Learning about America through primary sources: The Declaration of Independence

June 9, 2021

This is part 1 in Sutherland’s new series highlighting primary sources from American history in the hopes of enriching civics education. To help teachers and students identify where to start with primary sources, this series looks at a limited selection that we believe are indispensable to understanding our nation’s government, history, and current circumstances. During this time, when much is being said about America’s history, our hope is that this series can encourage the use of primary sources to help students find context and understanding.

What is this primary source?

The Declaration of Independence is a statement formally adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, that asserted the 13 formerly British colonies were no longer under the British rule and explained why they were to be seen as sovereign states. Though five men were tasked with drafting it, the Declaration was largely written by Thomas Jefferson.

The date of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence – July 4, 1776 – is regarded as the birthdate of the United States of America even though the Second Continental Congress actually voted on and passed the Resolution for Independence (or Lee Resolution) on July 2, 1776. The Lee Resolution resolved that the 13 colonies were free and independent states, but the Declaration of Independence was prepared in advance to share that news broadly if the Lee Resolution passed. And it did.

Thus, though the Declaration of Independence is not a legally binding document, the content of its text as well as its adoption are seen as key in the founding of the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence declared the decision of the colonies and outlined political philosophies still held sacred to Americans today.

The structure of the Declaration of Independence includes an introduction, a preamble, the body (including the list of abuses by King George III), and the conclusion.

To draft the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson drew upon other documents, including the Virginia Declaration of Rights; a draft of the Virginia Constitution he had written; and other calls for independence. Furthermore, much of the political philosophy within the declaration came from Enlightenment thinkers.

After Jefferson drafted his version, it later incorporated 86 changes from people like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, two other men also assigned to the five-person committee tasked with drafting the declaration. Jefferson did not like many of the changes, especially the removal of a section that placed the blame of the slave trade on King George III. From there, a third and final version was adopted by the Continental Congress.

Regardless of how Jefferson felt about the changes, the resulting official Declaration was powerful. Just days after its adoption, on July 9, the American army tore down a statue of King George III in New York City upon hearing the Declaration of Independence for the first time.

Today the original Declaration of Independence signed by the 56 delegates to the Second Continental Congress resides in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., where it has been housed since 1952.

Where did it come from in our history?

The Revolutionary War was already being fought by the time the Declaration of Independence came into being.

Long before the declaration’s official adoption by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, American colonists from the 13 colonies and British soldiers had already been clashing in battle for over a year. The first Revolutionary War conflict, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, took place on April 19, 1775.

Thus, rather than putting the Revolution into motion, the Declaration was a culmination of the colonies’ intentions – that is, to sever ties with Britain forever – as well as the public statement of those intentions. Although momentum was gaining by the time independence was declared, not all colonists wanted to be completely independent from the British Crown. Still, once the Revolutionary War was won on September 3, 1783, a new nation was born.

Victory gave the colonies independence, but the work to design the new, never-before-seen government was still to come. Ultimately, that work would lead to the U.S. Constitution, but the Declaration of Independence precedes even that founding work and remains an essential part of America’s origin story.

Why is the Declaration of Independence an important element of civics and history education?

Today’s world is full of information. Politics touches everything. Students are inundated with opposing ideas about American society and new claims about American history, government and origins. More than ever, they need the opportunity to access original documents and to think critically about what the text says.

What better place to start than the statement that formally conceptualized America’s independence from Britain, its status as a new nation, and the political philosophy that undergirds it?

The declaration holds within its text ideals that have captured the world’s attention ever since: that all men are created equal and that fundamental rights come straight from God rather than government. Though the concepts in the Declaration of Independence were not necessarily new at the time – they are usually regarded as springing from other Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke – the Declaration of Independence has been a direct source of political inspiration for other nations and peoples.

According to the scholar Peter W. Wood, “The Declaration is several things: an explanation, a statement of principles, a list of complaints, and a bold assertion of new authority, of a new sovereignty.”

Furthermore, President Abraham Lincoln said that the Declaration of Independence is “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to tyranny and oppression.”

Certainly, every student of American civics could benefit from studying a document that has helped America stand out in the world.

Where can parents and educators find easy links to this primary source document?

Parents and students can find access to the text of the Declaration of Independence from various sources, including the National Archives, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and even a simple online search.

Full text

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

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 effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. 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.–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. 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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

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.

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

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

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

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

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

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. 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.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us.

We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. 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, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. 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.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right 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; and that 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. 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.

Georgia

Button Gwinnett

Lyman Hall

George Walton

 

North Carolina

William Hooper

Joseph Hewes

John Penn

 

South Carolina

Edward Rutledge

Thomas Heyward, Jr.

Thomas Lynch, Jr.

Arthur Middleton

 

Massachusetts

John Hancock

Maryland

Samuel Chase

William Paca

Thomas Stone

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

 

Virginia

George Wythe

Richard Henry Lee

Thomas Jefferson

Benjamin Harrison

Thomas Nelson, Jr.

Francis Lightfoot Lee

Carter Braxton

 

Pennsylvania

Robert Morris

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Franklin

John Morton

George Clymer

James Smith

George Taylor

James Wilson

George Ross

 

Delaware

Caesar Rodney

George Read

Thomas McKean

 

New York

William Floyd

Philip Livingston

Francis Lewis

Lewis Morris

 

New Jersey

Richard Stockton

John Witherspoon

Francis Hopkinson

John Hart

Abraham Clark

 

New Hampshire

Josiah Bartlett

William Whipple

 

Massachusetts

Samuel Adams

John Adams

Robert Treat Paine

Elbridge Gerry

 

Rhode Island

Stephen Hopkins

William Ellery

 

Connecticut

Roger Sherman

Samuel Huntington

William Williams

Oliver Wolcott

 

New Hampshire

Matthew Thornton

Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic foster agency but leaves big questions for later

Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic foster agency but leaves big questions for later

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a significant religious freedom decision this morning, with all the justices concluding that the city of Philadelphia violated the constitutional rights of a religious foster care agency, Catholic Social Services, when it “stopped referring children to CSS upon discovering that the agency would not certify same-sex couples to be foster parents due to its religious beliefs about marriage.”

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