satisfy the colonists?

  • Freedom, Independence, and Tyranny

    We hold these truths to be self-evident…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…(2)

    This (partial) famous line is important for a number of reasons, one of which is its presentation of the idea that people have the inherent right to liberty. The definition of "liberty" and who really gets it shifts over the centuries, but Jefferson practically starts off the Declaration of Independence with this powerful assertion. What impact does this statement have in the context of the document? Why does Jefferson insist on this?

    The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. (8)

    Tyranny is literally in this sentence. Jefferson repeatedly uses words like "tyranny" and "Despotism" when describing the British government, and here he succinctly summarizes the colonists' vision of the King and Parliament as having become a tyrannical force. The emphasis on the abuse of the British government, going against the liberty granted to the colonists by nature, is a major device Jefferson uses to argue his case.

    He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people. (14)

    A number of the list of offences committed by the British government support the view of that government as a tyranny over the colonies, but this one hits the nail on the head particularly well. Jefferson says that the King has dissolved local legislatures as punishment for them fighting back, which strengthens his centralized power over the colonies. This action would no doubt contribute to the feeling that the British government was trying to exercise absolute power.

    As to what "manly firmness" might be, we'll leave that up to the reader. (Over in our mind, we're imagining The Rock—a true American Instagram hero.)

    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. (39)

    This quote has it all—freedom and tyranny, two for the price of one. Jefferson deliberately casts the King as a despot in contrast to (and in conflict with) the people, who are free. An important argument made here is that free people should not under the control of tyrannical rulers, which is another way of expressing Jefferson's primary argument for independence.

    We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America…solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States. (46)

    Here's the term "free" used in a different way, referring to the colonies' separation from being under the rule of Britain. How is this type of freedom similar and/or different from the depiction of freedom Jefferson uses when discussing the people? Is the distinction clear from the context of the surrounding text?

  • Principles

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (1)

    Right from the get-go, Jefferson puts a high premium on good conduct. The first thing he does is assure the reader that he will explain why the colonies are claiming independence because of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires" it. Despite the decades of frustration leading up to this moment, the Declaration does not begin with a fiery rant (admittedly not Thomas' style), but with a promise that there is a very good reason for this action to be taken. He invokes respect and responsibility.

    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…(2)

    This line, maybe unsurprisingly, is related to a number of themes. It's famous for a reason; it makes a very big claim in, let's face it, a pretty snazzy way. The principle that all men are equal and have inherent rights as human beings is given as one of the reasons for independence, bringing morality and the treatment of others into the equation. King George seems to have forgotten this "self-evident" fact, but the colonists sure didn't.

    Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…(5)

    Declaring independence is a big deal, that's probably pretty clear to everyone involved. Jefferson made sure to clearly state the colonies' awareness that separating themselves from the country that founded them, their mother country, should not be done without a very good reason. Again, we see an emphasis on proper conduct and behaving morally.

    For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. (32)

    All of the abuses on the long list here can be seen as evidence that the British government has violated one principle or another. Some are more obvious than others (like the one where King George was sending mercenaries to kill colonists), but this is an example of a more subtle one. What principle(s) is Jefferson saying the King and Parliament have violated? How does his accusation here relate to accusations in other sections of the text?

    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. (44-45)

    This comes from the paragraph where Jefferson talks at some length about how they tried to get the British people on board and were thoroughly ignored. Jefferson's ideas of humanity compel him to have a good reason for breaking with their former countrymen, while still recognizing that those former countrymen have the same rights as the colonists. Instead of resorting to resentment or name-calling, the author upholds the principles he stated just a few paragraphs ago, that they are all equal.

  • Legitimacy

    …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. (4)

    Jefferson writes that first of all, the current government is doing bad things, and second of all, that the colonies have a vision of how to improve the system. His words show that there has been serious thought as to why the colonies must declare independence. To be legitimate, you generally have to have good reasons and know what you're doing, and Jefferson's opening sentences encompass all of that.

    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. (7)

    Not only do the colonies want independence, but they need it. Their hand has effectively been forced by what's been inflicted by the British government.

    He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us. (33)

    It's kind of hidden in the midst of all the other complaints, but Jefferson flat-out says that the King has given up his control over the colonies through his actions against them, especially after declaring them rebels. Of course the United States are legitimate if the British government has already (albeit unofficially) given up their rule. Do you think this is a convincing argument?

    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. (38)

    Jefferson further supports the legitimacy of the colonial declaration by reminding the reader of how much the colonists tried to find another way to resolve their grievances. They tried so hard, but the British wouldn't listen, and actually just amped up the oppression, making everything worse. That makes the desire for full-out independence pretty justifiable.

    …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. (46)

    To close out the Declaration, the final paragraph finally declares independence and establishes a new government of the United States. Here Jefferson and company prove that they know what independence entails, and have thought about the true significance of being their own nation. They're thinking ahead, which further legitimizes the Continental Congress as governmental body. True, there's potentially a lot included under "all other Acts and Things," but if he listed everything it would have been about fifty pages, and no one wants that.

  • Equality

    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)

    Well obviously this is about equality, unless Jefferson is using some fancy wordplay to talk about something else…in which case we've been fools for over 300 years. Jefferson is talking about inherent rights that all human beings have because they're human, rights that should be ensured by their government. Why did he include this idea in a declaration of independence?

    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. (6)

    Despotism or tyranny should be shut down because it "reduces" its subjects under the government, making them no longer equals. The common people deserve the aforementioned rights just as the people in the government do, and if those rights are not being provided, then it's time to throw the ring into Mount Doom and end the threat of oppression.

    For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent. (27)

    A major reason that the extra taxes were so onerous to the colonists is that they didn't have equal representation in Parliament as citizens in Britain proper had. This complaint is connected the theme of equality, because it illustrates different treatment of the colonists compared to British citizens at home.

    For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury. (28)

    There are several examples of inequality on the list of abuses, but this one brings up the notion of judicial inequality, which you'll see across American history to this day. By bringing this up, Jefferson is saying that the people of the colonies have the same right as citizens in Britain itself to a trial by jury. How has the issue of people getting a fair trial come up in other ways throughout history with regards to the issue of equality?

    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. (47)

    The final words of the Declaration emphasize the communal ambition of the Declaration itself. The signers are not pledging to a king, or a flag, or even a country, but to "each other." What does that imply about the vision the Founding Fathers had of the United States, compared to the Old World structure?