Since there is no greater expression of liberalism than revolution, it is right that a former colony should celebrate its independence. It is also true that America and Americans have much to celebrate, even after 236 years. And despite all the talk about rights, about liberty, the focus originally was on independence.
On July 2, 1776, the Philadelphia Evening Post put right next to the news of independence a notice about an escaped slave, putting then current ideas about rights and liberty in their proper perspective. Foreign commentators, we are told, as well as domestic, talked more about the document’s charges against the king than about the second paragraph’s self-evident truths.
It was only in the nineteenth century that an assertion of sovereignty began to be seen as a charter of rights. Says Eric Slauter from the University of Chicago. Abraham Lincoln said in 1857 that the assertion that ‘All men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain.” And we are, ostensibly, still celebrating that independence, not those rights, though we tend to see them as inseperable.
We have tended to mythologize our independence and those associating with the endeavor. But at the time, the committee that wrote this most important document, wasn’t even an important committee composed of Congress’ most important people – they were all busy in other committees writing other reports.
As Slauter reminds us, “Jefferson may have drafted the Declaration because better-known writers were tied up with other committees. In fact, the most famous man on the Committee of Five was important enough to serve on other committees as well – all except Thomas Jefferson. Sure, he was the only Southerner on the Committee, sure he was from Virginia and had an “emerging reputation” but in the end, he was also “the only member of the declaration committee without other duties…”
This is to diminish neither the committee’s nor Jefferson’s accomplishment, but a little splash of reality is not a bad thing, a remedy for dangerous levels of self approbation, the sort found in modern day American Exceptionalism. The sort sold by the Tea Party.
But the declaration, important as it is to us, was, at the time, not even seen as a legal text or a legislative act, and a “Declaration of” became a “Declaration by” two weeks after it was published. Hardly the stuff of myth. Congressional journals referred to it in what is hardly stirring language as “the declaration respecting independence” but nobody called it the Declaration of Independence.
When it appeared before the public, the printer, John Dunlap, presented it as “A Declaration by the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.” Quite a mouthful. It wasn’t until July 19 that the document we celebrate today became “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America” and it’s not like the signatories signed and then ordered it rushed into print – the document had been published six weeks before it was written on parchment to be signed. Not terribly dramatic and hardly the stuff of Hollywood.
Slauter argues that “though the now-common title suggests the text declares independence, it is perhaps better understood as a declaration of reasons or causes for why the United States of America are (or were) already independent” and that this is how “a majority in Congress understood the text.” It isn’t that the Declaration declared something that hadn’t yet taken place but rather explained why it had already taken place. As Slauter writes, “Passing references in private and public letters suggest that, to its earliest congressional readers, the Declaration rationalized and publicized rather than perhformed an action.”
So it would be wrong to say that on July 4 America declared its independence; we explained it instead. Not quite as stirring a content for a speech as what is commonly believed, and we can forgive the president in the film Independence Day (1996) for glossing over those details. And explanation is hardly as glorious as an assertion.
It is not inappropriate that we should choose the day of explanation to celebrate our independence, serving like it did as a punctuation to a long list of misdeeds by the king and his government. And now that independence has been won there is no reason we should not, as Lincoln suggested in 1857, devote ourselves to that part of the document set aside for “future use”- liberty.
But we should keep in mind that in the minds of the signatories independence was already a done deal on July 4 and that the document we celebrate is not an act but an explanation of an act. We should keep in mind that on July 2, on the day Congress “dissolved” the “connection” with Britain, British troops were pouring ashore on Staten Island to wrest New York away from the colonies. As John Adams wrote, “We are in the very midst of a revolution, the most complete, unexpected and remarkable of any in the history of nations.”
And as David McCullough noted in his masterful accounting of that year, “Such courage and high ideals were of little consequence…the Declaration itself being no more than a declaration without military success against the most formidable force on earth.” It would hardly be remembered today had we not succeeded. John Knox was at least partly right when he wrote, “As we play our part posterity will bless or curse us.” We do bless them today, but cursing would be the least of their problems if they had lost; we might well be struggling to remember who they were.
Spirits were high in 1776, as McCullough observes. Should they be high today? We have, as a nation, reached our maturity and passed it. We are no longer a new nation except in comparison to such ancient countries as England or France; Germany is newer and a nation only because Napoleon broke up the monstrosity known as the Holy Roman Empire. But even mature relationships have their share of problems.
But even in 1776 we had our share of problems – some familiar to us today including a rocky economy, and, of course, war. Some of the issues of 1776 would not be settled until 1865 in the wake of the most costly war in American history; some are with us still, despite the United States Constitution and the new governmental system it established in place of the old and unworkable Articles of Confederation.
Perhaps the Civil War did not permanently settle some of these issues at all; there are those who wish to undo much of the work accomplished in that war by tearing down the amendments that sealed the changes. There are those who wish to tear down the Constitution itself and return to the Articles of Confederation that were already useless in the 18th century (how much more so today?).
But these problems only make the Declaration more meaningful to us, and what we have the more dear. We should celebrate and we should remember that we could be raising toasts in honor of a king instead. But we should remember what really happened, not what we imagine to have happened or what we might wish had happened. We should celebrate our country for what it is and attach our loyalties to that reality, and not some ideological fantasy that will never see the light of day.
If there is anything more liberal than a revolution, I do not know what it is, so let us celebrate our revolution, brothers and sisters as we resist the long-delayed conservative counter-revolution that will take that independence, and those rights, away.
(This post draws on David McCullough’s 1776 (2005) and “The Declaration of Independence and the new nation” by Eric Slauter, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Frank Shuffelton (2009).