The Declaration of Independence -- What it Says; What it Means
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We all know what the Declaration of Independence is. We learned that in school. Many of us can quote some of the words. “When in the course of human events....” We all have a basic understanding of the significance of the Declaration of Independence. But after all the years since graduation from high school, do we really know what the Declaration of Independence says? Do we have a clear understanding of what it means? I think that most of us... perhaps all of us, could benefit from some clarification.
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We all know what the Declaration of Independence is. Many of us can quote
some of the words. "When in the course of human events...." We all
have a basic understanding of the significance of the Declaration of
Independence. We learned that in school. As I recall, Mrs. Jones, my 11th
grade History teacher, proclaimed it to be one of the five most important
works of art ever created. Yes, she called it a work of art. Second on
her list was, of course, the Constitution. (I forgot
almost immediately what the other works on her list were. But when I was 16,
I filled in the empty slots with my own choices as follows: "A-hab the
A-rab," "I'm Henry the 8th, I Am," and "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its
Flavor on the Bedpost over Night.")
After all the years since graduation from high school, do we really know
what the Declaration of Independence says? Do we have a clear
understanding of what it means? The circumstances and hardships under
which the colonists lived in 1776 are far different that those today.
The words and phraseology used in the 18th century may make it difficult
for us to easily interpret what the founders meant. I think that most of
us... perhaps all of us, could benefit from some clarification.
(Click the pic to enlarge it; click again to shrink it.)
Settlers had been abandoning their homes and their lives in Europe
for over a century. They came to the new land primarily to exercise the
right to practice the religion of their own choice. They wanted to
distance themselves from the strong arm of the king of England. Yet,
though they were thousands of miles away, the new land and the settlers
were still considered to be a part of England, officially governed by
The colonists considered the laws imposed upon them to be oppressive,
unfair, and unreasonably restrictive. They believed that the king did not
properly consider the conditions of the colonists as he imposed taxes and
By the early 1770s, they had had enough. The Articles of Association,
ratified by the colonies in 1774, established the 13 colonies as a
Though only about a third of the colonists actively and openly supported
independence, in June, 1776, leaders of the Continental Congress, the
local government of the colonies, prepared a declaration of independence
from England. Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the document. But
many others were involved in producing the final version.
On July 4, the Continental Congress published their declaration.
The following is what the Declaration of Independence says, and what it
In Congress, July 4, 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
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.
The declaration is unanimous, supported by all of the
colonies, now referred to as the united States of America.
Laying the foundation for the declaration, the founders referenced
"Laws of Nature," a concept which had been developed years before. The
Laws of Nature are not established by man, but by God.
When making such a declaration, a people should state clearly and
respectfully their reasons for doing so.
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, 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. 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.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident." They are obvious
and indisputable. Period.
The founders based the declaration on an essential and critical moral
principle. They explicitly stated that all men (read: all human beings)
are created as equal human beings. None is born on a higher moral or
social plain than any other. Fundamental rights of humans include life,
liberty -- basic freedom from oppression -- and the right to pursue
individual happiness. These are not rights established by a king, or a
congress, or a government. These rights are established by God.
These rights cannot be taken away or invalidated by any human being.
Thus, these rights are superior to any law passed or enforced by any
human or human institution.
Government is empowered by no other authority than the people.
Government exists to protect the rights of the individual.
If and when the government fails this most basic responsibility,
people have a right to separate themselves from that government.
Such a declaration is not made lightly and should not be undertaken
Human nature leads men to accept such continued injustices
rather than take the severe, extreme actions necessary to overturn
This, then, is the expression by the founders of the purpose and
responsibility of a government. It is brilliant, profound, and critically
important to the foundation of any just government.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the
same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism,
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, 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 people have not only a right, but a duty to discard the
government and establish one for themselves -- a government by the
The king has repeated violated the rights of the colonists, thus
necessitating the extreme action of a declaration of independence.
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
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 mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from
without, and convulsions within.
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.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of
Officers to harrass our People, and eat out their substance.
The declaration identifies a series of grievances against British rule.
The King has:
forbidden the colonies to establish their own laws;
refused to pass laws protecting the colonists and recognizing
deliberately made it difficult for colonists to participate in
the formation of laws.
structured the military force above the people, and thus not
responsible to the people.
created a multi-layered bureaucracy within the government
that severely interferes with and diminishes peoples' lives and their
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the
Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the
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:
The king has oppressively forced his military forces upon and among the
colonists, and allowed those military forces to commit crimes against the
people without punishment.
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
The king has forbidden open trade by the colonists with other
countries, thus restricting their ability to improve and enhance their lives.
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
"Taxation without representation." The colonists have not been
consulted about the imposition of taxes, nor given any authority to
accept or reject them.
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offences:
The king has unfairly imposed legal actions upon the colonists.
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 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 Legislature, 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.
The king has ignored and abolished the legal system established by
the colonists. He has imposed British laws upon the colonists, laws which do
not reflect the living conditions in and circumstances of the colonies.
In effect, the king
has waged a war against the colonies.
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.
The king as intentionally and repeatedly destroyed the land, the livelihood,
and the lives of colonists.
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.
The king has forced colonists to wage war against themselves. He has
encouraged others to fight against the colonists.
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.
The king has failed to recognize and act upon the repeated requests
by the colonists to address their concerns.
Nor have we been wanting in attention to our Brittish 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
The colonists have been extremely patient, awaiting fair and just
treatment by the king. Such treatment has not been accorded. Therefore,
the colonists have no other reasonable choice but to separate themselves
from British rule.
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 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 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.
This is the actual statement of declaration of independence. The
colonists are hereby politically and ideologically independent of
Britain. They no longer have to offer any allegiance to the British
crown. They are not bound by any British law, nor are they under any
control of British military forces.
As a separate country, the united colonies now possess all of the rights
of an independent country, including the rights to protect itself, by
force, if necessary; to establish alliances with foreign governments;
and establish their own system of commerce among themselves and
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.
In this magnificent and bold final paragraph, the founders express
their absolute belief in and total commitment to this declaration. They
believe that God will protect their declaration, and they offer the
ultimate personal sacrifice in order to preserve it.
Thos. Heyward, Junr.
Thomas Lynch, Junr.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Richard Henry Lee
Thos. Nelson, Jr.
Francis Lightfoot Lee
Robt. Treat Paine
Not all of the signatories affixed their names to the document
on July 4th. Some were not able to sign until 2-3 weeks afterwards.
These men were risking their
lives by signing this document. They were looked upon by the British as
traitors. The names of some of the brave men were not revealed for many
The Last Word
This most cherished and brilliant document warns that a people should
be very cautious before attempting to create a new government.
"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should
not be changed for light and transient causes." But the founders also
note that it is easier to allow a series of injustices to infect our
lives than to take a stand and challenge and eliminate them. "Mankind
are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right
themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."
Surely our government and our living conditions are infinitely better
than those of the colonists. But have we been too comfortable, allowing
evils to grow and permeate our lives? Does our government in the 21st
century live up to the principles of the Declaration of Independence?
Perhaps that notion is worthy of careful consideration on this
Independence Day. And if our government no longer serves us as our
founders envisioned, what should we do to raise ourselves up to the level
that our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred
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