The Ideals of the Declaration of Independece: Which is Most Important?
Overview: In a recent survey conducted by the National Archives, the Declaration of Independence topped all others to emerge as the "most influential document in American history." Many Americans think of the Declaration as a symbol of the independence from Great Britain that we celebrate on July 4th. While it is certainly that, the Declaration is also a statement of our nation's main beliefs about government and its relationship to the people. These beliefs have been the centerpiece of American history for more than 230 years. All the ideas are important, but which is most important? That is the question asked by this Mini-Q.
Document A: Equality
Document B: Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Document C: Consent of the Governed
Document D: Alter or Abolish Government
The Background Essay
History and Structure of the Declaration- By early summer 1776 the Revolutionary War was already a year old. The Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia had appointed a Committee of Five to write a statement explaining the colonists' arguments for independence from Great Britain. The Committee of Five asked one of its members, 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson, to take on the job of writing the first draft. After Jefferson prepared the draft, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin suggested some changes. The Committee approved the revised draft, and it was delivered to the Congress. Between July 2 and July 4, the Congress made other changes, but the structure and powerful words of the document are still his.
In the end the Declaration would not only shape the government and cultrue of the United States; it would shape the thinking of the world.
The Declaration has a simple structure:
• An introduction saying that we owe the world an explanation for our separation; • A statement of ideals about government;
• A long list of grievances against the British;
• A declaration of independence from Great Britain.
It is the second paragraph of the Declaration — the statement of ideals — that will be our focus in this Mini-Q. In this paragraph, Jefferson said:
"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."
Many historians would argue that this is the most important passage in the most important document in American history. Historians also agree that the exact meaning of key words and phrases is open to interpretation. For example,
in the first line Jefferson writes, "all men are created equal." What did he mean by "men"? What did he mean buy "equal"? And later in the same sentence what did he mean by by "Life"? Was he against taking a life and,therefore against warfare? And but the structure and powerfulwhat did he mean by "Liberty?" Was he against slavery even his.though he owned slaves? Indeed this passage in the Declaration is noth powerful and open to interpretation.
Regardless of one's interpretation, these ideas provide the basis for our Constitution and government. They represent American ideals — that is, they reflect the full vision of what America should be. They are worthy of close inspection.
Consider the four key ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence — equality, unalienable rights, consent of the governed, and the right to alter or abolish government. Then write an essay which explains why three of these ideals are important to society, and why the fourth ideal is most important of all.
What are the four parts of the Declaration of Independence?
Why is the second paragraph seen as such an important part of the Declaration?
According to the Declaration of Independence, what is the purpose of government?
1. Who was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence?
Document A: Equality
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal
Source: Declaration of Sentiments, Women's Rights Convention, Seneca Falls, NY, 1848.
Note: In July 1848, approximately 260 women and 40 men met in Seneca Falls, New York, for one of the first women's rights conventions. The convention adopted a "Declaration of Sentiments."
. . . We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Source: Diana Pham, Chicago, IL, July 2012.
Note: Diana Pham and her husband, Vi Luu, arrived in Chicago in 1980 from refugee camps in Indonesia and Malaysia. Diana was recently asked what she appreciated most about her new country.
As immigrant boat people from communist Vietnam, we appreciate the opportunity given to us to build our lives in the United States. Our two daughters are just finishing their university education at Stanford and Michigan which would never have been possible without this country's belief in equality. My daughters, like other Americans, had an equal opportunity to succeed. America has given our family the chance to become whatever we choose to become.
Which of the 4 beliefs is highlighted in the document?
Right to Life, Liberty and Happiness
Consent of the Governed
Alter of Abolish Government
What do you think Equality meant to most Americans in 1776?
What does "equality" mean to Diana Pham?
Document B: Right to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
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