The Spirit of ‘76

Review: Barry Alan Shain, ‘The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context’

• July 4, 2015 5:00 am


On July 4th, 1826, a Washington newspaper published one of the most poignant letters penned in American history.  An ailing Thomas Jefferson regretfully declined an invitation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American independence with the citizens of the nation’s capital.   "[T]o be present with them," he wrote, "as one of the surviving signers of an instrument pregnant with our own, and the fate of the world, is most flattering to myself. . . [I]t adds sensibly to the sufferings of sickness, to be deprived by it of a personal participation in the rejoicings of that day."

In this, his final public letter, the elder statesman offered a profound consideration of the nature and scope of the revolution he had helped to forge.  The Declaration of Independence, he explained, was "the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government."    The new republic had "restore[d] the free man to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  [A]ll eyes are opened, or opening," he wrote, "to the rights of man."

This global awakening was both sudden and enduring.  By the time Jefferson penned his letter, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe had already produced twenty declarations of independence.   Today more than half the nations of the world have followed suit.  Yet America’s Declaration is unique among them, and not only because it was the first of its kind.

Scholars have characterized the Declaration of Independence as a diplomatic document, a legal brief, a political treatise, a philosophical tract, and even as American scripture. The Supreme Court cites it as a source of law and elected leaders appeal to it as an authoritative statement of the nation’s first principles.

What were the political, intellectual, and personal forces at work in the era in which this revolutionary statement was produced? Readers interested in this question are now lucky to have Barry Shain’s The Declaration of Independence in Historical Context to consult. This richly informative book was first published by the Yale University Press in 2014 as a prohibitively expensive hardcover volume. We may now take heart that it has now been reissued as an affordable paperback by the Liberty Fund, a private educational foundation that has probably done more than any press since Gutenberg’s to bring classic texts to a wide readership.

Shain assembles an impressive array of primary documents that tell the story of America’s path to independence and nationhood.  The volume begins with the Stamp Act Crisis, when the colonies first convened a united congress, and ends with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation, when the sovereign states constituted their first national government. Colonial petitions, royal instructions, congressional proceedings, personal correspondence, and addresses to foreign states and Indian nations enable the reader to follow the colonial struggle from crisis to revolution, almost in real time.  Shain prefaces the documents with short, informative introductions, enabling readers unfamiliar with all the key figures and events of the Revolution to navigate their way through the sources, including the Declaration of Independence and its drafts.

In some respects, the Declaration closely follows the pattern of earlier English constitutional documents.   Like the Petition of Right (1628) and the English Bill of Rights (1688), the Declaration of Independence contains a litany of the government’s offenses against its own subjects. (This is not surprising.  After all, the American colonies had taken root and flourished during the seventeenth century while England fought a succession of civil wars, flirted with military dictatorship, executed one king, and effectively deposed another.)  But unlike these earlier bills of particulars, the Declaration of Independence appeals neither to the King’s mercy nor to Parliament’s authority for relief.  Instead, it dissolves the bonds of imperial authority altogether, asserts the freedom of the thirteen states, and appeals "to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions[.]"

And, unlike many subsequent declarations of independence, the American Declaration makes its framers’ intentions quite clear:

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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That  whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The Declaration of Independence thus imprints the ideals of liberty, equality, and self-governance on the mitochondrial DNA of the young nation.  But it also assigns to future generations the task of shaping and realizing those ideals.  Jefferson was right: the Declaration of Independence was indeed pregnant with America’s future.

The notions of liberty and equality adopted by the Declaration are imperfect, inchoate, and yet powerful enough to forge a nation and preserve the Union.  Upon visiting Independence Hall in 1861, President Lincoln remarked that what united Americans:

…was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland; but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but, I hope, to the world, for all future time.  It was that which gave promise that in due time the weight would be lifted from the shoulders of all men.  This is a sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence.  Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world. . . . If it cannot be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle, I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.

Lincoln led the nation to war over the meaning of the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. When he was assassinated, he was laid in state in the hall where the Declaration had been signed.

The centuries-old political and constitutional struggle over how this nation is to define and fulfill the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence shows that this document is no dead letter.  As Jefferson wrote in the missive published on July 4, 1826 – the very day he died—the Declaration laid bare "the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.  [T]hese are grounds of hope for others.  [F]or ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

For as long as Americans pay heed to Jefferson’s final exhortation, the Spirit of ’76 still lives.

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