The Original Intent of the Declaration of Independence

As I do interviews and talk with audiences about my new book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction, I am often asked about the references to God in the Declaration of Independence. Many Christian nationalists have claimed that the Declaration was a Christian document written to establish a uniquely Christian nation. They appeal to the idea that the right to declare independence from England comes directly from the "Law of Nature and Nature's God"; the notion that the "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are endowed by the "Creator"; the appeal to the "Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions"; and the closing references to the "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."

Focusing too heavily on these passages, however, neglects the 18th-century motivation behind the writing of the Declaration. In other words, it misses the "original intent" of the document. For all the effort that Christian conservatives place on discerning and interpreting the "original intent" of the U.S. Constitution, there has been little effort to understand the meaning and purpose of the Declaration of Independence as the founders intended it.

Most would agree that the Declaration of Independence was not a theological or religious document, but neither was it designed primarily to teach Americans and the world about human rights. Americans have become so taken by the second paragraph of the document that they miss the purpose of the Declaration as understood by the Continental Congress, its team of authors, and its chief writer, Thomas Jefferson. In the context of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence was just what it claimed to be—a "declaration of independence" from England and an assertion of American sovereignty in the world.

Historian David Armitage, in a fascinating book entitled The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, has argued convincingly that the Declaration of Independence was written primarily as a document asserting American political sovereignty in the hopes that the newly created United States would secure a place in the international community of nations. In fact, Armitage asserts, the Declaration was discussed abroad more than it was at home. This meant that the Declaration was "decidedly un-revolutionary. It would affirm the maxims of European statecraft, not affront them."

To put this differently, the "self-evident truths" and "unalienable rights" of the Declaration's second paragraph would not have been particularly new or groundbreaking in the context of the 18th-century British world. These were ideals that all members of the British Empire valued regardless of whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution. The writers of the Declaration of Independence did not believe that they were advancing political principles unique to America. This was a foreign policy document.

In an 1825 letter to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson explained his motivation behind writing the Declaration:

When forced, therefore to resort to arms for redress, an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our jurisdiction. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles or new arguments, never before thought of . . . but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.

John Adams, writing five years after he signed it, called the Declaration "that memorable Act by which [the United States] assumed an equal Station among the nations." There is little in these statements to suggest that the Declaration of Independence was anything other than an announcement to the world that the former British colonies were now free and independent states and thus deserve a place in the international order of nations.

If this was indeed the original intent of the Declaration, then at what point did this revered document become, in the minds of Americans, a statement of individual or human rights? Indeed, as Abraham Lincoln put it, "The assertion that 'all men are created equal' was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain; and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for our future use." Lincoln was a revisionist. He found the Declaration useful for reasons that were not primarily intended by its writers.

In the hands of 19th-century abolitionists, women's suffragists, and especially Lincoln, the Declaration became a sacred American document. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison appealed to the Declaration's assertion that "all men are created equal" in his defense of the immediate emancipation of slaves. The Seneca Falls convention of 1848 used it to proclaim the rights of women. And Lincoln, in the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address ("four score and seven years ago") made a direct connection between the Union cause in the Civil War and the Declaration of Independence.

3/9/2011 5:00:00 AM
  • Evangelical
  • Confessing History
  • Declaration of Independence
  • History
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Evangelicalism
  • John Fea
    About John Fea
    John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Grantham, PA, and is the author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? A Historical Introduction (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011). He blogs daily at