What Are the Differences? What Is the Legal Authority of Each?
The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are two of the most powerful and elegantly written documents in recorded history, both integral to the creation and ultimate success of a fledgling democracy. Many Americans, though, are uncertain about the origins of the two documents and about their function and application to our system of government. Let’s take a look at both of them.
The Declaration of Independence
The Declaration of Independence, drafted by a committee of five that included future presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, as well as Benjamin Franklin, was a pronouncement (not a law) adopted and enacted by the Second Continental Congress of the United States. The document was formally adopted on July 4, 1776, while the American colonies were still fighting the war for independence. Many of the famous events of the Revolution—the Boston Tea Party (1773), Paul Revere’s ride (1775) and the Battle of Bunker Hill (1775) had already occurred, but most of the Revolutionary War was still to be fought. The war officially ended with the Treaty of Paris in September, 1783.
The Declaration of Independence put King George III and the British, who still considered the colonies part of the British Empire, on notice of the collective efforts of the leaders of all thirteen colonies to terminate British rule and influence in the new world. The movement toward independence had been coming for decades, ever since Benjamin Franklin proposed a single, separate government for the colonies in July 1754. Colonists had hoped that war could be avoided and that the British would relinquish control of the colonies, but the British gave no indication of a willingness to do that. In fact, the British still exercised proprietary control over the governments of the Maryland and Pennsylvania colonies.
The purpose, therefore, of the initial drafts of the Declaration of Independence, was twofold: to terminate British control and involvement in the governance of Pennsylvania and Maryland and to publicly declare the freedom of the colonies from all rule imposed by the British. The Declaration of Independence was not in the form of a statute, imposing legal requirements on citizens or others. It simply informed the British and the world that the colonies formally and permanently rejected British rule in the United States.
The United States Constitution
Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution is a governing document, setting forth laws that must be obeyed by all citizens. After independence was declared, but before the Revolutionary War was over, members of the Continental Congress agreed that a structure needed to be established to secure a centralized government for the 13 colonies. The first attempt to do this, the Articles of Confederation, was sent to the colonies for ratification in 1777 and enacted in 1781, when Maryland agreed to its implementation.
Unfortunately, the Articles of Confederation still left too much governing power with the individual colonies, often making it difficult to implement and enforce decisions that affected the new nation as a whole. Foreign policy issues were in a state of flux, interstate commerce was a challenge, and the differences in individual state laws threatened the long-term viability of the union. Leaders in the Continental Congress called a convention in Philadelphia in May 1787, with 12 of the 13 colonies in attendance (Rhode Island did not send any delegates). Over the next four months, delegates debated many issues regarding the content and form of the United States Constitution. The final version, written by future president James Madison, was adopted by the Continental Congress and ratified by the states in June 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth former colony to approve the document.
The Constitution, while providing documentation of the reasons for its creation and enactment, focuses on setting forth the respective powers of state and federal governments, as well as the framework for a stronger federal government. It includes specific sections on the three branches of government, how the members of each are chosen, who qualifies, and what checks and balances will be in place. The language of the Constitution identifies it as “the supreme law of the land,” superseding any conflicting state and local laws.
Interestingly, much of our popular understanding of the Constitution centers on it’s 27 amendments, especially the first 10, known as the Bill of Rights. Those 10 amendments were not part of the document drafted, adopted, and ratified in 1788, but were added in 1791 in response to public demands for more protection of individual liberties.
The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution are perhaps the two most important documents that support our democracy, but they serve different purposes. The Declaration of Independence had no force of law but simply put the British and the world on notice that the colonists no longer considered themselves subject to British rule or authority. The Constitution, on the other hand, provides the legal framework for our strong federal government, identifying the roles of the three branches of government, how each is formed, how they interact, and their limitations. The Constitution formally declares itself to be the “supreme law of the land” and identifies the interrelationship between the state governments and the federal government.