The United States Declaration of Independence is an inspirational document that embodies the values that have animated America for more than 240 years. However, there are a number of misconceptions about the Declaration of Independence that continue to shape the way people think about – and make use of – this document down to this very day.
One misconception is that the Declaration of Independence is entirely the work of Thomas Jefferson and represented his specific views. This misconception arose because the document was drafted by Jefferson, who was responsible for much of its text. However, Jefferson’s text went to a committee and was revised substantially from the first draft to the last. The final text bears many of Jefferson’s hallmarks, but it is a product of consensus and compromise.
Therefore, when speaking of the Declaration of Independence, it is more accurate to say that it was written by committee and represented the collective view of the signatories.
Another misconception about the Declaration of Independence is that it is part of American law. We often hear politicians and journalists quote from the Declaration of Independence to make an argument about whether a proposed policy or law is constitutional. For example, it is commonplace to cite “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as though these were constitutional principles that cannot be abridged. In fact, the Declaration of Independence does not hold constitutional authority, and it is not a law. Its principles serve as a mission statement for the United States, but it does not have any governing power when it comes to interpreting the United States Constitution or which policies and laws are allowed under the constitution’s provisions.
A third misconception is that the Declaration of Independence established the United States as a Christian nation. This misconception emerged because the Declaration makes reference to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and also speaks of the “creator” who provides individuals with rights. These references, however, were designed to be purposely ambiguous because the Founders did not want to establish a Christian nation. Indeed, the references specifically to “nature’s” God and to a vaguely defined creator were purposely written to include Deism, the belief system that many of the Founding Fathers subscribed to. Deists believe that God created the universe and established its eternal laws, but that God plays no part in the day to day operation of creation. Consequently, the phrasing used in the Declaration was intended to be as inclusive as possible, representing Deist, Christian, and even non-Christian beliefs, not just one sectarian belief system.
A fourth misconception is that the Declaration made America independent on July 4, 1776.
While the document carries that date, the congressional resolution formally establishing independence was actually approved on July 2, a date that the Founders first thought would be celebrated as America’s true independence day. As John Adams wrote, “I am apt to believe that [July 2] will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” As we all know, the public remembered the date on the declaration rather than the date of the congressional resolution that formally declared independence. Even back then, no one paid much attention to the daily operation of congress.
Incidentally, the representatives of the colonies did not sign the Declaration of Independence on July 4, the date when congress approved the final text. John Hancock signed that day, but the other representatives did not add their signatures until August.
Finally, while many people believe that the Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives in Washington is the original, this is not the case. The handwritten copy of the final draft approved by the Continental Congress was lost or destroyed. What survives is the copied text produced for representatives to add their official signatures to. It is the oldest surviving copy, and the most important because it contains all of the signatures of the men who risked their lives to secure America’s freedom from Great Britain.
Author bio: Thomas S., professional essay expert who has been helping college students with writing history academic papers since 2010. Also, he provides students with writing tips and essay samples. Now he works as a freelance writer in CheapWritingHelp.com producing custom written papers online.