No document in American history can compare with the Declaration of Independence in the place that it holds in the minds and hearts of American citizens. It is not only critical to any exploration of the growth of democracy in the United States, it is in many ways the root document of that democracy. We begin here, for the Declaration sheds its light both backward, to illuminate the development of democratic ideas and institutions in the New World, and forward, to indicate the ways in which the United States has lived up to the promise of the Declaration as well as those areas in which the ideas have taken longer to mature.
It is important to understand that the Declaration of Independence is far more than an announcement that thirteen English colonies perched on the eastern seaboard of North America considered themselves freed of allegiance to Great Britain and to its King, George III. In it we can find the key ideas about how the Americans of that generation thought a free people should live, what form their government should take, and what the mutual responsibilities were between a government and its citizens in order that both order and liberty could be sustained.
In 1763, when the great war between France and Great Britain for the control of the North American empire ended, if one walked down the street of any colonial town or village, or stopped along a rural road at a farm, and asked the residents what they considered themselves to be, they would not have answered, "We are Americans." Instead, they would have proudly declared themselves His Majesty's loyal subjects living in the colonies. They saw themselves as sharing with their cousins in the Mother Country a common language, common culture and traditions and, above all, a common body of legal rights and privileges.
The French and Indian Wars, which eliminated France as a power in the New World and greatly increased the security of the British colonies, also left His Majesty's Government with an enormous debt. In looking at their prosperous colonies across the ocean, English officials decided that, at the least, the colonists ought to pay the cost of their own government and security. As Great Britain attempted to strengthen its control over the commerce and government of the colonies in the 1760s in order to raise revenue, one writer after another protested that such measures violated the colonists' rights as Englishmen.
In fact, the very distance of the colonies from the Mother Country had already altered those rights, as well as the perceptions of the colonists regarding rights of the individual in general. The frontier society of the American colonies had fostered a greater sense of individual autonomy, a sense that government should not interfere in the daily lives of its citizens, and that the purpose of government is to secure and protect the liberty and property of its citizens. The seeds of these ideas clearly could be found in English thought, but British government and law in the eighteenth century were slowly changing to give the King, and especially Parliament, greater authority. Law, according to Sir William Blackstone, was the command of the sovereign.
Americans, however, rejected the ideas of strong governments and authoritarian sovereigns, claiming that they went against British traditions of rights. The pamphlets that began to appear in the colonies in the early 1760s attacked the growing power of Parliament and warned that such increased authority would undermine their individual liberties. As England tried to tighten its imperial controls, it found a strong vein of resistance in the colonies. Efforts to impose taxes were met by protests, boycotts and petitions, and for the most part the Crown's efforts proved futile. In the early 1770s royal government in the colonies disintegrated, so that by 1775 the real ruling powers in the colonies were the locally elected legislatures. These assemblies had relatively clear notions about what government ought and ought not to do, and to a large extent Americans in all the colonies shared these views. The enduring importance of the Declaration of Independence derives in part from its authors' ability to capture and articulate those sentiments.
After its petitions failed to secure redress, the Second Continental Congress voted to declare independence from England, and named John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to draft a declaration. All three men were familiar with English tradition, and each had thought at length about the problems of government. But of the three, Jefferson was acknowledged to possess the most facile pen, and his words caught the hopes and ideals of the American experiment.
The Declaration of Independence, John Adams later said, had not a single new idea in it. Certainly one can see the influence of John Locke and other English writers in it. But one can also see the notions of government that had been intensely discussed in the colonies in hundreds of pamphlets in the previous fifteen years. The Declaration is clearly part of this pamphlet tradition. It is in fact a pamphlet, a propaganda document designed to justify a radical, unprecedented and unlawful action by placing the blame on a wicked king and Parliament. The colonists, the authors claimed, had done no more than protect their God-given rights.
It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the Declaration as just a propaganda document, for it is far more than that. It is the culmination of more than a century and a half of colonial life, during which the settlers in North America developed their unique notions of government, a process in which they gradually stopped being Englishmen and became Americans.
The long list of grievances Jefferson marshalled to support his charge that the king had violated his obligations to the people is hardly convincing to a modern reader, and like all good propagandists, Jefferson distorted history to serve his purposes. But if one reads the grievances carefully, they contain notions that are basic to American democracy: government is a compact among the people, and can be overthrown when it fails to fulfill its obligations; government exists to protect the rights and property of its citizens; every person accused of a crime is entitled to trial by a jury of peers; the state cannot search the homes of its citizens without a warrant; and taxes cannot be levied without the consent of the people.
From a constitutional point of view, the Declaration served several purposes. It enshrined the compact theory as the heart of the American philosophy of government, not only for the revolutionary generation but for succeeding ones as well. Long after the particular grievances against George III have been forgotten, the belief that government exists to preserve the rights of the people, and can be dissolved if it fails to do so, remains a prime article of faith for Americans.
But even though the Declaration built upon generations of American and British experience, it went far beyond those ideas, and, in fact, as many modern writers have noted, it is a radical statement in its view of the purposes of government. As nation-states began emerging in Europe in the late middle ages, the common assumption had been that governments existed to ensure order and protect the stability of society. But the Declaration of Independence, while not denying the need for order, asserts that the prime purpose of government is to protect the rights of the individual. For the first time, it is the individual and not the society that is paramount, and the success of government is to be measured not by how well society is regulated, but by how free the individual is from government.
Jefferson's noble statement of the rights of mankind thus became a beacon for future generations, not only in the United States but throughout the world. One need not ignore the fact that Jefferson had to temporize, for American society in the eighteenth century did not treat all people equally. Native Americans, people without property, women and especially black slaves were considered neither equal nor endowed with rights. But the statement became the goal, the ideal, and it would be the standard against which future American society would be -- and still is -- judged.
The development of American democracy has been, in many ways, an elucidation of the premises outlined in the Declaration of Independence: that certain truths are self-evident, that people are created equal, that they are endowed with inalienable rights, that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed and that the purpose of government is to protect these rights. Such sentiments have not lost their power to inspire men and women to this day. They are the mark of the successes of American democracy, as well as of its failures.
For further reading: Influential works on the Revolutionary period, and the role of the Declaration of Independence, include Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967); Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969); and Wood's recent book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992). On the continuing influence of the document, see Garry Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1978). The importance of the Declaration to governmental development is explored in Martin Diamond, "The Declaration and the Constitution: Liberty, Democracy, and the Founders," Public Interest 41 (1975): 39.
The Declaration of Independence
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