The Volokh Conspiracy
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The Declaration of Independence and the case for a polity based on universal principles
Today we celebrate the anniversary of American independence. But we too often forget a crucial way in which the principles of the Declaration of Independence contrast with those of virtually all modern independence movements. Unlike the latter, the Declaration did not assert that Americans have a right to independence because of their ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic distinctiveness. Instead, the Declaration justifies independence on the basis of universal human rights. I highlighted the contrast in this 2009 post, which may be even more relevant today:
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 "people" or culture. They couldn't assert any such claim because the majority of the American population consisted of members of the same ethnic groups (English and Scots) as the majority of Britons.
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 suggests 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.
By contrast, modern international law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assigns a right of "self-determination" only to "peoples," usually understood to mean groups with a distinctive common culture and ethnicity. If the American Revolution was justified, the ICCPR's approach is probably wrong. At the very least, secession should also be considered permissible where undertaken to escape repression by the preexisting central government….
The Declaration establishes a new nation based on universal principles of individual right rather than the supposed collective rights of a particular racial or ethnic group. Its new government could not justify its powers because it represents the interests of a specific cultural group. Rather, it must be judged by the same principles that the authors of the Declaration applied to the British government: the protection of the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," regardless of the racial, ethnic, or cultural background of those oppressed.
To be sure, the Declaration does refer to "one people" seeking "dissolve the "to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another." But in this context, the "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.
Obviously, the Americans of 1776 fell far short of fully living up to these 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 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 discrimination against immigrants, and other similar injustices have been all too common in our history.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to assume that the Declaration's ideals were toothless. Even in their own time, the Enlightenment 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.
As Abraham Lincoln famously put it:
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 principles of the Declaration ultimately helped lead to the abolition of slavery and other steps towards racial equality, even despite the hypocrisy of Jefferson and many of the other founders.
The universalist ideals of the American Revolution 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, put this point well, too:
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.
The principles of the Declaration are a sharp contrast to the dangerous ethnic nationalism and zero-sum identity politics that have gained ground on both the left and the right in recent years. If we want to "make America great again," we would do well to remember the universal principles that made it great in the first place.