History of American Government 104: The Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence was a letter that the Continental Congress needed in order to justify their cause and gain legitimacy in the eyes of other foreign governments as well as rally support from the colonists.
The ideas that are expressed in thedocument were not new. They had been written about by other political reformists in recent history like John Locke [1632-1706] who said that, all men are created equal and endowed by their creator the certain unalienable rights as 'Life, liberty and property.' Thomas Jefferson, borrowing from this, changed the word 'Property,' to the phrase, 'The pursuit of happiness.'
Had the colonists ceded from Britain with no known cause, they may have been viewed by other nations as simply a group of rebels that could be exploited. Even in the time of war [perhaps especially in the time of war] they needed to establish and maintain trade in order to get supplies to fight the war. The only way to do this was to have a justified cause in the eyes of foreign kings and governments and, it worked.
The Congress also needed to the support of the colonists who would be fighting the war. In order to do this, they had to justify their cause by putting their grievances in writing. The idea that this would be a nation for the people, by the people and of the people was a great way to do this.
Not all of the early colonists were property owners [some were actually very poor], so the word 'property' wouldn't have held any bearing or motivation for them. They may have even viewed the new movement as 'business as usual' under a different regime. Changing the words from 'Property,' to 'Pursuit of happiness,' changed the playing field. Everyone wanted to pursue happiness, property owners and poor people alike and it was quietly understood that 'Pursuit of Happiness' was indeed 'Property.'
It has also been pointed out that theDeclaration of Independence was riddled with the word, "G-d," through-out, but the same word is nowhere to be found in the Constitution that followed. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist [G-d creates man. Man creates government]. In war, everyone wants G-d on their side. After the war, it's time to get to work.
The first several original drafts of this letter also went into extensive detail about slavery and how wrong it was. It is estimated that, of the 11 million slaves kidnapped from West Africa and brought to the Americas, only about 6 % of those were actually brought to the United States [or, the 13 colonies]. The Southern states [Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia–being farming states] relied heavily on slavery to do the work on the plantations. The delegates from these states would have never signed the declaration if these articles had been included. Congress knew that they had little chance of winning the war if these states didn't sign on, so a compromise was made. This was a compromise that Jefferson and the northerners made with great reservation, for political purposes–many of whom, including Jefferson, never quite really resigned themselves to.
It has been suggested by many of their contemporary and later observers that they should have held their ground for the sake of 'Right' on the issue of slavery. There is no way to know what would have happened if they had, but it is logical to assume that the United States would not have been born in that time or place if this concession had not been made. It is also logical to imagine that rather than a national government to follow, the United States would have ended as several small countries [much like Europe], the following history impossible to determine–including the possibility that slavery may have still been in effect as of today.
Jefferson also drew upon Paine's [best selling] pamphlet, 'Common Sense,' which declared that it was their natural right to establish their own government while drafting this letter.
The letter was sent, the war raged on and the rest is history.