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Explain the influence and ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson.

external image Declaration_of_Independence_%281819%29%2C_by_John_Trumbull.jpg

The image to the right is John Trumbull's Painting of a Drafting Committee Presenting the Declaration of Independence to Congress.
  • This image is found on the back of the two dollar bill.

Topics on the Page

Overview of the Declaration
Primary Sources
Multimedia Resources
Key Ideas in the Declaration
  • John Locke's Influence
  • Jefferson's Political Philosophy
More Declarations
  • Declaration of Sentiments (1848)
  • United Steelworkers Declaration of Independence (1936)
  • Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
  • Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1956)
  • A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace (1996)\
The Declaration in a Global Perspective
  • Haitian Declaration of Independence (1804)
  • New Zealand Declaration of Independence (1835)
  • Declaration of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1945)

Focus Question: What ideas and events influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson's political philosophy?

Overview of the Declaration

"The Declaration of Independence does not have the force of law; the Constitution establishes the shape of government, and the limits and boundaries of the freedom it protects. The Constitution does not specifically recognize equality in the way the Declaration does, except perhaps in the Reconstruction Amendments. . . The Declaration remains the outstanding example of the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of U.S. law."
  • Quoted in The Declaration: A Primary Sourcebook, Teaching American History Professional Development Project, Fall River Public Schools and Bristol Community College, p. 1

Screen Shot 2017-02-24 at 12.30.24 PM.pngGo here a lesson plan to create a simplified version of the Declaration of Independence

primary_sources.PNGPrimary Sources:
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Multimedia.pngMonticello Classroom Image Gallery
  • Explore images of the Declaration of independence, maps explaining the Louisiana Purchase, portraits of Jefferson, and more!

timeline2_rus.svg.pngTimeline of Jefferson's Life
  • From birth to death, learn about the important events in both Jefferson's private and public life

Timeline: The New Nation
  • Highlights and summarizes key events from 1783-1815
    • also does the same from before 1783 and all the way up to the present

Multimedia & Interactive Websites:

Screen Shot 2016-03-06 at 3.33.37 PM.pngClick on Ages of Revolution: How Old Were They on July 4, 1776? to find out the ages of the key participants in the American Revolution on July 4,1776. More than one dozen of the signers of the Declaration were under 35 years old.
Multimedia.pngThomas Jefferson and His Democracy: Crash Course U.S. History

WATCH: Liberty's Kids: The First Fourth of July

Thomas Jefferson for Kids

William Penn at age 22 (1666)
William Penn at age 22 (1666)

primary_sources.PNGText of William Penn's Concessions and Agreements of the Proprietors, Freeholders, and Inhabitants of the Province of West New Jersey, 1677.

This document established a representative democracy with freedom of religion, assembly and trial by jury 100 years before the Declaration of Independence.

See also the Founding of the Quaker Colony of West Jersey

Key Ideas in the Declaration of Independence:

  • Stated that men have "inalienable rights" that the founding fathers felt had been violated by Great Britain
  • Believed that everyone "endowed by their Creator" had the right for "life liberty and the pursuit of happiness"
  • Stated that the people have a right to cut ties with a government that they feel is unjust
  • Stated that the colonists had endured sufficient amounts of intolerable acts that deemed their separation from its mother country justifiable
  • Listed the acts and laws that Great Britain had passed that many colonists disagreed with
  • Stated that the British should not be surprised by the colonies' announcement because they had been warned numerous times that their acts were intolerable

John Locke and influences on the Declaration of Independence

Locke's Political Philosophy
  • john-locke.jpgSome argue that the declaration was in some ways inspired by several great thinkers who had considered republicanism before the creation of the Declaration
  • One of these thinkers was John Locke, who believed in "social contract" or the right the people have to govern in order to maintain social order - includes giving up what he believed to be excessive rights
  • Locke wrote that the people could dismiss a government that did not provide support for their natural and social rights: life, liberty, and property - property was a right derived from labor
  • His ideas were strongly influential on the Declaration; Jefferson slightly edited Locke's natural rights theory to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because many colonists did not own property

  • For info on others who influenced the founding of the American states, check out this video on Jean-Jacque Rousseau.

Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson
  • Believed in limited powers on the federal level
  • Wanted to ensure that small, local governments were capable of keeping the federal government accountable
  • His political philosophies on restraining the federal government were greatly rooted in the fears that many colonists had following their experiences with Great Britain's controlling governing strategies. Many colonists, and even early Americans, remained fearful that the United States would become a monarchical society mirroring England's
  • Believed that all men should be educated and politically informed
  • Imagined a smaller groups of educated elites ruling their local governments

rotating gif.gifFor more on Thomas Jefferson, see

multicultural.pngFor more information about the Declaration and Thomas Jefferson, check out Hans Eicholz book Harmonizing Sentiments

Check out TED-Ed's video on the misconceptions surrounding the Declaration of Independence.

JohnAdamsHBO.jpgIf teachers would like to supplement their lessons on the Second Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, the HBO miniseries John Adams contextualizes the period quite well (even if some of the scenes are somewhat historically inaccurate). In any event, the Declaration of Independence resolution and subsequent proclamation scene showcased its importance in changing the mission of the Revolution.

To learn about Mary Katherine Goddard, the one woman whose name appears on the Declaration of Independence, click here.
  • For more information about the women behind the signers, click here.

Declaration of Sentiments (1848)

elizabeth cady stanton.png
Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Female_Rose.pngThe Declaration of Independence was used as a model by Elizabeth Cady Stanton to forthrightly demand that the rights of women as right-bearing individuals be acknowledged and respected by society in the Declaration of Sentiments.

Click here for a two-day lesson plan on Seneca Falls and how women in the 19th century manipulated the Declaration of Independence to gain more rights for women!

To read the Declaration of Sentiments, click here.

To learn more about the achievements of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, click here.

United Steelworkers Declaration of Independence (1936)

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 4.03.33 PM.pngWe Are Americans! The Homestead Workers Issue a Declaration of Independence by 1936

Early Attempts at Abolishing Slavery
  • How Jefferson ironically owned slaves, tensions leading to the Civil War, and more!
Indonesian Stamp, 1946
Indonesian Stamp, 1946

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959)

A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace (i996)

Declarations of Independence Around the World

The Declaration of Independence in a World Perspective

  • More than half of the countries now represented at the United Nations have a founding document that can be called a declaration of independence

There have been three major periods of declaring independence:
  • the years from 1776 to the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe;
  • the immediate aftermath of the First World War and the breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires;
  • and the decades from to 1945 to 1979, when 70 newly independent states emerged from the wreckage of the European colonial empires.

Haitian Declaration of Independence (1804)

New Zealand
New Zealand Declaration of Independence (1835)
  • Signed by a number of native Maori chief, this document proclaimed sovereign independence of New Zealand
  • Background info on its importance

Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (1945)

Works Cited:
Declaration of Independence. Retrieved April 5, 2007, from The National Archives Experience Web site: http://www.archives.gov/national-archives-experience/charters/declaration.html
John Locke. Retrieved April 5, 2007, from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Web site: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/
Thomas Jefferson. Retrieved April 5, 2007, from The White House Web site: http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/tj3.html