The Difference Between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution

It's a common mistake to confuse the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution when thinking about the birth of our nation. Both are critical documents in the founding of the United States and both remain relevant today, but here are the differences between the two.

In short, the Declaration of Independence states that the United States of America is a country in its own right, independent of England, and includes a list of grievances against the king of England, while the U.S. Constitution formed our federal government and set the laws of the land. There are no amendments to the Declaration of Independence but the Constitution originally had 12.

Which is older?

The Declaration of Independence dates back to 1776. The document was finalized on July 4 of that year, though it was not officially signed by representatives from all the 13 colonies until August 2, one of the 20 surprising facts about Independence Day most Americans don’t know.

The U.S. Consitution was written during the Constitutional Convention, May 25 to September 17, 1787.

Authored by future presidents

Thomas Jefferson was the principal drafter of the Declaration of Independence and went on to serve as the third President of the United States.

James Madison, who is considered the “Father of the Constitution,” would go on to serve at the fourth President of the United States.

Famous preambles

The preamble to the Declaration of Independence begins with the famous sentence: “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.”

The U.S. Constitution begins with “We the people of the United States of America,” which is notable because it shows that the Constitution is “of the people, for the people, and by the people of the United States.” At the time it was written, the idea of a government “for the people” was novel.

Not the same signers

One of the most common misconceptions is that both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were drafted and signed by the same people. Despite being written only 11 years apart from each other, only six men— George Clymer, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, George Read, Roger Sherman, and James Wilson—signed both documents. Jefferson was not involved in writing the Constitution and wasn’t even in the United States in 1787 for the Constitutional Convention. At the time, the future third president was serving as the American Minister to France. Did you know that the reason we set off fireworks for Independence Day has to do with the Founding Fathers?

Which has more signatures?

Declaring independence was a momentous moment but also one fraught with peril to those who put their John Hancock’s on that document. It was seen as a treasonous act against England. Given that, it is surprising then that there are more signatures on the Declaration of Independence (56) than the Constitution (39).

All men aren’t really created equal

Neither document condemned nor attempted to halt the business of slavery, despite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence stating that “all men are created equal.” Though some believe Jefferson meant that phrase to mean all humanity is created equal and, according to Constitution Facts, “Jefferson had originally included language condemning the British promotion of the slave trade,” that was later edited out. Jefferson himself was a slave owner.

Meanwhile, the Constitution allowed for each slave to count as three-fifths of a person in determining representation in Congress and taxation in what became known as the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” Smaller, southern slave-owning states were wary of larger states having too much power in the House of Representatives and argued that slaves should count in some way toward their population counts. This is why even hate speech is protected under the U.S. constitution. 

Women aren’t created equal either

At the time the Declaration of Independence was written, women were not included in the “All men are created equal” statement, either. In addition to not uniformly having the right to vote until the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution in 1920 (much later than other countries), back in 1776, most women were essentially considered the “property” of their fathers or husbands.

How many copies of each were made?

There were about 200 copies of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and distributed throughout the colonies. Those precious copies are now known as “Dunlap Broadsides” and they are super rare and worth a fortune. It’s thought that only 25 of these copies still exist. The next time you are at a yard sale, keep your eyes peeled because a few decades ago one lucky shopper unknowingly purchased a previously unknown Dunlap Broadside for $4 at a flea market and sold it for $2.4 million in 1991.

The Constitution, on the other hand, was only written down once, although 14 copies of the Bill of Rights were produced, one for each of the original 13 states and one for the federal government to keep.

Where are the documents today?

Visit the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom housed inside The National Archives in Washington D.C. to see the original Consitution, a copy of one of the original Declarations of Independence, and a copy of the original Bill of Rights, including the 12th proposed amendment that was not ratified. Next, read on to test your knowledge of the Constitution.

To learn how to have a fun 4th of July this year, visit our 4th of July Staycation Guide: Fun at Home.

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Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award-winning photographer, avid traveler, and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment, and more for Reader's Digest. Jeff has also written for Parents Magazine, Esquire, PBS, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. He is the proud dad of teen daughters. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter @OWTK.