Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence, authored chiefly by Thomas Jefferson, remains the central document of the United States of America. Influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment, Jefferson primarily drew from the natural rights principles of the English philosopher John Locke. He was also likely influenced by early-eighteenth century English Whig writers, such as John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon.

In June 1776, on the eve of independence, the Continental Congress appointed Jefferson to a special committee tasked with drawing up the Declaration. His fellow committee members included John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Because others on the committee were busy with other work, Jefferson was selected to write up the initial draft. The 33-year old Virginian sought not simply to catalog the British government's abuses of power, but he also wished to articulate the fundamental principles upon which the new nation would be founded. Jefferson achieved this end in the Declaration's famous two-paragraph preamble, where he asserted that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Throughout his life, Jefferson insisted that he broke no new ideological ground with these assertions. Indeed, he later wrote that his aim was "not to find out new principles, or new arguments never before thought of," but rather to "place before mankind the common sense of the subject." Jefferson's claim that he merely distilled commonly-accepted political principles held by other revolutionary leaders is supported by contemporary evidence. On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress closely reviewed and edited Jefferson's draft. Although a number of alterations and deletions were made, Congress made no attempt to alter or weaken the preamble's core philosophical principles.

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  • American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence by Pauline Maier

    Publisher's Description: Drawing upon dozens of other "declarations of independence" written to protest the repression of the colonies by King George III, as well as carefully analyzing the drafts of the Declaration signed on July 4, 1776, Maier reveals the…

  • The Meaning of Independence: John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson by Edmund S. Morgan

    "Characterized by the author's customary subtlety and penetration... The Meaning of Independence represents an attempt to open up this complicated subject through separate portraits of John Adams, George Washing, and Thomas Jefferson." From the Journal of American History

  • Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence by Garry Wills

    Publisher's Description: From one of America's foremost historians, Inventing America compares Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence with the final, accepted version, thereby challenging many long-cherished assumptions about both the man and the document. Although Jefferson has…

  • Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution by John Ferling

    Setting the World Ablaze is the story of the American Revolution and of the three Founders who played crucial roles in winning the War of Independence and creating a new nation: George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Braiding three…

  • Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language & the Culture of Performance by Jay Fliegelman

    Publisher's Description: This book sets the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution in general in the context of a revolution in rhetorical theory and practice that sought to discover a new language, a natural language equivalent to natural law…

  • Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn

    The leaders of the American Revolution, writes the distinguished historian Bernard Bailyn, were radicals. But their concern was not to correct inequalities of class or income, not to remake the social order, but to "purify a corrupt constitution and fight…

  • The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas by Carl Becker

    When Carl L. Becker's classic study of the text of the Declaration of Independence first appeared in 1922, it marked a great departure from the passionate and patriotic tenor of many existing historical analyses. Becker claims his work was well…

  • To Secure These Rights: The Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Interpretation by Scott Douglas Gerber

    Publisher's Description: The new reference series, Landmark Events in U.S. History, uses both contributed essays from eminent scholars and excerpts of primary source documents with explanatory headnotes to focus on critical events in American political history and explain how it…

  • George Washington and American Independence by Curtis P. Nettels

    Curtis Nettels' volume asserts that George Washington was an early and powerful advocate of American independence long before his first public statement in favor of it in October 1775. In fact, as soon as war began, Washington had determined that…

  • The Adams-Jefferson letters: the complete correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams by Lester J. Cappon

    The Adams-Jefferson correspondence is an extraordinary collection of letters by two remarkable leaders and ex-presidents.

  • Treatise on Constitutional Law by Ronald D. Rotunda and John E. Nowak

    This book is a six volume Treatise on American Constitutional Law, which examines the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, the development of case law, the current state of the law, and its future direction. It has yearly supplements that…

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  • Draft of Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson

    Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence was written in Philadelphia in late June 1776. On July 2, the Continental Congress reviewed, revised and improved some of Jefferson's text (much to the 33-year-old Virginian's chagrin), but the delegates did…

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  • The American Founding by Jim Harrigan

    Course Objectives: Historians have long disagreed on the nature of the America Founding. The facts are easily accessible, but no definitive interpretation of the Founding has yet emerged. In this course we will examine a good number of the…

  • American Revolution and Early Republic, 1775-1820 by Phil Hamilton

    Introduction and Course Description: Image982|thumbnail|280px|right|Signing of Declaration of Independence How do we make sense of Thomas Jefferson as an American revolutionary? As a young man in 1776, he had stirred the world with the radical words "we hold these truths…

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  • American Revolutionary War by Phil Hamilton

    The American victory in the Revolutionary War was one of the most stunning events of the eighteenth century. Although committed to the cause of independence, American patriots entered the conflict disorganized, ill-equipped and facing a formidable foe. Thus, the American…

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