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The United States Declaration of Independence

Jefferson, Thomas
National Archives

Thomas Jefferson for the Second Continental Congress of the United States. In Congress, July 4, a declaration by the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled. (Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap, 1776). Retrieved from “Declaration of Independence: A Transcription.” America’s Founding Documents at the National Archives. Last reviewed on June 26, 2017.

Although the major Enlightenment thinkers lived in Europe, their ideas spread to North America through books, newspapers, and words of travelers. The Thirteen British colonies of North America began rebelling against Great Britain in 1775. The rebels were mostly either immigrants from Europe or the descendants of European immigrants; they did not imagine that the rights they claimed for themselves might also belong to Native Americans, African Americans, or women. When the Continental Congress began discussing independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. In the document, Jefferson describes both the aspirations of a new nation and the grievances they had against the British king and government. How did Jefferson use the ideas of the Enlightenment in this excerpt?

As students analyze this section of the Declaration of Independence, they will clearly see elements of Enlightenment’s influence — equality, natural rights, the people as the basis of government — as well as many of the reasons why the colonists wanted their independence. In this opening section of the Declaration, Jefferson was restating the concept of the social contract, developed originally by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is interesting that Jefferson changed the traditional “property” to the “pursuit of happiness.” It’s important for students to realize that to Jefferson and his colleagues “the people” meant white men who owned property, rather than the expansive meaning the term later acquired.

…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 affect their Safety and Happiness. 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…