Essay About The Principles In The Declaration Of Independence

Thomas Jefferson
Declaration of Independence: Right to Institute New Government

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Drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 became the defining event in Thomas Jefferson's life. Despite Jefferson's desire to return to Virginia to help write that state's constitution, the Continental Congress appointed him to the five-person committee for drafting a declaration of independence. That committee subsequently assigned him the task of producing a draft document for its consideration. Drawing on documents, such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights, state and local calls for independence, and his own draft of a Virginia constitution, Jefferson wrote a stunning statement of the colonists' right to rebel against the British government and establish their own based on the premise that all men are created equal and have the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Through the many revisions made by Jefferson, the committee, and then by Congress, Jefferson retained his prominent role in writing the defining document of the American Revolution and, indeed, of the United States. Jefferson was critical of changes to the document, particularly the removal of a long paragraph that attributed responsibility of the slave trade to British King George III. Jefferson was justly proud of his role in writing the Declaration of Independence and skillfully defended his authorship of this hallowed document.

Influential Precedents

Instructions to Virginia's Delegates to the first Continental Congress written by Thomas Jefferson in 1774

Thomas Jefferson, a delegate to the Virginia Convention from Albemarle County, drafted these instructions for the Virginia delegates to the first Continental Congress. Although considered too radical by the Virginia Convention, Jefferson's instructions were published by his friends in Williamsburg. His ideas and smooth, eloquent language contributed to his selection as draftsman of the Declaration of Independence. This manuscript copy contains additional sections and lacks others present in the published version, A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

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Fairfax County Resolves, July 18, 1774

The Fairfax County Resolves were written by George Mason (1725–1792) and George Washington (1732/33–1799) and adopted by a Fairfax County Convention chaired by Washington and called to protest Britain's harsh measures against Boston. The resolves are a clear statement of constitutional rights considered to be fundamental to Britain's American colonies. The Resolves call for a halt to trade with Great Britain, including an end to the importation of slaves. Jefferson tried unsuccessfully to include in the Declaration of Independence a condemnation of British support of the slave trade.

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George Mason's Virginia Declaration of Rights

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was drafted by George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee (1730–1778) and adopted unanimously in June 1776 during the Virginia Convention in Williamsburg that propelled America to independence. It is one of the documents heavily relied on by Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration of Rights can be seen as the fountain from which flowed the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The document exhibited here is Mason's first draft to which Thomas Ludwell Lee added several clauses. Even a cursory examination of Mason's and Jefferson's declarations reveal the commonality of language and principle.

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George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee. Draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, 1776. Manuscript. Manuscript Division (41)

Thomas Jefferson's Draft of a Constitution for Virginia, predecessor of The Declaration Of Independence

Immediately on learning that the Virginia Convention had called for independence on May 15, 1776, Jefferson, a Virginia delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote at least three drafts of a Virginia constitution. Jefferson's drafts are not only important for their influence on the Virginia government, they are direct predecessors of the Declaration of Independence. Shown here is Jefferson's litany of governmental abuses by King George III as it appeared in his first draft.

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The Fragment

Fragment of the earliest known draft of the Declaration, June, 1776

This is the only surviving fragment of the earliest draft of the Declaration of Independence. This fragment demonstrates that Jefferson heavily edited his first draft of the Declaration of Independence before he prepared a fair copy that became the basis of “the original Rough draught.” None of the deleted words and passages in this fragment appears in the “Rough draught,” but all of the undeleted 148 words, including those careted and interlined, were copied into the “Rough draught” in a clear form.

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The Rough Draft

Original Rough Draft of the Declaration

Written in June 1776, Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, included eighty-six changes made later by John Adams (1735–1826), Benjamin Franklin 1706–1790), other members of the committee appointed to draft the document, and by Congress. The “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, one of the great milestones in American history, shows the evolution of the text from the initial composition draft by Jefferson to the final text adopted by Congress on the morning of July 4, 1776. At a later date perhaps in the nineteenth century, Jefferson indicated in the margins some but not all of the corrections suggested by Adams and Franklin. Late in life Jefferson endorsed this document: “Independence Declaration of original Rough draught.”

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The Graff House where Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence

The house of Jacob Graff, brick mason, located at the southwest corner of Market and Seventh Street, Philadelphia, was the residence of Thomas Jefferson when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. The three-story brick house is pictured here in Harper's Weekly, April 7, 1883. Jefferson rented the entire second floor for himself and his household staff.

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Submitting the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, June 28, 1776

This image is considered one of the most realistic renditions of this historical event. Jefferson is the tall person depositing the Declaration of Independence on the table. Benjamin Franklin sits to his right. John Hancock (1737–1793) sits behind the table. Fellow committee members, John Adams, Roger Sherman (1721–1793), and Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813) stand (left to right) behind Jefferson.

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Edward Savage and/or Robert Edge Pine. Congress Voting the Declaration of Independence, c. 1776. Copyprint of oil on canvas, Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (53)

The “Declaration Committee,” chaired by Thomas Jefferson

On June 11, 1776, anticipating that the vote for independence would be favorable, Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration: Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Robert R. Livingston of New York, and John Adams of Massachusetts. Currier and Ives prepared this imagined scene for the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

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The Final Document

George Washington's copy of the Declaration of Independence

This is the surviving fragment of John Dunlap's initial printing of the Declaration of Independence, which was sent to George Washington by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress on July 6, 1776. General Washington had the Declaration read to his assembled troops in New York on July 9. Later that night the Americans destroyed a bronze statue of Great Britain's King George III, which stood at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green.

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[In Congress, July 4, 1776. A Declaration By the Representatives of the United States of America, In General Congress Assembled.] [Philadelphia: John Dunlap, July 4, 1776]. Broadside with broken at lines 34 and 54 with text below line 54 missing. Manuscript Division (51)

Independence Hall

Congress voted for Independence in the Pennsylvania State House located on Chestnut Street between Fifth and Sixth Streets. Charles Willson Peale painted this northwest view of the state house and its sheds in 1778. The building was ornamented by two clocks and a steeple, which was removed shortly after the British left Philadelphia in 1778.

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Prospect of Philadelphia

This is a view of the city of Philadelphia in 1768 from the Jersey shore, with a street map and an enlarged engraving of the State House and the River Battery. Jefferson would have seen Philadelphia, as depicted, when he visited Annapolis, Philadelphia, and New York in 1766. The Philadelphia skyline had not dramatically changed when Jefferson returned in 1775.

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George Heap under the direction of Nicholas Scull, surveyor general of Pennsylvania. Prospect of the City of Philadelphia, 1768. Copyprint of map and engraving. Prints and Photographs Division (6)

Destroying the statue of King George III

After hearing the Declaration of Independence read on July 9, the American army destroyed the statue of King George III at the foot of Broadway on the Bowling Green in New York City.

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John C. McRae after Johnannes A. Oertel. Pulling down the statue of George III by the “Sons of Freedom,” at the Bowling Green, City of New York, July 1776. New York : Published by Joseph Laing, [ca. 1875] Copyprint of engraving. Prints and Photographs Division (52)

First public reading of the Declaration of Independence

Pennsylvania militia colonel John Nixon (1733–1808) is portrayed in the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 6, 1776. This scene was created by William Hamilton after a drawing by George Noble and appeared in Edward Barnard, History of England (London, 1783).

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The Manner in Which the American Colonies Declared Themselves Independent of the King of England, Throughout the Different Provinces, on July 4, 1776. Copyprint of etching. Prints and Photographs Division (57)

The Aftermath

Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, as reported to Congress

This copy of the Declaration represents the fair copy that the committee presented to Congress. Jefferson noted that “the parts struck out by Congress shall be distinguished by a black line drawn under them, & those inserted by them shall be placed in the margin or in a concurrent column.” Despite its importance in the story of the evolution of the text, this copy of the Declaration has received very little public attention.

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Jefferson consoled for his “mangled” manuscript

Thomas Jefferson sent copies of the Declaration of Independence to a few close friends, such as Richard Henry Lee (1732–1794), indicating the changes that had been made by Congress. Lee, replied: “I wish sincerely, as well for the honor of Congress, as for that of the States, that the Manuscript had not been mangled as it is. It is wonderful, and passing pitiful, that the rage of change should be so unhappily applied. However the Thing is in its nature so good, that no Cookery can spoil the Dish for the palates of Freemen.”

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The Goddess Of Liberty

In this allegorical print, the Goddess of Liberty points to Thomas Jefferson's portrait while gazing at the portrait of George Washington. It was made late in Jefferson's second presidential administration. The cupids here are the Genius of Peace and the Genius of Gratitude, and in this context Jefferson is “Liberty's Genius.”

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The Goddess of Liberty with a Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Salem, Massachusetts, January 15, 1807. Copyprint of painting. Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection (32)

Thomas Jefferson's portable writing desk

The Declaration of Independence was composed on this mahogany lap desk, designed by Jefferson and built by Philadelphia cabinet maker Benjamin Randolph. Jefferson gave it to Joseph Coolidge, Jr. (1798–1879) when he married Ellen Randolph, Jefferson's granddaughter. In giving it, Jefferson wrote on November 18, 1825: “Politics, as well as Religion, has it's superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day give imaginary value to this relic, for it's association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence.” Coolidge replied, on February 27, 1826, that he would consider the desk “no longer inanimate, and mute, but as something to be interrogated and caressed.”

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Benjamin Randolph after a design by Thomas Jefferson. Portable writing desk, Philadelphia, 1776. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (30)

Thomas Jefferson's monogrammed silver pen

Thomas Jefferson ordered this small cylindrical silver fountain pen with a gold nib from his agent in Richmond, Virginia. It was probably made by William Cowan (1779–1831), a Richmond watchmaker. An elliptical cap that screws into the end of the cylinder and caps the ink reservoir is engraved “TJ”.

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Probably by William Cowan. Silver pen, Richmond, Virginia, c.1824. Courtesy of the Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc. (31)

Lord Kames, Henry Home, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion

This is Jefferson's personal copy of the Scottish moral philosopher's work and is one of the few books annotated by Jefferson. Lord Kames (1696–1782) was a leader of the “moral sense” school, that advocated that men had an inner sense of right and wrong. Lord Kames provided the philosophical foundation of the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” which was appropriated by Jefferson as an inalienable right of mankind in the Declaration of Independence.

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Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government

Jefferson considered Algernon Sidney's (1622–1683) Discourses the best fundamental textbook on the principles of government. In a December 13, 1804 letter to Mason Weems, Jefferson commented that “they are in truth a rich treasure of republican principles . . . it is probably the best elementary book of the principles of government.” Sidney was a republican executed by the British for seditious writings including the Discourses. This is Jefferson's personal copy which was sold to Congress in 1815.

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Liberty And Science

Thomas Jefferson is pictured, at the beginning of his first presidential term, holding the Declaration of Independence with scientific instruments in the background. Tiebout used the bust portrait of Rembrandt Peale and created an imaginary full-body, because no standing portrait of Jefferson had been painted.

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Home | Overview | Exhibition Items | Learn More | Public Programs | Acknowledgments

Sections:Monticello | Virginia Republic | Declaration of Independence | Federal Republic | The West | Revolutionary World | Legacy | Jefferson's Library

While the Declaration of Independence formally declared our independence from Great Britain, it accomplished so much more. Its unique combination of general principles and government theory has resulted in an enduring nation.

With Independence Day just around the corner, it is important to be reminded of our Founding Fathers’ foresight and why the Declaration’s principles matter 236 years later.

“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,” drafted by Thomas Jefferson, was unanimously approved on July 4, 1776 by the Continental Congress.  In the second paragraph, the Declaration spells out the fundamental principles of American government:

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.

The term “self-evident” is used to describe the previously mentioned rights because they represent acknowledged and affirmed liberties inherent in human nature.

Understanding the meaning of equality is essential, as it is the premise upon which the “self-evident” truths are understood. This notion of equality does not ensure equality of ability, nor does it demand a communistic equality of results or condition. Despite our differences, there exists a fundamental human truth: no one is born to rule or be ruled. This understanding equality requires legitimate government to be based on “the consent of the governed.”

Government exists to defend our rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Our right to life ensures that no one can lawfully threaten the life of another. Our right to liberty guarantees freedom from political coercion. Happiness, explains The Heritage Foundation’s analysis of the Declaration, “is not about self-satisfaction or stupefied pleasure but rather a life lived to its full potential—human flourishing.”

“Politically, the most important right is the right of self-government,” Heritage’s analysis continues. “Violation of government by consent calls forth the right, if not the duty, of ‘the people’ (not any angry individual or mob) to ‘alter or to abolish’ a government destructive of rights and to ‘institute new government’ that will bring about ‘their safety and happiness.'”

The ringing phrases of The Declaration of Independence speak to everyone who strives for liberty and supports the principles of self-government. This Independence Day, enjoy the cookouts, fireworks, and other Fourth of July festivities, but don’t forget the reasons why we have so much to celebrate.

Click here to read more about the Declaration of Independence

How do you celebrate the principles of the Founders?

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