From the early 1600s, when the New World was settled by the British, until only a few years before the Declaration of Independence, few colonists desired to sever relations with their mother country. However, with the culmination of the French and Indian War, attitudes changed both in the colonies and in Great Britain. After fighting broke out in l775, the aroma of independence permeated the colonial air.

Having received authorization from the Constitutional Congress to put into writing what, in fact, had already begun, a committee was formed to document the reasons for a break from Great Britain. It was not meant to be a document directed at one country, but rather a message to the world. And thus a small group of revolutionaries pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor.

With the formation of the committee of five—Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston—the stage was set for a drama of the highest order. Accepting responsibility for the first draft, Thomas Jefferson documented for all the world the colonists' reasons for breaking the umbilical cord. Jefferson was deeply interested in the philosophical ideas of that period, which was known as the "enlightenment". He expressed the prevailing sentiments of the colonists' belief in natural rights of man. In succinct language, these principles were enunciated in the often-quoted second paragraph:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men 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.

The Declaration's recognition of the existence of inalienable rights was a controversial position at that time. Most thought that rights were granted by governments to citizens. According to the concept of natural rights, however, certain rights do not depend upon law or institutions, but originate in the substance of humanity itself.

In proclaiming the first of these natural rights—the right to life itself—the Declaration asserts that basic right to security from forces which inhibit one's self-preservation. The right to liberty guarantees the proper conditions or circumstances favorable to carrying out the choices made. The pursuit of happiness refers to the help organized society gives to make a good life possible. This represents a set of principles for all ages.

Only these three basic rights are mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. However, philosophers and political scientists have long debated their precise meaning and have specified other rights—such as the right to equal use of the natural resources—which may be necessary in order to secure them.

As Jefferson commented on the essence of the Declaration, he was echoing thoughts expressed during an earlier century. During the 17th century, John Locke, who influenced Jefferson more than any other philosopher, wrote:

The state of nature has a Law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

Contained in the Declaration is the essence of American democracy—ideas that were transferred to the Constitution a decade later—and ideals that became the basis for many subsequent amendments.

Yet, although the concept of natural rights was an integral part of the Declaration and the Constitution, there have been and currently are many governments that adhere to the ideology that all rights are the result of benign governments—to be dissolved as the situation may warrant. Our forefathers felt that natural rights emerged as a precondition for government, which was formed in order to secure and protect the preexisting rights of individuals.

Do the ideals of the Declaration of Independence still ring forth today? Or was historian Carl Becker accurate when he commented, "What seems but common sense in one age often seems but nonsense in another?

Background Questions:

  1. Explain the section in the Declaration that summarizes the belief in natural rights.
  2. What are natural rights? Do we still believe in them today? Explain.
  3. Explain the three basic rights listed in the Declaration.
  4. Explain the effect John Locke had on Thomas Jefferson.
  5. Comment on the quote by Carl Becker.
  6. Were the rights enumerated in the Declaration extended to all Americans? Explain.

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