United States Declaration of Independence

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Original document of the Declaration of Independence (July 1776)

In the United States Declaration of Independence ( English Declaration of Independence ; official: The Unanimous Declaration of The Thirteen United States of America , The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America ' ) proclaimed thirteen British colonies in North America July 4, 1776 her detachment from Great Britain and its right to form its own sovereign confederation . Most of the text, written by Thomas Jefferson and approved by the Second Continental Congress , constitutes the founding charter of theUnited States and is one of the most powerful documents of the democratic philosophy of the state .



In the Seven Years' War (1754 to 1763) the 13 British colonies in North America had defended their own interests and those of the mother country against the colonial ambitions of France. After the peace treaty in 1763, the British government tried to recoup some of the costs of the war by increasing taxes and duties in the colonies. The resulting tensions intensified over the years and led to demonstrative protest actions by the colonists such as B. the Boston Tea Party (1773). The British Parliament reacted to this in 1774 with further restrictive measures, the Coercive Acts (also called Intolerable Acts by the colonists ).

In essence, the dispute revolved around the question of whether the crown had the right to levy taxes in the colonies without their residents being represented in the British House of Commons in London . The slogan of the colonists was: “ no taxation without representation ” (German: “no taxation without parliamentary representation”). They referred to constitutional principles that had already developed in the 17th century in the civil war between the House of Commons and the Stuart kingdom , later theoretically founded by the philosopher John Locke , and became common property among supporters of the Enlightenment in the 18th century . This is one of the reasons why the ideas of independence and human rights , as especially Thomas Paine in his work Common Sense , found the more supporters the more repressive the motherland reacted to the demands of the colonists.

The separation from Great Britain

The declaration of independence is presented to the Continental Congress. Painting by John Trumbull (around 1816)

In 1774, the colonies sent their delegates to the first continental congress in order to lend more emphasis to their demands towards the mother country through a common approach. The assembly sought on the one hand a peaceful settlement of the disputes and appealed to the British Parliament , the government and the crown to find a compromise solution. On the other hand, Congress decided to boycott British goods.

On April 19, 1775, the first violent clashes between colonists and British troops broke out in Massachusetts . The American Revolutionary War began with the battles at Lexington and Concord . As a result, the representatives of 12 of the 13 colonies gathered in the Second Continental Congress decided to separate from the mother country. The New York deputies abstained. The proclamation of independence took place on July 2, 1776, when the Continental Congress approved a resolution by MP Richard Henry Lee from Virginia.

The Declaration of Independence known today was an explanation of this decision adopted two days later and served as the moral and legal legitimation for the apostasy from the British Crown and the War of Independence. It had been designed by a preparatory committee consisting of Thomas Jefferson ( Virginia ), John Adams ( Massachusetts ), Benjamin Franklin ( Pennsylvania ), Robert R. Livingston ( New York ) and Roger Sherman ( Connecticut existed). Its main author was Jefferson. The other committee members advised him, but made no or only minor editorial changes.

The Continental Congress discussed the draft and deleted Thomas Jefferson's proposed condemnation of slavery from the document, as it was supposed to win the approval of the citizens of the slave-holding colonies. On July 4, 1776, the representatives of the thirteen founding states of the United States gathered in Congress adopted the declaration. As Independence Day , July 4th is the US national holiday to this day .

Intellectual history background

The philosophy of John Locke exerted a strong influence on the ideas of the American independence movement.

The success of the American Revolution was based not least on the fact that the large majority of the population in the 13 colonies between around 1760 and 1790 agreed to the liberal theories of the state of John Milton , John Locke, James Harrington and Algernon Sidney , which had been conveyed to it by the radical Whigs' party . The historian Robert Middlekauff sees the reason for this in the spiritual and religious convictions of the settlers. This also made Paine's writing appear convincing to them, which strictly rejected the monarchical form of government with reference to the Old Testament as the work of the devil.

Many colonists who fought for independence from Great Britain had witnessed the first Great Awakening at a young age from around 1740 . The preachers of this spiritual and spiritual awakening - e. B. Jonathan Edwards , George Whitefield and others - had given them for the first time a sense of togetherness that transcended ethnic, social and confessional boundaries. In addition, the Americans had a democratic tradition that went back to the founding of the first colonies and was reflected, for example, in the Mayflower Treaty of the Pilgrim Fathers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony . The dissenters' parishes, to which the majority of the settlers belonged, were run in a representative democratic manner. Middlekauff calls the revolutionary generation "the children of the born again". Overall, their religious beliefs were no longer as intense as those of their Puritan ancestors in the 17th century, but "the purpose of life was still the glorification of God".

In accordance with this basic religious conviction, the Declaration of Independence theologically justified general human rights from the biblical belief in creation: "All human beings are created equal" and "the Creator has given them certain inalienable rights", which include "life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness". Human rights are theonomes , i. H. Thoughts relating to the law of God. This religious position is also made clear in the third part of the declaration, in which the signatories invoke "the highest judge" [God] to reaffirm the honesty of their convictions.

Just a few weeks before the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, on June 12, 1776, the Convention of Virginia had drawn up a natural legal justification of human and civil rights in the Virginia Declaration of Rights : “ All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights. ”(German:“ All people are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights. ”) The fact that human rights could be justified both theologically and in accordance with natural law was not a contradiction at the time. The Declaration of Independence itself spoke of the fact that the people of the United States now intended to occupy the rank to which "the laws of nature and the God of nature" entitle them. Even for the Protestant philosophers of natural law Hugo Grotius , John Locke and Samuel Pufendorf , whose writings had found great approval in the colonies, natural law and biblical revelation were identical, since both went back to God as the common author. As a result, the content of the natural law, which was essentially indeterminate in terms of content, was determined by the ethical norms of the Bible, as they are particularly expressed in the Decalogue ( Exodus 20  EU ) and in Jesus' commandment to love ( Matthew 5:44  EU ).

Locke derived the equality of human beings from the biblical creation story, more precisely: from the book Genesis 1.26 ff.  EU as the basis of the theological doctrine of being in the image of God . From the principle of equality thus obtained, he followed on the one hand the freedom and participation rights of the individual and on the other hand the principle that a government may only exercise power with the consent of the governed. This is a central idea of ​​the Declaration of Independence as it establishes the right of the colonists to break away from the British monarchy and to take their political life into their own hands. Most Americans of the revolutionary generation were as convinced Locke that the nature of the entire cosmos was created by God reality of his Providence ( Providence will pervades). They saw themselves - above all George Washington - as tools in the hand of Providence, which through them brought about independence, the “Glorious Cause” for the good not only of their own people, but of all humanity.


Thomas Jefferson was the main author of the Declaration of Independence.
Reprint of the Declaration of Independence from 1823
Print in German from 1776

The Declaration of Independence consists of three parts that form a logical chain of arguments. In the preamble - the first and best-known section - it clarifies, inspired by the philosophy of John Locke and on the basis of natural law , which inalienable human rights the individual has and when a people has the right to replace an old form of government with a new one. In the second part of the text, the text lists concrete actions by which the British crown permanently and seriously violated the natural rights of the colonists and by which it forfeited its right to further obedience . The third part of the final declaration consists of the conclusion that the separation from the British mother country is necessary and legitimized by natural law and that the 13 colonies henceforth claimed the right to act as independent and sovereign states.


The natural law justification in the preamble , which follows a short introduction, is still effective today :

“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. 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 . ”

The German-language newspaper Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote in Philadelphia published the first German translation of the Declaration of Independence the day after it was passed . She reproduced this passage as follows:

“We consider these truths to be established, that all human beings were created equal, that they were endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. That governments have been introduced among men to insure these rights, which derive their just power from the consent of the ruled; that as soon as some form of government becomes pernicious to these ends, it is the right of the people to change or abolish it, and to set up a new government based on such principles, and whose power and authority are formed such as to maintain their safety and security Bliss thinks to be most appropriate. It is true that prudence dictates that governments established long ago should not be changed for the sake of easy and transitory causes; and accordingly experience has always shown that people, as long as the evil can still be endured, would rather suffer and tolerate than obtain justice and help for themselves by overturning the forms of government to which they are used. But if a long series of ill-treatment and violent encroachments, incessantly directed at one and the same object, reveals an attempt to bring them under absolute control, then it is their right, yes their duty, to throw off such a government, and for themselves to create new guarantees for their future security. "

In this section, general human rights are postulated for the first time in an official document , even if in later constitutional practice they were initially only fully granted to free-born, white men, but not to women, slaves and free blacks. Based on this natural law framework, she sets up a contract theory on the legitimacy of governments and also describes a right of resistance against unjust governments. These basic assumptions are still considered decisive for political liberalism today .

Charges against the British Crown

The preamble is followed by a detailed list, which is not "correct in every detail", of abuses and violations of the law which, according to the revolutionaries, the King of England had committed against the population of the 13 colonies. According to the main complaints, the king did

  • refused to give his consent to necessary laws,
  • made the approval of such laws dependent on the waiver of parliamentary rights,
  • hindered the work of the colonial parliaments and repeatedly dissolved them illegally,
  • hinders immigration to the colonies,
  • hinders and corrupts the judiciary,
  • the bureaucracy increases,
  • maintain standing armies in peacetime without a legal basis,
  • illegally ordered the billeting of troops,
  • hinders trade,
  • started a war against their own population in the colonies (literally: "our lakes plundered, our coasts devastated, our cities burned, and our people killed"),
  • brought foreign mercenaries into the country to “perform the works of death, destruction and tyranny already begun with such circumstances of cruelty and infidelity which even in barbarous times cannot find their equals, and the head of a civil nation altogether are indecent ",
  • and finally "striving to bring the merciless wild Indians over our border residents, whose known use is to wage war, regardless of age, sex and class, to slaughter everything".

The authors then explain that the representatives of the colonies had repeatedly warned the king and the English people about these abuses and asked them to stop them. But since this was unsuccessful, it is now the right of the colonies to sever their state ties to the mother country.

Final declaration

The Pennsylvania State House ( Independence Hall in Philadelphia ), site of the meeting of the Second Continental Congress and the deliberation and adoption of the Declaration of Independence

The entire argumentation of the document ultimately leads to the actual declaration of independence. It repeats the wording of the resolution passed by the Continental Congress two days earlier. In a contemporary German-language print of the document, the decisive passage reads:

“By meeting the representatives of the United States of America in the General Congress and appealing to the highest judge in the world because of the honesty of our convictions, we hereby solemnly proclaim and declare, in the name and out of the power of the good People of these Colonies, That these United Colonies are Freye and Independent States, and ought by right to be; that they are absolved and absolved of all duty and loyalty to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is herewith completely and should be abolished; and that as Freye and Independent States they have full power and authority to wage war, make peace, form alliances, establish action, and do anything and everything else that is legally due to Independent States. "

Publication and signature

Adoption on July 4th gave the declaration legal force. It was immediately circulated in numerous prints and read publicly. However, a document on the resolution of the Continental Congress was not issued until the end of July and was signed by most of the delegates on August 2nd. This document is the best known copy of the Declaration of Independence today and is held in the US National Archives in Washington, DC .

The following 56 delegates signed the document on behalf of the former colonies:

For Connecticut :

For Delaware :

For Georgia :

For Maryland :

For Massachusetts :

For New Hampshire :

For New Jersey :

For New York :

For North Carolina :

For Pennsylvania :

For Rhode Island :

For South Carolina :

For Virginia :


Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b Cf. Jürgen Heideking: The loosening of the ties: The formulation of the declaration of independence and the constitution. P. 493.
  2. ^ Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States. Harper Perennial, 2005, ISBN 0-06-083865-5 , p. 72.
  3. ^ Clifton E. Olmstead: History of Religion in the United States . Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs (NJ) 1960, p. 192 ff.
  4. ^ " The purpose of life was still the glorification of God. Robert Middlekauff: The Glorious Cause. The American Revolution 1763–1789. Revised and Expanded Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005, ISBN 978-0-19-531588-2 , pp. 4–5, 52.
  5. ^ W. Breach of values: Human rights . In: The religion in the past and present . 3rd edition, Volume IV, Column 870.
  6. ^ Clifton E. Olmstead: History of Religion in the United States. P. 89.
  7. M. Elze: Grotius, Hugo . In: The religion in the past and present. 3rd edition, Volume II, Column 1885 f. - H. Hohlwein: Pufendorf, Samuel Freiherr von. In: The religion in the past and present. 3rd edition, Vol. V, Col. 721.
  8. Helmut Thielicke : Theologische Ethik, 1. Volume , Tübingen 1958, p. 657. - Cf. Erik Wolf: Naturrecht. Profane natural law. In: The religion in the past and present. 3rd edition, Vol. IV, p. 1355.
  9. Jeremy Waldron, God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations in Locke's Political Thought . Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-521-89057-1 , pp. 22 ff., 45, 71, 130 ff., 192, 207, 217, 230.
  10. ^ Robert Middlekauff: The Glorious Cause. Pp. 4-5, 52, 302, 622.
  11. Document from the German Historical Museum ( Memento from July 31, 2012 in the web archive archive.today )