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8.9.1 Engrossed Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence states the principles on which our government, and our identity as Americans, are based. It is a non legally binding document unlike other founding documents.

Jefferson, Thomas

Thomas Jefferson. Engrossed Declaration of Independence (excerpt), Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774 - 1789, National Archives and Records Administration.


Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to argue that the people of the American colonies had the right to live independently from Great Britain. Jefferson and the 55 other colonists who signed the document put forth a bold idea: that people had natural rights to be safe, free, and happy. The United States has been on a journey ever since to fulfill these ideals that founded the nation. One clear way in which the country failed to live up to these ideals was the institution of slavery. Some who signed the Declaration of Independence (and many other colonists) purchased forcibly enslaved people (mostly Africans) and held them against their will. These enslaved people performed labor without pay. As early as the 1660s, the colonists passed legal codes that stripped enslaved people of any legal rights to their own bodies and of the right to marry or keep their children. In addition, some lawmakers created state laws that prohibited the enslaved from learning to read and write.

A classroom discussion can examine who was included in the declaration's assertions, and who was excluded. This foundational document motivated enslaved people and abolitionists to seek an end to slavery. Students can analyze the remainder of the documents in this inquiry set to see how they relate to the ideals established in the Declaration of Independence.

"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."