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Explore: Primary Source Analysis

What is natural rights theory and how is it at the foundation of the Declaration of Independence? How do natural rights theory and the Founding principles at the heart of the Declaration of Independence challenge slavery?

Part I: The preamble of the Declaration of Independence

  • I can explain how natural rights theory is foundational to the Declaration of Independence.
  • I can explain the purpose of government, according to the Declaration.
  • I can interpret and summarize the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.

The preamble of the Declaration of Independence is incredibly important for all Americans to study carefully. This document lays the foundation for a new government, though it was not known if the colonies would successfully break with Britain. The document is quoted and referenced by great Americans across time, such as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. As you read the preamble, use the vocabulary and annotations to help you translate the importance of each section in your own words. The first one is done for you as an example.

Text Vocabulary What? (Restate this in your own words) So what? (Why does this matter in my own words or draw an image that helps you translate the main idea)
In Congress, July 4, 1776 The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. (lines 1–6) dissolve: get rid of  

Laws of Nature: natural law or the natural order  

impel: urge

The 13 mainland colonies want to separate from Great Britain and the authors of the Declaration will list the causes that drove them to make this break. The colonies are breaking up with the King and will tell him why.

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.– (lines 7–9) self-evident: obvious  

endowed: given  

unalienable: impossible to take away; another term for natural rights

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, (lines 9–10) instituted: established  

deriving: receiving

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 affect their Safety and Happiness. (lines 10–13) abolish: get rid of  

institute: set up or establish

Shrink the text: Summarize the preamble of the Declaration of Independence in one sentence.

Part II: The Declaration of Independence, Natural Rights, and Slavery

  • I can explain how slavery contradicts the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
  • I can summarize the main ideas of historic texts.
  • I can create arguments supported by evidence from primary sources.

Thomas Jefferson’s Draft of the Declaration of Independence, 1776

Building Context

On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, introduced a resolution in the Second Continental Congress proposing independence for the British North American colonies. Congress approved this resolution and appointed a 5-person committee to draft a declaration of independence: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. The committee chose Thomas Jefferson to write the document. The following excerpt appeared in Jefferson’s initial draft of the Declaration (To see Jefferson’s original draft, click here). The version of the Declaration we know today was edited by the committee and the Continental Congress before it was officially adopted.


… [King George III, the king of Great Britain during the American Revolution] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur [suffer] miserable death in their transportation thither [to a place, in this place, the colonies]… determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold …

Benjamin Banneker’s Letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1791

Building Context

Benjamin Banneker, a free Black man from Baltimore County, Maryland, wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1791 pointing out Jefferson’s hypocrisy in asserting that all men were equal in their natural rights while slavery existed. Banneker was largely self-taught and developed skills in mechanics, astronomy, and mathematics. He wrote six almanacs that were published in several cities and in 28 editions. He also assisted with the surveying of the future Washington, D.C. Banneker enclosed a copy of his almanac along with his letter to Jefferson.


….This Sir, was a time in which you clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition, it was now Sir, that your abhorrence [feeling of hatred or disgust] thereof was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable [extremely important] doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all Succeeding ages. “We hold these truths to be Self evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Here Sir, was a time in which your tender feelings for your selves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great valuation [value or worth] of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled by nature; but Sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred [given] upon them, that you should at the Same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren [friends] under groaning captivity and cruel oppression . . .

Comprehension and Analysis Questions

  1. How does Jefferson describe slavery in the first line of the draft of the Declaration? Why might he call it this?
  2. Jefferson describes the enslaved as “MEN”. Why is this significant?
  3. In this 1791 letter to Jefferson, why does Banneker quote the Declaration of Independence?
  4. How did Banneker argue that slavery contradicted the natural rights theory at the core of the Declaration of Independence?

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