The Volokh Conspiracy

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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 today.


The Declaration of Independence. (National Archives.)

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.