it got to be this time of year, the 232nd anniversary of the “posting date” of the American Declaration of Independence, I promised myself I’d lay down some thoughts about it, and why I admire it as a political document (and you should too), not just for the oft-quoted Age of Enlightenment philosophy, but for the whole structure, and the diplomatic and political logic behind it; the hidden drama and adventure in the spirit of the words, which become clear when you immerse yourself in the times that produced it; and why we could use some more of this kind of Enlightenment today in Washington.
Know Your Audience
No doubt, the drafting committee (Jefferson, Adams and Franklin) were aware of their immediate and eventual audiences:
- Their American contemporaries. Most colonists assumed that their subjugation to the king of England was for keeps, and that the Continental Congress concocting this act of rebellion had to prove their credibility to their countrymen (those few who heard tell of it), even as they crafted a competing government right under the king’s nose.
- Their English contemporaries. A country’s people and its government are often confused. The mistakes of one are blamed on the other—then as now. (Take a trip abroad this year, and you’ll see.) The English were often related to colonists by blood, and it was with that in mind that Americans appealed to their English bretheren (who, unlike colonists, had the benefit of representation in Parliament) to push for a change.
- Other countries. Face it: without France’s naval involvement towards the end of the War, America was toast. This was on the minds of Congress early on. But more broadly, they knew that, if counted as a country, it already had the economic might to be a lucrative trade partner with the world powers of the day. (It was this more than anything else that made King George squeeze the colonies so tightly.) These countries would look with great interest at the progress of this independence bid, and deserved a good explanation for the rashness of such a step.
- Posterity. (That’s us.) Prose-wise, the Founding Fathers were second to none, especially Jefferson. They knew their words would have to ring through the centuries, during which the nature of civilization would change, as it always changes, in unforeseen ways. Those distant generations needed (do need, will need) to visualize themselves alive in those days, in those colonies, in that predicament. And that required writing that wouldn’t fade with the parchment.
Make Your Case
Now let me break down the actual Declaration into its basic parts:
- Human rights. These are the passages we (rightly) chisel onto monuments and get our children to memorize. They established the then-unusual mindset of the Congress—that rights exist prior to government, which rules at the pleasure of the people, and can and should be swapped out when it gets uppity. The objective was to begin with empathy from the reader, who through his* life may only have known monarchy (audiences 1, 2 and 3). We today require a bit of imaginative time-travel, since we’ve since seen the triumph of the democratic republic over monarchy and other models, and take it for granted.
- Royal abuses. Here we see that bullet points were not invented by Microsoft. And as bullet points go, this is the heftiest section of the four. The intention here was, now that the reader has put himself into the place of an American colonist, to get him to witness viscerally this “long train of abuses and usurpations” and challenge him to see at what point he would have reacted—and be amazed at how long and how hard the colonists bit their collective lip. Just when the reader (of any of the audiences) has had his fill, he sees how many more indignities are left on the list. When would you (posterity) have yelled, “Enough!”? Think the intervening centuries brought new methods of diplomacy to forestall this radical act? Are you sure? If so, put them out of your mind, because you’re mentally in 1776, remember? No one lamented the limitations of the time, and yearned for progress, more loudly than the Enlightened inventors of modern democracy.
- Peaceful remedies tried, to no avail. Again, the writers are aware of their audiences. They list the measures their elected representatives took to solve the problem, and chronicled the sessions of Parliament from which they were excluded, the royal audiences denied, the doors slammed in their faces, the plea to English blood-kin met with stares at their shoes and a resignation to realities. What would you, in their circumstances, have tried that they didn’t?
- The Declaration. Through one audacious sentence, we converted, like the flip of a light switch, from colonies to independent States (which would later federate with a Constitution). In the thoughtful silence that followed the carrying of the motion—that minute of a distant cricket-chirp, that sweltering summer, that species-changing decade—its truth shook the globe. And with the dissemination of this document (arguably an early press release!), all humanity, even mother England, was invited to come to terms with its undeniable Fact. There was no mention of a war. It was unnecessary and off-topic. If there was to be a war, it would be initiated by any party out there that objected to the terms. There was nothing stopping King George from responding, “You know what? They’ll be more of a liability than an asset, especially in light of the chess game that is international politics. By doing nothing, let’s just cut ’em loose. And good riddance.” A wise king would have said that (too wise for the times, alas). But George attacked. He initiated force. And the States, united for battle and with a lot of help, defended itself and its Declaration—a Declaration which a military loss would not have invalidated.
Those Were the Days
So what’s the take-away here, and for whom? As I suggested in the first paragraph, I’d be taking our current government to task for veering away from Enlightenment ideals. I will, but surely even individuals can get some traction with the ideals used to construct the Declaration of Independence. Why would it be such a revered, even sacred, document, if it weren’t so universally applicable?
- Define your terms. Parts 2 through 4 make no sense without the set-up of the universal truths laid out so eloquently in part 1. Why would anyone in his right mind want to run from the succor and protection of mother England? The Declaration invites you to see the world through the eyes of an Enlightenment thinker, and see the possibilities of a new kind of government, before it exists. It puts you in the frock coat or petticoat, curls your wig with July humidity, and puts the smell of gunpowder in your nose.
- Choose a radical step only after exhausting every other possibility. Your instincts tell you to strike while the iron is hot. But radicalism is only radical when you try it prematurely. Fairness and due process demand exhausting all other, gentler choices.
- The world is watching. And superpower or no, their opinion of us matters. When we give due diligence to #2 above, the international community bears witness to our earnestness; when we need help, this international community will rally to our side before we ask for it. Of course, this applies to nations and to individuals: you can’t have too many friends. And friends can come in handy in ways that not even multi-billion-dollar intelligence agencies or state departments can predict, nor multi-billion-dollar armies make up for with brute force.
- Only fight wars of defense. There are, and always have been, those who attack or want to attack us with the objective of conquest, toppling or undermining. The last military attack America suffered, it could be argued, was the War of 1812, when the British tried to take back America as a colony. (Pearl Harbor was attacked when Hawaii was a possession, and the objective of 9/11 wasn’t primarily military.) All the wars we’ve fought since flew in the face of the ideals of the Enlightenment: either they were for our own conquest or colonialism, or they were protecting some other country, or some financial interest. Our short-term rescues created new long-term frictions among other countries, requiring new short-term rescues, and so on. But when everyone swears to only fight for defense, nobody attacks. Therefore, no war. And when someone is attacked by a less civilized country, all of the civilized world has your back. Not a bad way for us all to proceed down the corridor of the Third Millennium.
* A 21st-century Enlightenment would have required me to use as many female pronouns as male. Momentum required me to forego this; besides, I’m doing a bit of a period piece here. Please accept my apologies.