Declaration of Independence 1 Stat. 1 (July 4, 1776)

AuthorDennis J. Mahoney

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America's most fundamental constitutional document was adopted by the United States in Congress on July 4, 1776. The Declaration of Independence may carry little weight in the courts; it may, for all its being placed at the head of the Statutes at Large and described in the United States Code as part of the "organic law," have no legally binding force. Yet it is the Declaration that constitutes the American nation. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, transmitting the Declaration to the several states, described it as "the Ground & Foundation of a future Government." JAMES MADISON, the Father of the Constitution, called it "the fundamental Act of Union of these States."

The Declaration of Independence is the definitive statement for the American policy of the ends of government, of the necessary conditions for the legitimate exercise of political power, and of the SOVEREIGNTY of the people who establish the government and, when circumstances warrant, may alter or abolish it. No mere tract in support of a bygone event, the Declaration was and remains the basic statement of the meaning of the United States as a political entity.

The historical event, the Revolution, provided the occasion for making that statement. RICHARD HENRY LEE, on instructions from the Virginia convention, introduced three resolutions on June 7, 1776: to declare the colonies independent, to establish a confederation, and to seek foreign alliances. Each of the resolutions was referred to a select committee, one of which was charged with preparing "a declaration to the effect of the first resolution." Lee's motion was adopted on July 2, the Declaration two days later.

Although the Congress had appointed for the task a distinguished committee, including JOHN ADAMS of Massachusetts, BENJAMIN FRANKLIN of Pennsylvania, ROGER SHERMAN of Connecticut, and ROBERT LIVINGSTON of New York, THOMAS JEFFERSON of Virginia actually penned the Declaration. So well did Jefferson express the sentiments of the Congress that his committee colleagues made only a few changes in his draft.

Jefferson, by his own account, turned to neither book nor pamphlet for ideas. Nor did he seek to expound a novel political theory. His aim was to set forth the common sense of the American people on the subject of political legitimacy. To be sure, there are ideas, and even phrases, that recall JOHN LOCKE : the Declaration follows Locke in stressing the NATURAL RIGHTS of man as the foundation of the political order. But the concept of man's natural autonomy, modifiable only by his consent to the rule of others in a SOCIAL COMPACT, was long acknowledged in the American colonies; it inhered in congregational church polity, and it was transmitted through such theoretical and legal writers as EMERICH DE VATTEL, Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, and Samuel Pufendorf, as well as by the authors of CATO ' SLETTERS and other popular works.

The Declaration of Independence has a structure that emphasizes its content. It begins with a preamble, by which the document is addressed not to the king of Great Britain or to the English public, but to the world at large, to the "opinion of mankind." Moreover, the purpose of the document is said explicitly to be to "declare the causes" that impelled the Americans to declare their independence from Britain.

There had been other revolutions in British history, but this one was different. From the barons at Runnymede to the Whigs who drove James II from the throne, British insurgents had appealed to the historic rights of Englishmen.

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The declarations they extracted?from MAGNA CARTA to the BILL OF RIGHTS?were the assurances of their kings that the ancient laws obtaining in their island would be respected. The preamble of the Declaration of Independence makes clear that this is not the case with the American Revolution. The case of Britain's rule in America was to be held up to a universal standard and exposed as tyrannical before a "candid world."...

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