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Volokh Conspiracy

The Declaration of Independence and the Case for a Polity Based on Universal Principles

The Declaration of Independence makes the case for a political system based on universal principles of liberty and equality, not ethnic nationalism. Those principles are as relevant as ever in our troubled times.


The Declaration of Independence

Last July 4, I put up a post on the universalist principles of the Declaration of independence, which stand in sharp contrast to the ethnic nationalism that underpins most modern independence movements, and the zero-sum identity politics that have become all too common on both the left and the right in recent years. I think the post is no less relevant today than a year ago:

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…..

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.

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:

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.

The Declaration did not abolish slavery, and its high-minded words were, at the time, undercut by the hypocrisy of Jefferson and all too many others. But the ideals the Declaration espoused 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 turns away escaped slaves on the specious ground that their forced labor somehow qualifies as supporting terrorism. Yet, as Lincoln suggested, we can and must strive to do better, so that the principles of the Declaration can be realized—if not completely, then at least more fully than ever before.