The United States Declaration of Independence has often been called one of the most important documents ever written. I happen to agree with that assessment, and it is hard to deny the document’s significance not only in American history, but world history in general. To put that in perspective, before the Declaration was written and published, no nation at that time had considered the formation of a Republic, or a government “of the people” as a viable course of action. Within fifty years many nations, including mighty France, had adopted many of the principles put forth by the Declaration. To say that the document forever changed the course of world history is a bold understatement.
Yet, while most Americans know what the Declaration of Independence is and what it means, few people today have actually read the document in completion, and fewer still have interpreted its passages and analyzed their meaning or put them into context. I feel it is important for all Americans to have a basic working knowledge of the Declaration, why it was written, and what it represents not only to the past, but to the present and to the future. And considering that I enjoy American history, what better place is there to start than at the Document that in principle founded the country.
While the Declaration is not an overwhelmingly long document (1458 words), I don’t think it can be fully analyzed or appreciated in just one or two blog posts, so I plan on writing a series of posts which will break down the passages and explain their meaning and significance in a more detailed fashion, yet keep the conversation in laymen’s terms. For this series I will focus on the Declaration itself, and not necessarily the build up or politics leading to the Continental Congress, though at times it will be necessary to reference those events briefly (I hope)
But before I continue, let me just say that I am not an expert on American History; I hold no degrees or diplomas on the subject. I am only a person who is passionate about the events the led to the foundation of The United States of America. I also feel the need to point out that some of my conclusions in these posts will be based solely on my opinion and my own interpretations. That being said, those conclusions are certainly open to debate and/or disagreement. So let’s start with the Introduction:
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America,
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.
At the time the Declaration was written, the colonies were a known entity in Western Europe as well parts of the East. North America, with its vast resources including farming, forestry, and fishing among others, was a huge source of new industry, and ongoing trade with foreign vendors was a great source of income. Britain, engaged in a costly war with France, had imposed a series of taxes on the colonies to help pay for their war efforts, among other reasons (which is a whole other series of blog posts). But while the colonies were hardly a hidden, unknown settlement, their tribulations with Britain may not have been as widely known in other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. For all the world knew and understood, the situation in the colonies was just fine for the most part. So it was considered proper for the delegates of the Continental Congress to introduce themselves as a new nation, fully united, “unanimous’ in its choice to separate from the “mother country” as an equal and sovereign nation. And quite truthfully an explanation for this “rebellion” was necessary on many levels.
During the late 18th century, those in power in Continental Europe would not have taken too kindly to an upstart colony on another continent suddenly deciding to govern themselves by putting power with the common man for no apparent reasons. These were monarchies whose power structures hadn’t changed for hundreds of years, and they too had colonies worldwide. If a nation as powerful as Great Britain could not control one of its colonies, what did that bode for them and the future of their colonies? The founding fathers were intelligent enough to realize that they would need the support of the European powers, not only in principle but also in funding and possibly even militarily. They had to assure these countries that their cause was a just one, and that as a sovereign nation they would be a welcome entry onto the world stage, ready to conduct business, continue trade, form alliances, and promote stability.
When concerning the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God…” Jefferson was heavily influenced by English philosopher John Locke. Once again, it is difficult to sum up the teachings and theories of a person as influential as John Locke in a few blog paragraphs, and I’m not going to try. In short, Locke believed that man was born with certain Natural Rights that no manmade laws or governments could take away. His views on religious freedom, personal property, and politics were highly revolutionary at the time. As I said, it is difficult to summarize Locke’s philosophy on a blog, and if you are interested in learning more I would suggest reading Locke’s Two Treatises of Government as a good starting off point. Regardless, Jefferson and the other founding fathers felt that self-governance and independence was a right afforded them by Nature and by God, and though in theory that right could not be taken away by man, they still felt the need to present their case to the world at large and to explain what would cause a seemingly stable and generally prosperous colony to suddenly, daresay mysteriously dissolve a longstanding relationship with Great Britain.
In just one sentence, the introduction to the Declaration of Independence presents the new country of The United States and its separation from Great Britain as a right of nature, informing the world that the decision was made unanimously in a respectful tone, yet never asking permission for self-governance, rather, asking only to present the reasons for that separation.
In my next post we will discuss the Preamble, perhaps the most famous paragraph ever written, and why even today it still represents the standard by which government should be held.