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.
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.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Jefferson began, in one of the most famous sentences in the English language. But the ideal—“that all men are created equal”—came to take on a life of its own and is now considered the most perfect embodiment of the American creed.
How could Jefferson write this at a time that he and other Founders who signed the Declaration owned slaves? When Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address during the Civil War in November 1863, several months after the Union Army defeated Confederate forces at the Battle of Gettysburg, he took Jefferson’s language and transformed it into constitutional poetry.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 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.Most importantly, the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are based on the idea that all people have certain fundamental rights that governments are created to protect.Those rights include common law rights, which come from British sources like the Magna Carta, or natural rights, which, the Founders believed, came from God.The Declaration was designed to justify breaking away from a government; the Constitution and Bill of Rights were designed to establish a government.The Declaration stands on its own—it has never been amended—while the Constitution has been amended 27 times.