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In a rented room not far from the State House, he wrote the Declaration with few books and pamphlets beside him, except for a copy of George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights and the draft Virginia Constitution, which Jefferson had written himself. It has a preamble, which later became the most famous part of the document but at the time was largely ignored.It has a second part that lists the sins of the King of Great Britain, and it has a third part that declares independence from Britain and that all political connections between the British Crown and the “Free and Independent States” of America should be totally dissolved.
The Declaration of Independence made certain promises about which liberties were fundamental and inherent, but those liberties didn’t become legally enforceable until they were enumerated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
In other words, the fundamental freedoms of the American people were alluded to in the Declaration of Independence, implicit in the Constitution, and enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
Despite these similarities and differences, the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are, in many ways, fused together in the minds of Americans, because they represent what is best about America.
They are symbols of the liberty that allows us to achieve success and of the equality that ensures that we are all equal in the eyes of the law.
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.
When Jefferson wrote the preamble, it was largely an afterthought. It captured perfectly the essence of the ideals that would eventually define the United States.But it took the Civil War, which President Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address called “a new birth of freedom,” to vindicate the Declaration’s famous promise that “all men are created equal.” And it took the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868 after the Civil War, to vindicate James Madison’s initial hope that not only the federal government but also the states would be constitutionally required to respect fundamental liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights—a process that continues today.When the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia in 1775, it was far from clear that the delegates would pass a resolution to separate from Great Britain.The Bill of Rights was proposed by the Congress that met in Federal Hall in New York City in 1789.Thomas Jefferson was the principal drafter of the Declaration and James Madison of the Bill of Rights; Madison, along with Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson, was also one of the principal architects of the Constitution.(The first ten amendments are called the Bill of Rights.) The Declaration and Bill of Rights set limitations on government; the Constitution was designed both to create an energetic government and also to constrain it.The Declaration and Bill of Rights reflect a fear of an overly centralized government imposing its will on the people of the states; the Constitution was designed to empower the central government to preserve the blessings of liberty for “We the People of the United States.” In this sense, the Declaration and Bill of Rights, on the one hand, and the Constitution, on the other, are mirror images of each other.Lincoln believed that the “principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” as he wrote shortly before the anniversary of Jefferson’s birthday in 1859.Three years later, on the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday in 1861, Lincoln said in a speech at what by that time was being called “Independence Hall,” “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender” the principles of the Declaration of Independence.But why are they important, and what are their similarities and differences?And how did each document, in turn, influence the next in America’s ongoing quest for liberty and equality?