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Exegesis on the Declaration of Independence


The Declaration of Independence is an amazing document. We are too used to it, however; it has become something which we pay lip service to, and only rarely think about. I recently started looking at it piece by piece, and was amazed by how radical it was. If we take the time to look at it consciously, though, it shows itself to be a mind-blowing document.

I thought I would take it, then, and do an exegesis on it. So tightly written is it that in places I was reduced to a practically word by word commentary. This is just one man’s commentary, but here it is anyway.

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.

OK, we usually just skip right past this bit, eager to get to the meat of the document. When I started thinking about writing this essay I did that myself. In fact, I had originally intended on not commenting on it at all. But I decided that the whole document deserved attentions, so I reluctantly turned to it, and found myself amazed at how powerful this section which appears on the surface to be a throwaway really is.

When in the Course of human Events. Right away we get a major bit of philosophy. The document to follow won’t be one of divine events, but of human ones. Immediately we are told what is to be made clearer later, that governments are the province of people, not deities.

it becomes necessary. What is being done in this document is not at all on a whim; it is necessary. Most of the Declaration will be devoted to showing why.

for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another. There is a lot here. First, there is a simple statement: Americans are one “people,” and the English are another. Rather than separating the two, the document states that they are already separate. All that remains is to “dissolve the Political Bands.” Further, they are “one” people. Despite the separation into colonies (now to be states), there is an American identity.

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. I hardly know where to begin with this part, it states the situation so clearly. It needs to be pointed out that this is the first mention of the fact that our rights are ours by nature, and by “Nature’s God” (a Deist term for the being who set things up the way they are), rather than something given to us. We are entitle[ed] to them. Further, the world is set on notice that American is not coming to them hat in hand, asking for privileges, or to be a younger cousin. Rather, we are asserting that we are “separate and equal.” It’s a very bold assertion, and one on which the whole rest of the Declaration depends.

a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes. Here is a bit of rhetoric again. Americans aren’t, as many Europeans no doubt thought, savages; we understand what is decent. We have respect for the opinions of the rest of the world. This is also a statement that no country exists on its own. There is a community of nations, and the United States is a member. We therefore have the right to be treated fairly and equally with the other nations.

which impel them to the Separation. Once again comes the assertion that this is not a whim; we have been impelled to make this separation. This assertion will show up later as well.

It may be seen, then, that rather than a bit tacked on at the beginning as sort of a chapter heading, this opening paragraph brings up some major points which will echo throughout the document as a whole.

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

We. This is a corporate document. Notice how throughout the Declaration we see assertions of the importance of human society. As people we exist only in a society.

hold these truths. A flat-out statement. The point isn’t going to be argued, only state as fact.

to be self-evident. In your face, isn’t it? ”This is bloody obvious, people.”

that all Men are created equal. There is no noble class, given power and privilege from birth. The equality of Men is from the moment an individual comes to be; rights are not acquire, but inherent.

that they are endowed by their Creator. Ditto. That Jefferson’s Creator was a Deist one makes this all the more powerful. A Deist believe that God sets things up, and lets them run. He does not continually interfere with his Creation. He is therefore not a God who can take our rights away. Even God respects our equality. with certain unalienable Rights. They are “certain,” not unlimited. That they are unalienable means that they not only come into being with us, they also last as long as we do. No one, king or even God, can take them away. Thus they are put beyond the reach of even a king who rules by divine right.

that among these. Just because a right isn’t going to be stated here doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

are Life. You can’t very well exercise rights if you’re not alive

Liberty. There is a difference between liberty and freedom. Someone possesses freedom if they have the power and authority to do what they please. It is therefore an individual characteristic. It is a right of an individual when they are considered on their own.

But people don’t exist on their own, as the Declaration has made clear. They exist in a society. Freedom has to be limited for there to be a society, because unlimited freedom causes conflict. If I have complete freedom, I am free to kill you. This interferes with all of your freedoms, since they require life. The ideal is for each person to possess as much freedom as possible. A limitation on my freedom to kill you will increase the level of freedom in society as a whole. A state in which there is a maximum amount of freedom as a whole is a state of liberty. Because people live in society, their rights are those of people in society. They therefore have a right not to freedom but to liberty.

and the Pursuit of Happiness

The exact meaning of this is open to question. In John Locke’s formulation it was “life, liberty, and property,” and that’s what it will be in the Constitution. Is “the Pursuit of Happiness” just a synonym for “property,” or at least is “Happiness” one? Or does it refer to something more personal and emotional? Supreme Court decisions have differed on this. My own interpretation is that “the Pursuit of Happiness” means self-improvement, and that that is both personal and financial. Individuals have the right to better themselves, in both meanings of the word; that is, to make themselves better people, and to increase their financial position.

What this is not is a guarantee of happiness. You have no right to happiness, only to its pursuit. The government has the obligation to protect the pursuit of happiness, but none to provide it.

. It is important that after the Founders have said they were going to explain their reasons for declaring independence they don’t go into the list of grievances, but instead start with their theory of government. Grievances must have a standard which has been violated. This section is concerned with setting up that standard.

– That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men,

The first point here is that governments are instituted, they aren’t just there. This is a denial of the divine right of kings. Such a denial is necessary if the rest of the document is to make sense, but even more, if the colonists are to have the right to separate from Great Britain in the first place. If government is divinely established, then to set up a new one is to break divine law. If, on the other hand, it is instituted by men, then it may be broken by men and a new one established. That governments are instituted for a particular reason is both empowering and limiting. The government is given so much power, and no more.

deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, deriving. This is a process not a state; it is usual for governments to be in a state of evolution.

just Powers. All governments have powers, but there are just powers, and unjust powers. Government that is based on the consent of the governed is just, and that which is not is unjust, no matter what power it may have. This comes from the same school of thought as “no taxation without representation.” that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,

This is a radical thought, but an obvious one once we accept what has come before. If government gains its “just powers” from the “consent of the governed,” then when government loses that consent it loses its right to continue to exist. If people have the right to institute government, they have the right to destroy it. The progression here is almost Socratic; once a few arguments are conceded, then the rest follows of necessity. This statement will be made even more forcefully later on.

Note that this is any form of government, which would include democracies. A Democracy can be a tyranny too, with the will of the many trampling the rights of a few. Imagine a situation in which the majority of the people are of one religion, and pass laws which prevent those who belong to another from practicing their own. That would be democratic, but it would tyrannical. In such a case, even “the Consent of the Governed” would be insufficient for there to be a just government.

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 result of such changes, however, is not to be anarchy. There is no point in exchanging a system in which rights are denied through unjust power for one in which there is no just power. But the People are to establish the sort of government that they see as most likely to possess just power. All of this is again obvious once the preceding is granted; if governments are instituted for a certain reason, then new ones can be instituted by the same process.

Note as well that the Declaration isn’t simply talking of setting up a system by which power might be organized, but the importance of understanding the principles behind such power. We will later see this in the Constitution, where the framework of the government is only laid out after the Preamble tells us what the rest will be based on.

that to them. They can start from scratch, with the only rules being that the new government will be obligated to protect the rights of the people, and that it derive its powers from the consent of the governed. But it is the People who will decide the form of the new government; it is not to be imposed.

There’s a less obvious point here that addresses not governmental theory, but psychology and sociology: shall seem most likely. People aren’t perfect, and won’t establish perfect governments. But of course, when they realize the imperfections in the system they have set up, they still have the authority to alter or abolish it.


Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.

“Better the devil you know?”

Now we return to the theme that began the document. The Founders aren’t barbarians. They wish to show the world that they deserve to be treated seriously, as equal partners. They have shown prudence, and the causes for the Declaration aren’t light or transient.

But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

This does two things. First, it restates what has been said before about the right of people to alter or abolish an unjust government. However, it does so in a far more emphatic way. It is no longer simply the right of the People to alter or abolish it; it is their duty. And not only is the British government being destructive of the protection of rights, it is actively working against them, leading to absolute Despotism. Further, the colonists aren’t just required to set up a system for their Safety and Happiness; they are required to create new Guards for their future Security.

Secondly, it signals a shift from the general to the particular. Before we have been talking about governmental theory, and we can do that in a restrained manner. But now we are about to get personal; now we are about to show that the particular government under which the colonists have suffered is indeed the sort of government that has been condemned already in the Declaration. Not only is it one that isn’t protecting rights, or even one that is simply denying them, it evinces a Design to oppress the People. The next section of the Declaration will give evidence that such a design exists.


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, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World.

the present king. Two things are going on here. First, there is a statement that the situation is an aberration. Kings in the past didn’t act this way, so the way the king has been acting is not an inherent part of being a king. Secondly, it is the king who is being wrong. Although the Declaration will say that the British people have not listened to America’s complaint, the guilt is still the king’s. This is partly rhetorical – there can only be one tyrant – and partly practical – the other states of Europe (especially France, whose help American hoped to get) wouldn’t understand blaming things on the people of another country. In theirs the people had almost no power, so the fault has to be the king’s.

The next section is often skipped over when the Declaration is read. It’s a bit tedious, I admit, but then lists always are. To the Founders, though, it was far from tedious. These were all things that offended them greatly, enough to make a treasonous document.

They were also things that they assumed would offend others, both Americans and British, as well as those from other countries. These offenses of the king were ones that the Founders believed put him beyond the rules of any civilized society.

They can be seen as a negative speculum principi. A “mirror of a prince,” a speculum principi is a list of things that good rulers do. “A king must bring justice. A king must protect the rights of his people,” and so on. A negative speculum principi is a list of things that good rules don’t do. “A king must not be unjust. A king must not prey on his people,” and so on. So the list of “repeated injuries and Usurpations” is a list of things that no true king will do. It is also a list of things that no true democracy will do, and is thus a guide to the sort of government the Founders will later set up.

If it seems irrelevant to today, ask yourself, as you read it over, whether any of the things on the list have been done by the current administration. Ask yourself what you would put on a list today. See what the Founders considered to be acts which define a tyrant. What acts would you put on a list?

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.


These three can be summed up by saying that the king has taken the government upon himself. It is not in the hands of the People. It is interesting that this has been cast in the form of things he hasn’t done.

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 the Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the Dangers of Invasion from without, and the Convulsions within.

the Legislative Powers, incapable of the Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise This is a justification of the Continental Congress and all its actions, including this one. By what authority does it do anything? Because it represents the People. Dissolving bodies which represent the People doesn’t destroy those bodies’ power; it continues to exist, waiting for new bodies to take it up.

HE has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations 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.
HE has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the Tenure of their Offices, and the Amount and Payment of their Salaries.


This will be corrected under the Constitution by making the appointment of judges a joint venture between the executive and the legislative branches. In addition, judges will be appointed for life, so as to given them independence from the pressures of either of the other branches.

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

This one always makes me giggle. It’s a serious problem, though, and one that is still with us.

HE has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies, without the consent of our Legislatures.

Standing Armies Until World War II the American army was a small one during peacetime, only augmented during war by calling up militias, asking for volunteers, and, when necessary, by the draft. It is unfortunate that since the end of that war we have had to have a large standing army of our own, due to our international commitments and the nature of modern weapons.

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

That this is not the case is one of the strengths of our system of government. Members of the military are required to swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution. One of the things I am proudest of is that I got to swear that oath. I consider myself still bound by it.

The civilian control of the military has been tested throughout American history. The most famous happened during the Korean War, when General MacArthur, commander of the allied forces in Korea, wanted to invade China. He planned to do this regardless of President Truman’s fears of starting a nuclear war. Truman did the only thing he could – he removed MacArthur from command. This was a very gutsy move; MacArthur was one of the most popular men in the country, both for his successes in Korea and for his victory over the Japanese in WWII. Truman’s popularity plummeted, as he knew it would. There was even talk of impeachment. But Truman held firm, and eventually people realized what had happened – the civilian government had reined in the military.

One of the biggest fears, then, would be of a president who as commander-in-chief would decide to take unilateral military action. To prevent this, the Constitution reserved the power to declare war to Congress, and made it a rule that military budgets could only last one year. If the President were to do something wrong with the military, the Congress could starve him out.

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;
FOR protecting them, by a 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:


The famous “No taxation without representation.”

FOR depriving us, in many Cases, of the Benefits of Trial by Jury:
FOR transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended Offences:
FOR abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring 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 Rules 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.

Not only do the actions mentioned here add up to tyranny, but the king has by his own actions “abdicated Government.” In other words, the states don’t even have to declare themselves free, because the king has given up his rule over them.

HE has plundered our Seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt 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.


This is a reference to the famous Hessians, whom Washington was to defeat after his crossing of the Delaware.

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 endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an 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 repetition of a theme mentioned numerous times, that this is no rash action; other means of fixing things have been tried.

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.

whose Character is thus marked Here we see a statement that this is a negative speculum principi

. 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 of 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.

Now, in this relatively short paragraph, the people of Britain are blamed, not for imposing tyranny, but for tolerating it. They have betrayed the “common Kindred” they should have felt towards Americans. The Framers are deeply hurt; you can feel the pain.

WE, therefore, the Representatives of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, in GENERAL CONGRESS,

United States We’re so used to this as the name of our country that we see it as one thing: “theUnitedStates.” But break it up. This is already a declaration that the colonies are independent; they are states, which had the meaning of a sovereign entity. It would take a number of decades and a civil war to determine what “United” meant, and the balance between the powers of the central government and those of the states is still being worked out.

the Representatives ... by the Authority of the good People It is important to establish the legality of the Declaration. The moral authority has been established in the opening, and its application to the situation in the speculum. Now the legal authority has to be established. As said in the beginning, government must come from the People. Here we are told that the Congress represents the People.

Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions,

appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions

The founders appeal to the ultimate court.

do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare,

publish and declare The Declaration was approved on July 2nd, but we celebrate the Fourth. Why? Because the Declaration is just that; it isn’t a decision made in a back room. It may be approved in private, but does not become real until it is “publish[ed] and declare[ed].


That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be,


of Right ought to be Legal language, but in your face as well.

FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political Connection between them and the State of Great-Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved;

totally dissolved There had been talk of some sort of limited autonomy. The Founders are slamming that door shut.

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, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

What a beautiful end. Pledging their “Lives [and] Fortunes” isn’t completely necessary; by approving the Declaration they have committed a treasonable act, and their lives and property are forfeit already. But it does put paid to assertions some have made that they were more interested in property than liberty.

our sacred honor With the closing words the Declaration is turned from a legal act into an oath, from a formal one into one that is supremely personal. They are committed, there is no turning back, and they will not betray each other. I can imagine a combination of awe and fear at doing so bold a thing. Easy enough to take a vote. But with this statement the Founders make it clear that they are willing to do more than that. The Continental Army is fighting and dying, they are saying that even though they are sitting in Philadelphia they are not sitting safe in Philadelphia.

So there we have it. Read it over, think about it, and ask if you willing to pledge your support for it, to pledge your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor.