Significant Quotes from The Declaration of Independence

By Trent Lorcher

Read significant quotes from The Declaration of Independence to understand the importance of the historical document.

The Importance of The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence, in addition to announcing the colonies' freedom from British rule, sets forth the founding principles of the United States of America. The importance of the original document has not diminished since its adoption in 1776. Although its initial importance was limited as a formal declaration of freedom, its philosophical assertion that "all men are created equal" serves as an anthem for freedom throughout the world. The following quotes emphasize the importance of this philosophy and others that formed the backbone of American government.

Equality for All

Quote: 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--

  • This may be the most oft quoted passage of the Declaration of Independence. It's heavily influenced by John Locke's Second Treatise of Government, which asserts that all men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty, and property. Thomas Jefferson, the lead writer and head of the five man committee assigned to write the document, borrowed extensively from George Mason's Declaration of Rights for Virginia, which states men have "certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety" (Maier).1
  • The Declaration relies heavily on the concept of natural rights, those rights given by God that cannot be taken away by government. The importance of God in the founding of the nation cannot be denied; The founding fathers do not, however, denote any characteristics of God or associate him with any specific religion, understanding that religious preference is an individual choice, something which the framers of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights reasserted over a decade later.
  • Whereas many assume the equality and freedoms stated in the Declaration mean freedom from responsibility and work and the necessity for economic and social equality, the creators of the Declaration of Independence intended different: (1) equality under the law; (2) equality in the eyes of God; and (3) freedom from coercion and tyranny, not from work and trials. In addition, equality denotes equality of opportunity, that all citizens in the United States have the opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of what that happiness entails, assuming it does not abridge the unalienable rights of others.

1Maier, Pauline. Introduction to The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States. (New York: Bantam, 1998), 1-45.

A Note on Property Rights

The importance of the Declaration of Independence extends to a citizen's right to own property. The Declaration's writers left out the word "property" from the Declaration feeling that to include the right to own property as redundant to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was also left out for fear that slave owners, who considered slaves as property, would cite it in order to continue the abominable practice.

  • Both documents from which Jefferson drew upon for the text of his draft heavily favored the individual ownership of property. Among the British government's abuses listed by the Declaration, there lies reference to the unlawful use of individual property for quartering troops and the confiscation of privately owned sea vessels for military, abuses which the framers of the Constitution remembered years later when writing the Third and Fourth Amendments to The Bill of Rights.
  • Abraham Lincoln, nearly a century later, reiterates this important truth: "Property is the fruit of labor...property is desirable...is a positive good to the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise." Lincoln adds, emphasizing that equal opportunity, not economic equality is the intention of the Founding Fathers' equality, "Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built." 1

1Abraham Lincoln, "Reply to New York Workingmen's Democratic Republic Association, March 21, 1864, " The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, vol. 7 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 259-60 as printed in Mark Levin's Liberty and Tyranny, 2009.

Views of Slavery

Quote: 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--

Analysis: An explanation of The Declaration of Independence must touch upon the Founding Father's views on slavery.

  • Critics of the Founding Fathers cite the obvious contradiction between philosophy and action in regards to slave ownership, a fact which cannot be overlooked by even the most patriotic Americans. Exactly how they justified restricting one's right to liberty and to pursue happiness based on the color of his or her skin is irreconcilible. The Jefferson Encyclopedia offers a partial explanation for the document's chief writer, stating that Jefferson considered slavery "contrary to the laws of nature" and proposed a plan in the mid 1770s to gradually eliminate slavery from the colonies. His anti-slavery stance softened a decade after the Declaration of Independence's publication and Jefferson reconciled his views with the following statement: "brought up from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, [they] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves."1 In short, he considered his relationship to his slaves as paternalistic, owing to the slaves' inferior nature.
  • Regardless of the Founding Fathers actions toward slaves, their words have made possible the numerous civil rights advancements for minorities and women throughout American history, including the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments of the United States Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1968, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Although their actions may not have been congruent with their words, their words guaranteed that future generations could improve upon their own actions.

1"Thomas Jefferson and Slavery," The Jefferson Encyclopedeia. 12 May, 2009. Accessed 26 June, 2009.

Appeals to a Higher Power

Quote: 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... with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence...

Analysis: The Declaration's writers make many references to deity.

  • The men who wrote the Declaration obviously believed in a higher power and believed that the government of man must be influenced by that higher power. Despite the common belief in a higher power, Congressional delegates shared a religious diversity not present in other organized nations at that time. This diversity enriched the document and those involved in writing it, a diversity cherished by early patriots of the United States.
  • The men who wrote the Declaration understood that in order to succeed and thrive as independent states, they needed to persuade foreign powers and educated people throughout the world that there cause was just, what better way to secure this approval than with an appeal to divinity.
  • The attempt of many to eliminate all hints of God from public institutions, including schools, hospitals, airports, and government buildings contradict the very foundation upon which the United States was formed.

Don't take my word for it. Read the actual text of The Declaration of Independence and draw your own conclusions. Feel free to share them by clicking "comments" above.