The Declaration of Independence: A Global History

I have finally got around to reading David Armitage’s excellent, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard, 2007). You should read it too.

Armitage argues that too many scholars of the Declaration of Independence have focused on the “self-evident” truths of the second paragraph of the document and have not understood it for what it really was–a “declaration” of American “independence.” In other words, the Declaration of Independence was not meant to serve as a declaration of individual rights as much as it was an assertion of American statehood in the world.

According the Armitage:

The Declaration was innovative in two ways that would have far-reaching consequences. First, it introduced “the United States of America” to the world’ second it inaugurated the very genre of a declaration of independence.” “Self-evident truths”; “all men are created equal”; “unalienable rights”; “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”: these are ringing words and noble sentiments, to be sure, but they are not in fact what the Declaration proclaimed in 1776. Even Abraham Lincoln, speaking in 1857, admitted The assertion that “all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain, and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use.

By arguing, with Lincoln, that the individual rights affirmed by the Declaration were meant for a “future use,” Armitage is echoing and expanding upon the argument made in 1998 by Pauline Maier in American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. It was abolitionists, women’s suffragists, and Lincoln himself who turned the Declaration into “American Scripture,” a document that Americans turn to for the values that define them as a nation.

When the Declaration was made public in July 1776, most of the global discussion centered around the section dealing with the grievances against George III. Internationally, it served as a model for “the emerging international order of the late eighteenth century Atlantic world.” This is why the Declaration was unique and worthy of discussion. The ideas in the second paragraph would have been quite common in the Atlantic world. Indeed, Jefferson and his committee of writers was not putting forth anything new or original when they talked about unalienable rights.

Armitage book is short–it can be read in an evening. Appendices include Declarations of Independence from other nation-states written in the wake of the American Revolution. This is a very helpful book. In addition to its innovative approach to interpreting the meaning of the Declaration, I hope to use it to teach historical thinking. While political scientists would certainly want to teach what the Declaration has come to mean to Americans over the years, historians must understand it in its eighteenth-century context. The eighteenth-century Declaration may not be politically useful to us today, but its proclamation of statehood, not its proclamation of individual rights, was what made it important in its time.