Chapter 17 Section 3
The Declaration of Independence stands as one of the most important documents in all of history. It still serves as inspiration for people around the world. Where did some of the ideas of the Declaration originate?
Colonists Declare Independence
In April 1775, the ongoing tension between the colonists and the British exploded into war in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. This war is known as the Revolutionary War, or the American Revolution. The Congress met soon after and set up a Continental Army, with George Washington in command. Although many battles ended in British victories, the colonists were determined to fight at any cost. In 1776, the Second Continental Congress took a momentous step, voting to declare independence from Britain. Thomas Jefferson of Virginia was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, a document that reflects John Locke’s ideas of the government’s obligation to protect the people’s natural rights to “life, liberty, and property.”
The Declaration included another of Locke’s ideas: people had the right “to alter or to abolish” unjust governments—a right to revolt. The principle of popular sovereignty, which states that all government power comes from the people, is also an important point in the Declaration. Jefferson carefully detailed the colonists’ grievances against Britain. Because the king had trampled colonists’ natural rights, he argued, the colonists had the right to rebel and set up a new government that would protect them. Aware of the risks involved, on July 4, 1776, American leaders adopted the Declaration, pledging “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” to creating and protecting the new United States of America.
Enlightenment Ideas Have Great Impact
The Framers of the Constitution had studied history and absorbed the ideas of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. They saw government in terms of a social contract into which “We the People of the United States” entered. They provided not only for an elective legislature but also for an elected president rather than a hereditary monarch. For the first President, voters would choose George Washington.
The Constitution created a federal republic, with power divided between the federal, or national, government and the states. A central feature of the new federal government was the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, an idea borrowed directly from Montesquieu. Within that structure, each branch of government was provided with checks and balances on the other branches.
The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, was important to the passage of the Constitution. It recognized the idea that people had basic rights that the government must protect, such as freedom of religion, speech, and the press. The Bill of Rights, like the Constitution, put the philosophes’ Enlightenment ideas into practice. In 1789, the Constitution became the supreme law of the land, which means it became the nation’s fundamental law. This remarkable document has endured for more than 200 years.
Symbol of Freedom
The Constitution of the United States created the most progressive government of its day. From the start, the new republic was a symbol of freedom to European countries and reformers in Latin America. Its constitution would be copied or adapted by many lands throughout the world. The Enlightenment ideals that had inspired American colonists brought changes in Europe too. In 1789, a revolution in France toppled the monarchy in the name of liberty and equality. Before long, other Europeans would take up the cry for freedom as well.
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