Nationalism

The Universalist Principles of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence advocates a polity based on universal principles of liberty and equality, not ethnic nationalism. We would do well to remember those principles to day.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The Declaration of Independence.

Last year, and in 2017, I put up posts about the universalist principles of the Declaration of Independence, and their continuing relevance today. The points made are no less relevant this year. So, this year's July 4 post adapts much of the earlier material, with some new additions:

One of the striking differences between the American Revolution and most modern independence movements is that the former was not based on ethnic or nationalistic justifications. Nowhere does the Declaration state that Americans have a right to independence because they are a distinct racial, ethnic, or cultural group. They couldn't assert any such claim because the majority of the American population consisted of members of the same groups (English and Scots) as the majority of Britons, and spoke the same language.

Rather, the justification for American independence was the need to escape oppression by the British government – the "repeated injuries and usurpations" enumerated in the text – and to establish a government that would more fully protect the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The very same rationale for independence could just as easily have been used to justify secession by, say, the City of London, which was more heavily taxed and politically oppressed than the American colonies were. Indeed, the Declaration indicates that secession or revolution is justified "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends" [emphasis added]. The implication is that the case for independence is entirely distinct from any nationalistic or ethnic considerations.

To be sure, the Declaration does refer to "one people" seeking "to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another." But in this context, "people" does not refer to a culturally or ethnically distinct group. The Americans were not distinct, in that respect, from the people of Britain. The "people," in this case, is simply a group that voluntarily comes together to establish a new nation.

As critics from 1776 to the present have delighted in pointing out, the revolutionaries often failed to live up to their own ideals. But it would be a mistake to devalue the Revolution's significance for that reason.

The Americans of 1776 fell far short of fully adhering to their professed principles. "How is it," Samuel Johnson famously complained, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, owned slaves all his life, even though he was well aware that doing so contradicted his principles. The Declaration's high-minded reference to the "consent of the governed" were in large part belied by the injustices many state governments inflicted on the substantial minority who did not consent to independence, but instead remained loyal to Britain.

Later generations of Americans have not fully lived up to the Declaration's universalist ideals either. Racial and ethnic oppression, xenophobic exclusion of and discrimination against immigrants, and other similar injustices have been all too common in our history.

Several of the items included in Declaration's list of grievances against King George III could easily apply to the federal government today:

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither,….

The same can be said of President Trump, who has waged a massive—and often brutally cruelcampaign against immigration, both legal and illegal. His administration also sought to strip numerous naturalized citizens of their status without providing even minimal due process.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance….

The federal government has a massive regulatory and law enforcement apparatus that regulates nearly every aspect of our lives—so much so that it is virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to avoid violating federal law at some point in their lives, or even to know all the laws and regulations they are subject to. The Justice Department's asset forfeiture system empowers law enforcement agencies to literally "eat out [our] substance" even in many cases where the owner of the seized property has never been charged with any crime, much less convicted.

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world….

The US government is currently waging multiple self-destructive trade wars against various nations around the world, including even close US allies. To add insult to injury, the Trump administration even plans to institute new tariffs on tea and fireworks. The British government's tea protectionism was, of course, the proximate cause of the Boston Tea Party, which helped lead to the Revolution.

Despite our many deviations from them, it would be a mistake to assume that the Declaration's ideals were toothless. Even in their own time, the principles underlying the Declaration helped inspire the First Emancipation – the abolition of slavery in the northern states, which came about in the decades immediately following the Revolution. This was the first large-scale emancipation of slaves in modern history, and it helped ensure that the new nation would eventually have a majority of free states, which in turn helped ensure abolition in the South, as well.

The Declaration did not abolish slavery, and its high-minded words were, for decades, undercut by the hypocrisy of Jefferson and all too many others. But the ideals of the Declaration played an important role in slavery's eventual abolition. As Abraham Lincoln famously put it, the Declaration established important aspirational principles, even if they could not be immediately realized:

I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects…. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them…

They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all: constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, every where.

The universalist ideals of the Declaration also helped establish a nation that provided freedom and opportunity to immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Lincoln, who was a strong supporter of immigration, effectively conveyed this point, as well:

When [immigrants] look through that old Declaration of Independence, they find that those old men say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal"; and then they feel that that moral sentiment, taught in that day, evidences their relation to those men… and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration; and so they are.

Much progress has been made since Lincoln's time, to say nothing of Jefferson's. But at this point in our history, we are still far from fully living up to the principles of the Declaration. Certainly not when our government abuses refugee children and even turns away escaped slaves on the specious ground that their forced labor somehow qualifies as supporting terrorism. We must strive to do better, so that the principles of the Declaration can be more fully realized.

NEXT: What the Declaration of Independence Said and Meant

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  1. The Declaration certainly made universal appeals which appealed to people of all nations and groups.

    But there’s also British-specific references to trial by jury, the “free system of English laws,” and to the revolutionaries’ vain attempts to appeal to their “British brethren,” alluding to ties of “consanguinity,” which I believe means descent from common ancestors.

  2. The TDS is strong in this one…

  3. Cashing those Koch brother checks, eh? Nobody voted for an invasion of wage killing third world migrants.

    1. Nobody voted for an invasion of wage killing third world migrants

      That’s the same about my Irish born great grandfather. In the 1860s.

      Its rather sad that racists like yourself have no original or valid arguments to make against people just trying to find a better life. They are more American than you will ever be.

      1. Zero to name calling in one post, lol. Guess that’s all you have since you have no original or valid argument.
        Why can’t they make a better life at home?

      2. Trying to find a better life doesn’t entitle you to worsen others’ lives. If it did, the entire world would be America because there isn’t a single country more prosperous or free than us. Let’s naturalize the whole planet and bathe them in our success. I’m sure everything will be fine after accepting 7 billion new people who aren’t anything like us and don’t share our values. Orange man bad.

        1. Blizzard of strawmen here.

          Recognizing that illegals aren’t acting out of malice, and that much of the antipathy towards them is racist isn’t the same as wanting open borders. And wanting open borders doesn’t mean believing everyone in the world should come to America.

          I don’t want open borders – I think our current immigration policy incentivizes illegal immigration only to mistreat them in pretty horrid and exploitative ways. But the immigrants are the victims here, and all I see around here is spite and dehumanization.

          Defending the humanity of illegals and pushing back at nativist chuckleheads calling them invaders is a simple moral stand and the fact that you’re driven to ridicule it via strawman is telling.

          1. Maybe colonization of the countries these people are coming from is the solution. We can reorder their societies to ensure their prosperity.

            1. Or maybe just enforce the laws on the other side of the ledger and ensure American business are following the law and not treating these people like serfs.

    2. Well, nobody voted for you to be permitted to remain in the U.S., but I don’t see you leaving.

      1. Since this is my country, no vote is required.

        1. What makes it your country? I don’t remember ever inviting you here or offering you any part of it.

          1. Birthright. My ancestors took it fair and square.

  4. People who live in other countries would be wise to embrace the ideas of the Declaration of Independence for their own peoples in their own homelands.

    Go ahead and “strive to do better” with your own resources that you earned yourself. Stop trying to spend or give away what the rest of us earned.

  5. Assuming Somin lives in a right sized home and the globalist authorities (of his dream world) decide he has to take in two people because of “social justice for migrants” . . . wondering if he would continue to wish for a world without borders, but then he probably believes he will be sitting on the committee that makes housing decisions.

    1. Yes, the guy so libertarian he doesn’t want borders is actually into an oppressive one world government. Seems legit.

      1. Most of us realize the folly of ancaps who think that no government is more conducive to freedom than limited government, so why can’t you extrapolate that to a global level? If you think a nation can still exist without borders, then tell me how you with deal with hostile migrants who bring the numbers necessary for demographic replacement and to hijack the democratic process. Open borders can only lead to authoritarianism or non-citizen castes because there’s no other way to protect our Constitution or a libertopian state.

        1. So now you think Prof. Somin is an ancap?

          I’m not an open borders guy, but your going straight to fears about hijacking the democratic process and demographic replacement betray your real agenda.

          Open borders can only lead to authoritarianism or non-citizen castes is even more openly just written by your own racial neuroses.

        2. Authoritarian government is the only way to keep a multicultural society at peace. See Yugoslavia.

          1. You’re pulling that right out of your hat, Norman. Your wish that America stay white is authoring your sociology.

            Your one data point sucks – one could argue the authoritarianism of Tito was why Yugoslavia was doomed when he died.

            What of ancient Persia? Or modern India?

            1. Those examples support my premise.

              1. Do you think India is authoritarian, or that it’s at war?

                1. The only thing keeping India from solving its Muslim problem is a nuclear exchange with Pakistan. In this case nukes play the leviathan preventing one group from wiping out the other.

                  1. Pakistan isn’t part of India, chief.

                    India is quite stable and successful and very diverse.

                    Also, of course ‘Muslim problem’ is kinda telling.

                    1. Kashmir, Mumbai ring any bells? Do you think Hindus and Muslims are peacefully coexisting in India?

                    2. If your threshold for success is zero friction, you’re being an idiot.

  6. It’s increasingly clear that this blog is a poor fit for Reason.com. I rarely agree with the Conspirators but they must be disappointed and offended by the racist and nativist commenters that infest this site.

  7. One of the things we didn’t live up to is the right of violent overthrow of government. The Constitution explicitly bans advocacy of violent overthrow. But AFAIK, no government ever explicitly acknowledges that right. Rebels who lose the fight face hanging. So the right remains inalienable but unmentionable.

    But I always thought that part of the argument for the right to bear arms was to preserve the capability of violent overthrow. That means not hunting weapons or self defense weapons, but weapons of war. If the people ever become completely disarmed, no government would ever allow them to become re-armed again.

    Yet in almost all 2nd amendment debates, and in today’s blog post, the right to overthrow is not mentioned.

    1. That’s because the right to overthrow was actually antithetical to the purpose of the 2A. The 2A was enacted to ensure “the security of a free state”.

    2. The Constitution explicitly bans advocacy of violent overthrow.

      It does?

  8. because of his association with Volokh, I had assumed that Somin was a sober, careful, intelligent analyst. when I read his assertions that President Trump is waging an “often brutally cruel war against immigration” and “multiple self-destructive trade wars,” it became evident that Somin is an hysteric. a war against immigration? maybe, a desultory & ineffective campaign against illegal immigration, but nothing more. and, as for our “self-destructive” trade war with China, the alternative is capitulation to China, withdrawal to the status of vassal state supplier of agricultural commodities & small industrial products. that way, there’d be no war. I admit a preference for immigrants who want to defend & build this country; I wish that Somin & his family (& that of Sergei Brin) had just remained where they were.

  9. […] are these essays on why the Declaration of Independence is such an important […]

  10. […] revolutionaries were far from perfect, and often failed to live up to their own principles. But their triumph nonetheless did much to advance the cause of freedom—not just in America, but […]

  11. […] revolutionaries were far from perfect, and often failed to live up to their own principles. But their triumph nonetheless did much to advance the cause of freedom—not just in America, […]

  12. I agree with Professor Somin that the Declaration of Independence articulates universalist principles.

    The Constitution, however, gave flexibility to deal with outsiders, recognizing that sometimes pragmatic considerations, and considerations of interest and survival, would counsel a different course from the course of pure morality.

    But nothing in the Constitution makes universalist principles of the sort articulated in the Declaration of Independence, including the idea that these orincipals apply to “the whole human family” conceived in a broad sense, an inappropriate or illegitimate subject of government.

    There are those who find it absolutely obvious that the Declaration’s principals can’t possibly apply to blacks, women, fetuses, foreigners, immigrants, asylum-seekers, or whatever. There are those who claim that any belief that these principals so extend represents religious dogma inimical to secular government, or is a cover to animosity towards Southerners, women, or some other subsection of the American public.

    But our history has consistently shown that those who claim the Constitution sets hard limits on universalist aspirations have often been proved wrong.

    The constitution does not require applying universalist principals to their full extent. But it does not prohibit it either. The Declaration itself makes such an application always potentially legitimate, with wisdom and policy to be determined as time and circumstance allow.

    1. ‘Sure, we made a promise we’re not fulfilling. But it wasn’t legally binding, so who cares?’

  13. […] revolutionaries were far from perfect, and often failed to live up to their own principles. But their triumph nonetheless did much to advance the cause of freedom—not just in America, […]

  14. Can we discuss the Lincoln reference more on August 14, the anniversary of his “Address on Colonization” (see https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln/lincoln5/1:812?rgn=div1;view=fulltext )?

  15. […] revolutionaries were far from perfect, and often failed to live up to their own principles. But their triumph nonetheless did much to advance the cause of freedom—not just in America, […]

  16. […] I have many concerns about these Democrats’ positions, particularly their  advocacy of “democratic socialism.” One of them has  even made bigoted statements of her own.  But attacking them—or anyone—based on ethnicity or supposed country of origin is rank bigotry at odds with the universal principles for which the United States is supposed to stand. […]

  17. […] I have many concerns about these Democrats’ positions, particularly their  advocacy of “democratic socialism.” One of them has  even made bigoted statements of her own.  But attacking them—or anyone—based on ethnicity or supposed country of origin is rank bigotry at odds with the universal principles for which the United States is supposed to stand. […]

  18. […] anyone—based on ethnicity or supposed country of origin is rank bigotry at odds with the universal principles for which the United States is supposed to stand. Trump’s tweet would be indefensible even if the four congresswomen really were all […]

  19. […] I have many concerns about these Democrats’ positions, particularly their  advocacy of “democratic socialism.” One of them has  even made bigoted statements of her own.  But attacking them—or anyone—based on ethnicity or supposed country of origin is rank bigotry at odds with the universal principles for which the United States is supposed to stand. […]

  20. […] anyone—based on ethnicity or supposed country of origin is rank bigotry at odds with the universal principles for which the United States is supposed to stand. Trump’s tweet would be indefensible even if the four congresswomen really were all […]

  21. […] anyone—based on ethnicity or supposed country of origin is rank bigotry at odds with the universal principles for which the United States is supposed to stand. Trump’s tweet would be indefensible even if the four congresswomen really were all […]

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