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Summary and Analysis of The Declaration of Independence

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 2/14/2012

I believe it is every American's duty to learn about history's most influential document: The Declaration of Independence. Find out what your forefathers considered to be human rights they were willing to fight for.

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    Before jumping into this analysis, I strongly recommend you read the actual document and form some of your own thoughts on it.

    Summary of the Introduction: The introduction of The Declaration of Independence contains some of the world's most oft quoted words. The introduction opens by stating the purpose of the document--to declare the causes that compel the colonists to separate themselves from the British Crown.

    The second paragraph contains the philosophy upon which the declaration is based, stating that "all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," that men institute governments in order to secure these rights, and that when government attempts to remove these rights, the governed have the right to rebel.

    Analysis: The line of reasoning used by the document's writers is as follows:

    1. Governments are created to secure certain unalienable rights, rights that are granted, not by government or man, but by God. This is called an appeal to Natural Law. It is apparent the founding fathers felt that God should play an important part in the government of man; they do not, however, go into detail on the nature of that God. This, as repeated nearly a decade later in the Bill of Rights, is up to the individual and a right which, also, cannot be taken away by government.
    2. When government takes away these rights, the governed have just cause to overthrow or separate themselves from that government. The thought that people had a right to overthrow government was revolutionary, although the premise had been stated by philosophers in the past--John Locke, for example. The Declaration contends that although the right to rebel exists, human nature dictates that people will not do so over light and transient causes, choosing rather to suffer than rebel in most cases.
    3. Great Britain is guilty of attempting to take away the aforementioned God given rights; therefore, the colonists are justified in separating themselves from Great Britain. Jefferson and the committee use deductive reasoning to make their case, stating first the principal and then supplying evidence (in the body of the document).
    4. Pauline Meier points out that Jefferson, in the introduction, uses an "eighteenth-century rhetorical method by which one phrase was piled on another, but their point became clear only at the end. It made sense to assert the right of revolution so dramatically in The Declaration of Independence: it was the right they were exercising in 1776, and the Declaration was designed to demonstrate that they did so with justice." (8-9)*

    * Maier, Pauline. The Declaration of Independence & The Constitution of The United States. "The Introduction." New York: Bantam, 1998. Pp. 1-46.

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    The List of Grievances

    The Body of the Document: The Declaration's introduction states the philosophy upon which the colonies' decision to rebel is based. The body of the document lists the specific grievances of the colonies against the British government--the evidence. The British government's infringement upon the colonists' God given rights include preventing the passing of laws that promote the common good, calling legislative assemblies at places designed to prevent colonial leaders from attending, the dissolution of representative bodies of governments, the presence of standing armies in times of peace, the harassment of colonists by British officials, establishing unfair trade laws, denying colonists a fair trial, waging war against the colonies, and the impressment of American sailors into the British Navy.

    In addition to the list of grievances, Jefferson and his committee assert that the colonists have repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction with their treatment and that the British have done nothing about it.

    Interpretation: It's important to remember that the Declaration's primary audience was not King George, but the world. In order to make their cause just, enlist the help of foreign powers, and win the sympathy of British commoners, the document's writers needed to clearly state their cause and clearly state King George's misdeeds. Jefferson understood this well. His original draft includes several more grievances than the final copy, many of which were obscure and unknown even to the most ardent supporters of American Independence.*

    *For an excellent treatment on the origins of the Declaration, check out Pauline Maier's outstanding work.

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    The Conclusion

    The Declaration's Conclusion: The Declaration's introduction establishes the people's right to separate themselves from a tyrannical government. The body gives evidence that the British government has acted tyrannically. The conclusion unequivocally states that the colonies "ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved."

    The conclusion states that free and independent states possess the power to:

    1. wage war
    2. make peace
    3. contract alliances
    4. establish trade
    5. do anything independent states do

    Interpretation: Signing the Declaration was an act of treason. The signers, in the Declaration's conclusion, openly declare themselves enemies to the British crown. The word "ought", used twice in the conclusion, implies moral correctness and makes a final appeal to Natural Law. The conclusion makes several appeals to God. Its authors call upon divine intervention to aid their cause and appeal to God in order to persuade the nations of the world of the justness of their act. When taking the nation's founding document and the intent of its framers into acount, the modern liberal notion that images of God and other references to Deity are opposed to liberty and should be removed from public buildings is ludicrous at best and treasonous at worst.

    That's my analysis. Feel free to share your own thoughts by in the comments.