Study Guide

Declaration of Independence Themes

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  • Dissatisfaction

    Really, when you think about it, the entire Declaration of Independence is a Declaration of Dissatisfaction. The whole reason for the document's existence is anger and disapproval of the actions of the government. Jefferson repeatedly argues that the British government has done things they shouldn't, and that is why the colonies must be free, going into pretty solid detail about all the shenanigans that have been pulled by the King and Parliament.

    Dissatisfaction may seem at first like a tame word for what's going on, and there are certainly more dramatic themes in there. As mild as may seem, though, dissatisfaction underlies almost everything written in the Declaration.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Why were the colonists dissatisfied with the British government, both legally and ethically?
    2. If you had to encompass Jefferson's statements of dissatisfaction into a single sentence, what would it say?
    3. How effective is Jefferson's depiction of colonial dissatisfaction? Does he go too far, or not far enough? Or does he capture it perfectly?
    4. Is a prominent theme of dissatisfaction necessary for a declaration of independence? Why?

    Chew on This

    Jefferson's complaints about the British government distract from the primary purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and make the document really about something else entirely.

    Jefferson had to elaborate heavily about the colonies' dissatisfaction with Britain in order to be taken seriously and not seen as ungrateful or hasty in their decision.

  • Freedom, Independence, and Tyranny

    Jefferson consistently uses the juxtaposition of freedom and tyranny throughout the Declaration of Independence. King George and Parliament represent tyranny, while the people of America represent freedom. Jefferson compares the two, sometimes directly, sometimes by implication, as a way of illustrating the colonies' justification for their declaration.

    Freedom also comes into play in a more literal sense, since the document serves to give the colonies' legal freedom from their former rulers. More significantly, Jefferson's device of comparing the two opposing ideas emphasizes the differences between the colonies and Britain, as if to say that the colonies are independent regardless of their official status.

    Questions About Freedom, Independence, and Tyranny

    1. What are Jefferson's (and Congress') definitions of "freedom" and "tyranny"? Would they be the same if the Declaration were written today?
    2. How is the use of the contrasting themes of freedom and tyranny influenced by the events leading up to independence?
    3. Does Jefferson make a more convincing argument about the existence of freedom or tyranny?
    4. What "big picture" implications could (or did) Jefferson's use of this theme have in the world? Was it reflected in other nations' independence movements?

    Chew on This

    Although Jefferson provides many examples of the tyranny of the British, he doesn't fully explain how the United States will provide an alternative (freer) method of government.

    The primary reason Jefferson leans on the freedom vs. tyranny theme is more rhetorical than logical. He is using the juxtaposition as a device to convince people to support an independent America.

  • Principles

    Principles are fundamental ideas about how people should behave, or how the world should operate (except in science, but that's not really what we're discussing here). In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson discusses the reasons why the British government has acted wrongly and therefore lost the right to govern the colonies.

    By arguing that the colonists have certain rights as human beings, which should be protected by the government, Jefferson and the Continental Congress are proclaiming that the King and Parliament's actions have not been morally right. The Founding Fathers are adhering to certain principles to determine their vision of how government should be, and to prove how the British government has failed.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What effect does Jefferson's emphasis on principles have on the overall impact of the text?
    2. What seems to you to be the most important principle to Jefferson?
    3. If you were writing the Declaration of Independence, what principles would you have focused on? Would they differ from Jefferson's?
    4. Knowing what you do about the context of the Declaration of Independence, do you think the British government and the colonial governments were following different principles? If so, in what ways? If not, then why were they at war?

    Chew on This

    The principle of good, benevolent government is big for Jefferson, and is really the main idea of the Declaration of Independence.

    Jefferson provides more evidence for the lack of principles on the British side then for the presence of principles on the American side.

  • Legitimacy

    Jefferson and the Committee of Five made sure the Declaration of Independence didn't just, you know, declare independence, but gave a multitude of legitimate reasons for doing so. Jefferson also threw in some lines showing that the colonists' knew what they wanted (or didn't want) from a government, proving that these uppity rebels understood what a government should be, and therefore were capable of governing themselves.

    The Declaration was the first official document of the United States, and it had to prove that the United States had a legitimate cause and right to exist as an independent nation, and should be considered an equal.

    Questions About Legitimacy

    1. Do you think the colonies had a legitimate claim to independence and to be recognized as an independent nation? Why or why not?
    2. Does Jefferson successfully give the impression of legitimacy to the case of colonial independence?
    3. Why would it be important to emphasize legitimacy in a document like the Declaration of Independence? What other documents or types of documents might benefit from this theme?

    Chew on This

    Jefferson needed to prove that the colonies were a legitimate nation, because otherwise the Declaration of Independence would merely be seen as part of their angsty teenage rebellion against the Crown.

    Jefferson provides lots and lots of evidence to support the legitimacy of the colonists' argument. His effort implies that either the colonies felt that their complaints had been ignored, or that they weren't confident that the British government would take their claim seriously.

  • Equality

    The most obvious presentation of the idea of equality in the Declaration of Independence is the part we all know and love (hint: the word "equal" is in the sentence). That sentence has echoed throughout American history.

    We now know that the 18th century version of "equality" was super-incomplete, but even bringing up the idea that men were born equal was relatively new, especially in a public document. Jefferson also includes moments that show the colonists' desire to be considered equals of their fellow citizens in Britain, and how that desire has been ignored in recent decades.

    Questions About Equality

    1. Why did Jefferson feel a need to promote the theme of equality in the Declaration of Independence?
    2. Does Jefferson get his message across? If you were living in England in the 1770s, would you have been convinced that the colonists were your equals? If not, what more could he have done?
    3. Why do you think Jefferson starts off the Declaration with his major statement about equality? What effect does its placement have on the text as a whole?
    4. How has the vision of equality that Jefferson presents been reflected or disputed throughout American history?

    Chew on This

    Jefferson had to say all men were created equal, not just the colonists and the British, because a grand sweeping philosophical statement is way harder to argue with.

    Along with that famous line about equality, the theme is in the background throughout the whole Declaration, because Jefferson is accusing the British government of treating the colonists as inferior subjects.

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