Our purpose is to look at the Declaration of Independence [DOI] unanimously approved and signed by a coalition of thirteen state colonies of the British on mainland America on 4 July 1776 and explore the influence of the thoughts of enlightenment thinkers in the drafting of the text.

The Declaration of Independence is in three parts: a preamble, a list of grievances, and a conclusion. The preamble acknowledges the right of peoples of colonies to set up their own government and to change the form of government if and when they so choose. Grievances are time specific and list problems they had to endure at the hands of George II, the then king of Great Britain. The conclusion is a declaration of independence based upon assertions made in the preamble and deemed justified by the enumerated grievances.  

Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. The Natural Rights philosophy of John Locke reflects the central ideals of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment thinkers believed they could construct a social order that respects dignity of individuals and their freedom to shape their lives as they saw fit. They also hoped that if opportunities were opened up, independent endeavor would produce a wealth of goods for all. John Locke and Thomas Jefferson are among the many notable thinkers and writers who shared Enlightenment values.


Relations between the US colonies and Great Britain [GB] had been deteriorating since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. By the time the DOI was adopted in July 1776, the Thirteen Colonies had been at war with G B for more than a year.

The orthodox British view was that Parliament was the supreme authority through the empire, and anything that Parliament did was constitutional. By 1774 American writers such as Samuel Adams, James Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson were arguing that Parliament was the legislature of GB only, and that colonies, which had their own legislatures, were connected to the rest of the empire only through their allegiance to the Crown.

In January 1776, just as it became clear that the king was not inclined to act as a conciliator, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was published. Paine argued in favor of colonial independence, advocating republicanism as an alternative to monarchy and hereditary rule. Public support for separation from GB steadily increased after the publication of Paine’s enormously popular pamphlet.

John Lind’s pamphlet included an anonymous attack on the concept of natural rights written by Jeremy Bentham asking how slave owners in Congress could proclaim that “all men are created equal” without then freeing their own slaves. According to historian David Armitage, the United States Declaration of Independence did prove to be the first in a new genre of declarations of independence that announced the creation of new states.



When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal [L], that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights [L] , that among these are Life, Liberty [L] 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 [R], that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to 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 [H], as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shown that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism [V, M], it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security. Such has been the patient Sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the Necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The History of the present King of Great- Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations [V], all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny [V] over these States.


The above narration conveys that since laws of nature and God entitled all peoples to separate and equal status, any people could abandon their connections and ties with another people with whom they had enduring relationship, if the situation so warranted. However if such a step were taken they should let the reasons prompting their action be known.

With the above opening the preamble of the DOI highlights the “Natural Rights” philosophy, originally credited to John Locke in which he has emphasized that all men are created equal and individual rights to life, liberty, and property are inalienable. Though the rights that have been enumerated are at slight variance with Locke’s version yet their essence is quite similar; witness: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Locke’s “natural law” included life, liberty and property; right to property being substituted by “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration. We understand that absent right to possessions, pursuit of happiness can only be a wishful dream. Therefore the change is not material and in the contemporary context, pursuit of happiness is almost seen as an entitlement because many feel they are entitled happiness.

The other right that the Preamble claims is the right of people to alter or abolish the Government if they fail to protect the natural rights of the populace. This concept is derived from the idea propounded by Rousseau that authority of Governments flows from the consent of the governed people because of a “social contract” which implies that the governed agree to be ruled only so that their rights, property, and happiness are protected by their rulers. If rulers cease to protect the governed, as stipulated in this “social contract,” the governed are free to choose another set of governors. This idea is the crux of the DOI.  

We see the influence of V, M, H and L.



To prove that the natural rights of the people have been trampled upon in the most egregious manner, the DOI then proceeds to list their grievances against the King:

          HE has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public Good.

          HE has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing Importance, unless suspended in their Operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

          HE has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large Districts of People, unless those People would relinquish the Right of Representation in the Legislature, a Right inestimable to them and formidable to Tyrants only.

          HE has called together Legislative Bodies at Places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the Depository of their public Records, for the sole Purpose of fatiguing them into Compliance with his Measures.

          HE has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly Firmness his Invasions on the Rights of the People.

          HE has refused for a long Time, after such Dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the meantime exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and the Convulsions within.

          HE has endeavored to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migration hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

          HE has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers[M].

          HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone [M], for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.

          HE has erected a Multitude of new Offices, and sent hither Swarms of Officers to harass our People, and eat out their Substance [M].

          HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our Legislature. [C]

          HE has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to Civil Power. [C]

          HE has combined with others to subject us to a Jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution, and unacknowledged by our Laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

          FOR quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us: [C]

          FOR protecting them, by mock Trial, from Punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

          FOR cutting off our Trade with all Parts of the World:

          FOR imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: [Dickinson common law]

          FOR depriving us in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury: [common law]

          FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:

          FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighboring Province, establishing therein an arbitrary Government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an Example and fit Instrument for introducing the same absolute Rule into these Colonies:

          FOR taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

          FOR suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with Power to legislate for us in all Cases whatsoever.

          HE has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

          HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burned our Towns, and destroyed the Lives of our People.

          HE is, at this Time, transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the Works of Death, Desolation, and Tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty and Perfidy, scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous Ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized Nation.

          HE has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the Executioners of their Friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

          HE has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the Inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.

          IN every stage of these Oppressions we have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble Terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated Injury. A Prince, whose Character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the Ruler of a free People.

          NOR have we been wanting in Attentions to our British Brethren. We have warned them from Time to Time of attempts by their Legislature to extend an unwarrantable Jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the Circumstances of our Emigration and Settlement here. We have appealed to their native Justice and Magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the Ties of our common Kindred to disavow these Usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our Connections and Correspondence. They too have been deaf to the Voice of Justice and Consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the Necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of Mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace, Friends.


The main thrust of the grievances is in the following broad groups:

  • One of the major grievances pertains to the suspending of the legislatures, not giving assent to laws, taking away charters and such other acts that denied the Americans to be ruled by their own state governments. This was rule over them without the consent of the people and this principle was dearly espoused by the populace who believed in their natural rights to choose how to be governed.
  • Another grievance refers to interference in functioning of Judiciary. It is possibly influenced by M who propounded that Government organization should be in three wings: legislature, executive and judiciary; each independent in the discharge of their function.  The Prince obviously did not let judiciary function independently.
  • Trial by Jury was not allowed even though trial by jury was an important part of the English common law system. Jury trials in criminal cases were later made a protected right in the original United States Constitution.  
  • Quite a few of the grievances referred to the employment of troops, their garrisoning practices and absence of civilian control over them. The colonist wanted the civilian administration to have over-riding control over the troops. It is known that Clausewitz rejects the Enlightenment’s view of the war as a chaotic muddle and instead explains it as the continuation of politics by other means. This is the most resented grievance that alleges pillage, waging war, killing of the innocents, forcing Americans to fight with their own and the like – practices that would no doubt have been curtailed if the control over the forces was exercised by the civilian colonial authorities.
  • Under the English Constitution taxes could not be imposed without consent but their Parliament seems to have suffered the misguided notion that they could impose any kind of tax they desired on Americans. This obviously was resented.
  • Some grievances allege acts of usurpation and tyranny on the Prince. John Locke has argued against the “Divine Right of Kings” and his concept of tyranny is: “tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to; and this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private, separate advantage.” This seems to have been well understood by the Americans and they wanted such tyranny to end.
  • Appeals for redressing of grievances were made but to no avail. Likewise there were many Americans who in a sense of kinship with the people of Great Britain, appealed to the prominent among them, as well as to Parliament, to convince the King to relax his more objectionable policies toward the colonies but their efforts were in vain. The narrative represents that such good faith attempts at repairing the fracturing relations had been unsuccessful.



WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES of AMERICA, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance [common law based] to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence [L], we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor[vattel].


This para is about throwing the shackles off but is carefully worded so that it is read as both legally and morally valid and not as an impulsive act of revolt by a power hungry ambitious group. The old common law doctrine of perpetual allegiance denied an individual the right to renounce obligations to his sovereign. The bonds of subjecthood were conceived in principle to be immutable and had to be given up not only for exercise of sovereignty but also because of the immigrant character of the US society. Immigrants to the U.S. were sometimes held to the obligations of their foreign citizenship when they visited their home countries to get over which the U.S. Government sought to pass laws and conclude treaties recognizing the right to expatriate.

The conclusive assertion is for an independent US free to do all things that a free state can do. Historian David Armitage has argued that the Declaration is a document of international law and the Declaration was strongly influenced by de Vattel’s The Law of Nations, a book that Benjamin Franklin said was “continually in the hands of the members of our Congress”. He writes that because “Vattel made independence fundamental to his definition of statehood”, the primary purpose of the Declaration was “to express the international legal sovereignty of the United States”. If the United States were to have any hope of being recognized by the European powers, the American revolutionaries had to first make it clear that they were no longer dependent on Great Britain

Having renounced allegiance and declared the next logical thing was to seek divine blessing expressed so well by placing Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence. This thought also flows from Locke and divine support sought is both in word and will of God ruling over the lives of American people in eternity.


By Jefferson’s own admission, the Declaration contained no original ideas, but was instead a statement of sentiments widely shared by supporters of the American Revolution. As he explained in 1825:

Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, DOI was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.

During the American Revolution, Jefferson and other Americans looked to the English Declaration of Rights as a model of how to end the reign of an unjust king. Jefferson wrote that a number of authors exerted a general influence on the words of the Declaration. The English political theorist John Locke is usually cited as one of the primary influences. Per historian Carl L. Becker wrote that “Declaration, in its form, in its phraseology, follows closely certain sentences in Locke’s second treatise on government.” The extent of Locke’s influence has been questioned and some subsequent scholars have emphasized the influence of republicanism rather than Locke’s classical liberalism.

Legal historian John Phillip Reid has written that the Declaration is not a philosophical tract about natural rights but is instead a legal document—an indictment against King George for violating the constitutional rights of the colonists. Historian David Armitage has argued that the Declaration is a document of international law.

The speculation will go on – this paper notwithstanding!


One comment may be worth making. DOI was a historic occasion. The document DOI had been drafted with great care but did not receive the attention from generations of successor politicians or historians that it deserved. Nonetheless the thoughts that the DOI encapsulated have survived and continued to inspire developments in political thought.

If we were to search for similar concepts we may find that construct of a societal structure akin to the one envisaged here could emerge from some ancient works including scriptures for the values that the DOI cherishes are universal and have inspired human beings in all their history. The question therefore is as to why DOI and Enlightenment thinking became such a beacon that guided so many people whereas the earlier texts did not.

The difference to my mind is that the worth of anything is determined not by its intrinsic value but the use that it can be put to. The earlier texts were read, understood, admired but not acted upon. DOI used Enlightenment thinking and put it to use in developing the great American society. If they had not done that both the works of Enlightenment thinkers and the DOI would have lying in pile of other ancient great works gathering dust and worth no more than a careful read and critique. Hats off therefore to builders of the great society!


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