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Democratic ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution provide the ideological foundations for the democratic government of the United States.

Key points

  • The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are documents that provide the ideological foundations for the democratic government of the United States.
  • The Declaration of Independence provides a foundation for the concept of popular sovereignty, the idea that the government exists to serve the people, who elect representatives to express their will.
  • The US Constitution outlines the blueprint for the US governmental system, which strives to balance individual liberty with public order.

National treasures

In the US National Archives in Washington, DC, armed guards stand on constant watch in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. There, underneath bullet-proof glass and beneath the watchful eyes of a state-of-the-art system of cameras and sensors, the faded pages of three documents are enshrined: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. At night, the documents are stored in an underground vault, rumored to be strong enough to withstand a nuclear attack.
Photo showing visitors examining documents in cases at the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom.
Interior of the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom in Washington, DC. Image credit: National Archives
Why are these pieces of paper so highly protected and cherished? In short, it’s because they serve as the ideological foundations for the government of the United States. They express both the inspiration for American democracy and the blueprint for carrying it out.
In this article, you'll learn the origins of these documents, and we'll examine the democratic ideals found within them.

The Declaration of Independence

Setting the stage
In 1776, the thirteen British colonies in North America were rebelling against British rule, after more than a decade of strife over taxation and government representation. As the Revolutionary War got underway, representatives from each of the colonies agreed it was time to put forward a statement expressing the colonies’ reasons for desiring independence.
This momentous task fell upon Thomas Jefferson, a 33-year-old Virginia lawyer. Jefferson was inspired by the English
philosopher John Locke, whose writings on government put forward two ideas that would become quite important to Jefferson:
  • That all humans are born with “natural rights,” including the right to protect their lives, liberty, and property
  • That government is a “social contract” between people and their rulers, which can be dissolved if rulers fail to promote the people’s welfare
Although these ideas seem pretty tame by modern standards, in the eighteenth century they were tantamount to treason. The nations of Europe were led by monarchs, who exercised the divine right of kings and owed little or no consideration to the will of their subjects. English citizens had some rights, certainly, but no one would dare to say that the English monarchy could simply be dissolved.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson. Painted by Mather Brown, 1786. Image credit: WikimediaCommons
Nevertheless, Jefferson, in writing the Declaration, hoped to dissolve the relationship between the American colonies and Britain. He drafted the Declaration and gave it to his colleagues, John Adams of Massachusetts and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, for revisions. After incorporating their suggestions, Jefferson submitted the Declaration to the colonial representatives for approval.
What is the Declaration of Independence?
At the most basic level, the Declaration of Independence is a list of grievances against the British Crown, seeking the sympathy of the international community for the cause of the colonies in revolting against their mother country. But at a higher level, the ideas expressed in the Declaration serve as the inspiration for American democratic values. They are some of the most poetic and meaningful words in all of American writing:
“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.”
These ideas, that all men are created equal and that government is based on the consent of the governed, became the foundation for the US political ideal of popular sovereignty: that the government exists to serve the people, who elect representatives to express their will.
The colonial representatives voted to adopt the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, which has been celebrated as the official birthday of the United States ever since.

The Constitution

Although the Declaration served as an inspiration for American democracy, it did not outline an actual system of government. In the years during and immediately after the Revolution, the US government operated under the Articles of Confederation, a government system that placed most power in the hands of state governments.
We’ll talk more about the specifics of the Articles of Confederation later on in this course, but for now, suffice it to say that by the late 1780s, it was clear that the Articles weren’t working. The United States needed a new, stronger blueprint for government.
In 1787, representatives from the states met in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Convention. Their task was a difficult one: to create a government system that was powerful enough to meet the needs of the United States, but not so powerful that it would become
. Likewise, they wanted to balance the will of the majority with the rights of the minority, so that the powerful many could not trample the few.
Painting depicting the Constitutional Convention, with George Washington standing above statesmen including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.
Artist’s depiction of the Constitutional Convention. Painted by Junius Brutus Stearns, 1856. Image credit: Teaching American History
Under the leadership of Revolutionary War hero George Washington, the delegates debated the elements of a new Constitution. The final version, influenced strongly by Virginian James Madison and New Yorker Alexander Hamilton, reinforced the idea that government derives from a social contract by citizens for their mutual advantage:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The Constitution drafted in Philadelphia more than two hundred years ago still forms the basis for US government today. Amended just twenty-seven times in that period (including the first set of ten amendments, or the Bill of Rights, which was passed immediately after the Constitution’s ratification), the US Constitution is the oldest functioning national constitution in the world. It serves as the blueprint for the unique form of political democracy found in the United States.

What do you think?

How are the original goals of the Constitution similar to, and different from, the original goals of the Declaration of Independence?
What does popular sovereignty mean? How would you define it in your own words?
Which aspects of the Declaration and the Constitution do you see as most critical to the ideals of American democracy?

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user jojo
    What are some democratic elements found in the Constitution?
    (12 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Hypernova Solaris
      If you read the Constitution carefully, you will find several elements of democracy. For example, the ideals of a representative democracy is seen in the Constitution's structuring of the government; the ideal of federalism is also seen in the Bill of Rights; the Preamble itself lists a number of issues the Constitution is meant to address in protection of democracy. I hope this helps!
      (12 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user tyron.major
    Why didn't John Locke give the slaves natural rights ?
    (7 votes)
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    • piceratops tree style avatar for user lilliebet05
      Locke believed that all people are equal in the sense that they are born with certain "inalienable" natural rights. That is, God-given rights that can never be taken away or even given away. "Life, liberty, and property" are among these fundamental natural rights, according to Locke.

      The preservation of mankind, according to Locke, is the most basic human law of nature. Individuals have both a right and a duty to save their own lives in order to accomplish that aim, he reasoned. Murderers, on the other hand, lose their right to life since they violate the law of reason. Individuals should be free to make their own decisions about how to spend their life as long as they do not infringe on the liberty of others, according to Locke. As a result, Locke believed that liberty should be broad. 

      The objective of government, according to Locke, is to secure and protect the people's God-given inalienable inherent rights. The people, for their part, must follow the laws of their rulers. As a result, there is a type of agreement between the rulers and the ruled. However, if a government persecutes its citizens with "a continuous train of abuses" over a long period of time, the people have the right to reject that government, alter or abolish it, and create a new political system, according to Locke.

      I hope this helps.
      (14 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Nikki Archundia Robles
    Have we altered the constitution in any way that the original founding fathers would have seen unfit or as wrong?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user SShannon24
      We abolished slavery, enfranchised women, people of color, and 18-year-olds, outlawed and then allowed alcohol again, allowed for the direct election of Senators which was something that scared the FFs. I would say a couple of our Founding Fathers would not agree with our decisions. Even the presidential succession and income tax amendments would likely have come under fire in the original Congress. But one great thing about our FFs is, they knew the country would change, and with it, the ideals, morals, and beliefs of the people. So, they allowed us to change the Constitution. In short, yes, I think some of the FFs would disapprove of the amendments we have made, but I think they would also be smart enough to realize that times change, ideas change, and therefore, government changes.
      (16 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Isabelle Firman
    why are we using a 200 year old document to rule a very different country?
    (7 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Iss Ali
      Because the ideas proposed within these documents are generally applicable and form the basis of a government that is forced to respect the rights of its people (as long as you ignore all the racism that was there at the founding).
      (9 votes)
  • sneak peak green style avatar for user 1Abel35
    It says that the revolutionary war took place in the 1750s or something. When you hover over the enlightenment text at the top of the page, it says that the enlightenment was in the 1800s. How cold of John Locke inspired Thomas Jefferson if he came after him?
    (3 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Sienna
    1. The Declaration of Independence was written to explain the colonies' reasons for pulling away from Great Britain, while the Constitution outlines the way that the US government should work.
    2. Popular sovereignty means that the citizens are in the position to change things about the government in order to fit their ideals. An example of this would be someone voting Ron Desantis for president because they support the ideas of his platform (e.g. Banning gender-affirming care, and other things that I don't wish to list) or someone who voted for Trump and his VP for their ideas (I'm not even going to attempt to go into details...)
    3. In my opinion, the most critical parts are where the documents speak about the citizens abilities to change the government if and when they see a need for it, as well as where it talks about how the governments derive their power from the "consent of the governed" (Declaration of Independence, second paragraph). In the second paragraph of the Declaration, it says "Whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it."
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Eryn
    Who are the ultimate decision makers in a democracy according to the Declaration of Independence (DOI)?
    (5 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user famousguy786
      Clearly, the people are the ultimate decision makers in the eyes of the authors of the Declaration of Independence. This excerpt from the Declaration of Independence will make it clear to you->
      "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."
      (4 votes)
  • stelly orange style avatar for user x_o
    Why did the delegates meet in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention? Why didn't they meet somewhere else instead?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user blackbean798
    1. The goals of the constitution are similar to the DOI because they both try and cement an FW for how the US will be fair for all.

    2. Popular sovereignty means the people vote for something, and the majority is the final decision. The people could change parts of the government to fit their needs. An example could be Korean President Park Gun Hae being impeached for money embezzlement.

    3. I feel like the most critical parts of the DOI and constitution are promising the people equality and using checks and balances/separation of three governments to keep things fair.
    (5 votes)
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  • starky seed style avatar for user abigailkissi
    Popular sovereignty means a government based on consent of the people.

    The ideals for government expressed in the Declaration, which includes popular sovereignty and social contract.
    (4 votes)
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