Five essential things that your students MUST understand about the Declaration of Independence:

Declaration of Independence

  1. All men are entitled to natural, inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ("We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men … are endowed with certain inalienable rights. That among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.")
  2. All men are created equal. ("We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal") And why is the emphasis on the verb, created? Because the Founders believed that all white men were born equal and had an equal opportunity for social mobility. This was in direct opposition to Europe where people were born into a hereditary social and economic position and had little to no chance for upward mobility.
  3. Government must be based upon a social contract between those who agree to be governed by particular laws and the government that enforces these laws for the common good. ("That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed")
  4. The people must consent to be governed and to grant supreme political authority to the government - the principle of popular sovereignty. ("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.")
  5. If the government breaks the social contract, the people have the right to change their government. ("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.")

But the most important thing to remember is that the Declaration is simply that - a declaration to the King and his English subjects that the colonies were independent. It is NOT a legal document, set of laws, or a constitution that outlines any form of government but rather, is a philosophical statement about what the American colonists believe should be the proper role of government. As such, its ideas and goals were more ideal than real. It is the very nature of this discrepancy between the ideal and the real that leads us to our next question for today - How did Americans understand the ideas of freedom and equality during the Founding era?