On July 2,1776, the Congress formally declared the United States an independent nation. Two days later, it approved the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson and revised by the Congress before approval. (See the Appendix for the full text.) Most of the Declaration consists of a lengthy list of grievances directed against King George III, ranging from quartering troops in colonial homes to imposing taxes without the colonists’ consent. Britain’s aim, it declared, was to establish “absolute tyranny” over the colonies. One clause in Jefferson’s draft, which condemned the inhumanity of the slave trade and criticized the king for overturning colonial laws that sought to restrict the importation of slaves, was deleted by the Congress at the insistence of Georgia and South Carolina.

The Declaration’s enduring impact came not from the complaints against George III but from Jefferson’s preamble, especially the second paragraph, which begins, “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.” By “unalienable rights,” Jefferson meant rights so basic, so rooted in human nature itself (or in what John Locke had called the state of nature), that no government could take them away.

An early draft, with corrections, of the Declaration of Independence, in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting. Note how the elimination of unnecessary words added to the document’s power—“all men are created equal and independent” became “all men are created equal,” and “inherent and inalienable” rights became “inalienable” (in the final version, this would be changed to “unalienable”).

Jefferson then went on to justify the breach with Britain. Government, he wrote, derives its powers from “the consent of the governed.” When a government threatens its subjects’ natural rights, the people have the authority “to alter or to abolish it.” The Declaration of Independence is ultimately an assertion of the right of revolution.

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