Read the Revolution
The Declaration of IndependenceJune 22, 2016
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Opening with, "When in the Course of human events..." the Declaration of Independence boldly announced that the 13 colonies were now "Free and Independent States' not just to Great Britain, but to the world in 1776. In the two hundred years since, over 100 other declarations-from Haiti in 1804 to Eritrea in 1993-have announced the independence of nations, regions, and peoples modeled on the ideals and language of independence, sovereignty, and human rights established by the American Declaration. David Armitage's, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History examines how this innovative 18th century document became a political and philosophical model for nations and people across the globe.
In the last public letter he wrote before his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson offered an expansive vision of the Declaration of Independence, a document he had drafted half a century before. As he declined an invitation to attend the commemoration in Washington, D.C., of the fiftieth anniversary of American independence, Jefferson called the Declaration 'an instrument, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world.' He regretted that illness would keep him from a reunion with 'the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword.' He would have 'enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self government.'
Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, two weeks after sending this letter. He had written it in the tones of a prophetic utterance surveying past and future from the very brink of death. He surely intended the letter to be made public, and so it soon was, in a Washington newspaper on his deathday. Yet this was not the very last of Jefferson's letters. A day after sending it on June 24, 1826, he wrote two more, one to his business agent in Richmond, Virginia, the other to a merchant in Baltimore, regarding a shipment of French wine that had just arrived from Marseilles and on which duty had to be paid.
Jefferson's last public thoughts may have treated the afterlife of the American Revolution, but his last private instructions concerned the stocking of his wine cellar. Both looked to the future. Both also acknowledged that the young United States was tied to a wider world, whether as an exporter of revolutionary ideas or as an importer of luxury goods. As Jefferson well knew, any independent country had to be an interdependent country.
By the time of Jefferson's death, 'half a century of experience and prosperity' had confirmed American independence as a political fact. Fifty years earlier, the Declaration had announced independence at a time when it had yet to be achieved and when it was still under vigorous assault by Britain. For almost four decades after 1776, Americans valued the successful fact of that independence more than they did the specific document that had declared it. It was only in the last decade of Jefferson's life that the Declaration began to be seen as the well-founded article of 'American scripture' celebrated by Americans every Fourth of July then and since.
The Declaration of Independence may have acquired special significance for Americans, but its power as a symbol was potentially global in extent, as Jefferson's prophecy in 1826 affirmed. Even during the former president's lifetime, the Declaration had already become something more practical than a symbol: it provided the model for similar documents around the world that asserted the independence of other new states. By the time Jefferson called the Declaration 'an instrument pregnant with ... the fate of the world' in 1826, it had already been joined by some twenty other declarations of independence from Northern and Southern Europe, the Caribbean, and Spanish America. Now, more than two centuries since 1776, over half the countries of the world have their own declarations of independence.
Many of these documents drew directly on the American Declaration for inspiration. They adopted and sometimes adapted specific phrases from the Declaration. More often, they took its structure as a model for their own. Many more such declarations were written without the flattery of direct imitation. All shared clear similarities, whether in their motivation, in their language, or in their form, that make it possible to consider them collectively and globally.
Before now, declarations of independence have not been treated as a global phenomenon. The reasons for this are central to the definition of independence itself. At root, independence means political separation of the kind that the representatives of the United States asserted against King George III in 1776. More broadly, independence implies national distinctiveness and difference. Over time, separation and uniqueness nourish a sense of exceptionalism, especially for a country like the United States, born out of secession and endowed by its visionaries with a mission in the world. The authors of the Declaration had claimed independence only for themselves and not for others. Their specific and particular idea of independence would nonetheless assume near-universal significance in the centuries after 1776 as the American example spread across the world.
The American Declaration came to be seen as marking the beginning of a history separate from other national or imperial histories. Similarly, many other declarations of independence throughout the world became the property of particular communities that have celebrated their own declarations as charters of a special standing in the world. Almost by definition, the written embodiments of such exceptionalism are unlikely to be compared with other, similar documents. So it has proved with declarations of independence.
This is what the Declaration of Independence declared: that the former United Colonies were now 'the United States of America' because they were 'free and independent states.' No document in world history before 1776 had made such an announcement of statehood in the language of independence. A great many later documents would do just that. Indeed, the global history of the two centuries after 1776 would show that creating the flexible instrument with which others could declare their independence proved to be as momentous an innovation in its own way as ushering 'the United States of America' onto the world stage in July 1776 had been.
Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance.
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