Here in the United States, it’s July 4th, a day we commemorate with fireworks, cook-outs, concerts, and speeches. So what exactly is it that we celebrate?
Nominally, today marks the 231st anniversary of revolutionary America formally declaring its separation from Great Britain. The primary author of the famous document was, of course, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s Monticello home, here in Charlottesville, has become a living educational memorial to Jefferson. I recently was honored to be a “Jefferson Fellow” at the adjoining Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, (ICJS) where scholars, in part, explore the ongoing legacy of Jefferson for our world today.
Despite the ready association of Jefferson with today’s date, do we understand what the core purpose of Jefferson’s Declaration was?
Easy, right? If so, and at the risk of turning this into NPR’s “wait, wait,… don’t tell me” quiz show, then let’s try this question: how did America’s famous Declaration begin? Was it:
a. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,…”
b. “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…”
c. ” When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station….”
d. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.”
e. “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness…”
If you the reader are like the vast majority of Americans, you will be inclined to answer “b,” but sorry, that is the Declaration’s second paragraph, not the first.
Answer “e” is also incorrect; that’s the opening to the 1945 Vietnamese Declaration (among dozens of Declarations in world history that emulated America’s in one form or another.)
Answer “d” also is incorrect, as this is Article 1 from the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man.
With answer “a” of course being the preamble to the 1789 US Constitution, then you surely knew the answer to be “c.”
Lest we get too confident in our history IQ, how many of us can readily recall just what the 1776 American Declaration… well… “declared?”
Even if you had a solid American history education, don’t feel too bad if you’re a bit confused by the question. Assuming you went to an American school that still taught “civics” in some form, your lessons on “The Declaration” likely included much contemplation of the meaning, the “codes,” of Jefferson’s second paragraph. Just what fundamental “truths” did the new American nation “hold” to be “self-evident?” And what about all that seeming hypocrisy regarding all persons (“men”) being created equal, even as so many of them were then in tolerated bondage?
Until quite recently, very little in the vast scholarship on Jefferson and the Declaration addresses the “simple” question of just what was the Declaration’s purpose? The curious state of such learned discourse is neatly illustrated in a short 1999 text, edited by Joseph Ellis and entitled, “What Did the Declaration Declare?” This book provides splendid examples of the great scholarly debates over the last half of the 20th Century about how the Declaration was written, about the merits or exaggerations in the list of grievances against George III, and just which intellectual current influenced Thomas Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration’s second paragraph. Was it John Locke? Or was it the Scottish Enlightenment? Or was it some Saxon mythology that only Jefferson could fathom?
Whatever Jefferson’s intellectual parentage, Abraham Lincoln’s 1859 tribute to Jefferson’s “second paragraph” still nicely sidesteps such inquiry:
“All honor to Jefferson… who had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”
Yet from Lincoln to the present, few scholars or pundits have provided much substantive comment about the Declaration’s first sentence, which in full reads:
“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Parenthetically, my own work focuses on just what Jefferson and his colleagues meant by a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” (I have much to publish on this rarely-considered clause, and yes, it has a rather compelling contemporary ring…. Imagine — American leaders once caring about world opinion.)
I am pleased though to acknowledge that the two-century-old intellectual logjam blocking inquiry into the Declaration’s first sentence has been nicely broken by Harvard’s David Armitage, an historian and “English School” international relations scholar.
In a brilliant 2002 William & Mary Quarterly article and in a slender new book, entitled “The Declaration of Independence: A Global History,” Armitage contends directly that the fundamental purpose of the American Declaration was to…
(drum roll…. turn the page…. whoosh, poof, boom, zing, crackle,sizzle…, bang!….)
Well, fancy that.
Never mind the scholars; perhaps you knew that too?
So why did the Continental Congress find it so important to declare the American colonies to be free and independent? Not just for “domestic political morale purposes,” as one scholar contends, but because they realized that they could not on their own defeat the mightiest power at the time with their limited resources. They needed friends and allies in Europe, or at least their continued neutrality. Declaring independence was deemed the key to unlock such aid.
As David Armitage neatly states the case, the Declaration as a document of rights and abstract truths would have “been a document without a future had it failed in its central purpose of declaring independence.”
In Jefferson’s autobiographical notes about the debates over whether or not to declare independence, Jefferson recounts at length about how Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson was among those Delegates plausibly worried that a formal declaration of independence would render the new states less likely to attain foreign aid while becoming more vulnerable to partition by predatory European states.
Americans then were well acquainted with the fate of Pasquale Paoli, the rebel who led the Corsicans to freedom from the Genovese in 1755, only to be bitterly re-conquered by the French in 1769. (I was raised near Paoli, Pennsylvania — named after the Corsican, and famous for the “Sons of Liberty.”)
Yet John Adams and others flipped Dickinson’s fears on their head by arguing that it was the absence of an independence declaration that prevented European powers from coming to the aid of the Americans. As Jefferson recalled (among other things),
“…a declaration of Independence alone could render it consistent with European delicacy for European powers to treat with us, or even to receive an Ambassador from us: That till this (without a Declaration) they would not receive our vessels into their ports, nor acknowledge the adjudications of our courts of admiralty to be legitimate, in cases of capture of British vessels….”
Given recent events, it may seem hard to believe that Americans once had such high regard for international legal norms; yet such concerns were central to turning the 1776 argument in favor of “declaring independence.”
Armitage well demonstrates that America’s rebels were quite attuned to the international norms of the latter 18th Century via the famous treatise, The Law of Nations, a legal handbook first published in 1758 in French by the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel and available in multiple languages almost immediately.
Benjamin Franklin, whom “realists” today see as their model, was so impressed by Vattel that he made sure the Continental Congress had several copies at its disposal, as of 1775. Vattel’s work was important to the American rebels, because it made independence fundamental to the definition of statehood. For any state to make its entrance into the great society, “it is enough that it should be truly sovereign and independent…” that it freely governs itself.
This international legal argument was hardly an obscure concept in the colonies. Indeed, the connection between declaring independence and foreign assistance was well understood in 1776. Thomas Paine’s sensational best-selling pamphlet, Common Sense, which appeared in early 1776 and helped turned colonial sentiment squarely in favor of independence, closed with a bold argument that, “nothing can settle our affairs so expeditiously as an open and determined declaration for Independence.” Foreign alliances couldn’t be secured without it. As Paine argued,
“Why would a foreign nation support the colonies if their support was only to achieve reconciliation with Britain?… [U]ntil a “Manifesto” is published and dispatched to foreign Courts, … [the] custom of all Courts is against us, and will be so, until by an Independence, we take rank with other Nations.”
I’m just scratching a fascinating subject here. I highly recommend a reading of David Armitage’s book, especially the delightfully packed first two chapters. If your local library doesn’t have it, encourage them to get it! The third chapter reviews the “history” of how the American Declaration of Independence has been emulated in the world, and nearly half the book’s pages are an appendix of such Declarations. Have fun with the examples.
Oddly enough, most Americans today celebrate the 4th of July without ever much contemplating America’s own revolutionary tradition and its legacy for the world, much less why the Declaration of Independence itself was such a fateful decision.
If we appreciated our own Declaration legacy more, perhaps we might recognize and deal more fruitfully with revolutionary impulses for “independence” elsewhere. To be sure, other current and aspiring nations may well admire the freedoms most of us still cherish. Yet whether Chinese, Russian, Iranian, French, Algerian, Vietnamese, South African, Palestinian, Kurdish, etc., they may be just as inspired to imitate our declaration for “independence” — to have the freedom to develop according to their own cultures and values.
Addendum: Nearly 49 years after writing it, Jefferson reflected on the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. He recalled that:
“an appeal to the tribunal of the world was deemed proper for our justification. This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writings, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind.”
(From Letter to Henry Lee, May 25, 1825. Jefferson, and John Adams, died a year later, on July 4th, 1826, on the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.)