The Declaration of Independence is one of those unfortunate documents that everyone quotes but no one reads. On the Fourth of July, the Declaration will be everywhere recited—incompletely and out of context. Even though the Declaration is brief (shorter than many columns published here at The Federalist), only the preamble and conclusion of this world-historical document are regularly read and quoted, and they are often combined with excerpts from the Constitution.
The substance of the Declaration is the list of reasons the American colonists gave for their separation from the British Empire, but this is usually ignored, as is the context in which it was written. This neglect allows our national history to be misinterpreted and misrepresented.
Regarding the Declaration’s context, it is often overlooked that the war between the American colonies and the British Empire was more than a year old when the Declaration was approved on July 4, 1776. The Battles of Lexington and Concord occurred in April of 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill was fought that June. Congress appointed George Washington as Commander-in-Chief of the army in July of 1775.
Nor was the Declaration the first American assertion of independence. States and localities had already begun declaring independence; Rhode Island, for instance, did so on May 11, 1776.
These precursors do not negate the importance of the Declaration, in which the representatives of the American colonies explained why they were at war with their mother country and what they hoped to attain. The announcement by the American colonies that they were separating from Great Britain and uniting with each other is deservedly celebrated as the nation’s birthday.
But, as with a birth, there was much beforehand that should not be ignored. Nations, like people, do not spring forth ex nihilo, and the time of our nation’s gestation should not be passed over. The Declaration did not constitute the opening lines of the drama of our nation’s founding, and ignoring the first act distorts our understanding of our country’s origin.
The complex reality behind American independence is being pushed aside even in our study of the Declaration itself. What many want to celebrate is not the full Declaration of Independence, but only a philosophical preamble that has been lifted out of its context. Most public attention is fixed on a few lapidary phrases in Thomas Jefferson’s opening. His famous lines, such as the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are endlessly cited, while the bulk of the document is ignored.
But it was the content of the Declaration, not the introduction, that mattered most to the Congress that approved it and the people who read it. Had John Adams written the Declaration instead of passing it off to Jefferson, the preamble would likely have been very different, but the substance would have remained similar. Indeed, Jefferson’s preamble borrowed a good deal from Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, which was primarily drafted by George Mason.
However, the substance of the Declaration is an extended indictment of the King of England for his crimes against the colonists. Reading the whole Declaration, we see a people aggrieved that their self-government is being usurped, their traditional rights encroached upon, and their common-law inheritance discarded.
The American colonists were incensed by the British Crown’s consolidation of power over the colonies, and they were more interested in preserving their longstanding practices of self-government than with establishing any ideology as the basis of that government. They were more concerned with encroachment on judicial independence and the right to trial by jury than they were with abstract theories of liberal political philosophy. As the Declaration makes clear, “no taxation without representation” was only a small part of their real grievances against the King and Parliament.
Thus, examining the Declaration in full helps illuminate current disputes on the right over liberalism (broadly understood) and the American regime. Some on the right want to make Jefferson’s mellifluous philosophical phrasing the foundation of our entire political order, in the name of “classical liberalism.” But the Founders were mostly concerned with preserving their existing practices of self-government, rather than seeking to establish a universal political philosophy upon which to base our nation.
Proponents of that sort of ideological project are often ignorant of the historical meaning of the very words they claim to base their philosophy on. For instance, as Justin Dyer points out in a review at Public Discourse, the “pursuit of happiness” should be understood in the legal and theological context of the time.
It was not meant to endorse the sort of self-creating autonomous individualism that it is taken to signify today. Rather, the right to pursue happiness “was understood to be bounded by a God-given natural law that was affirmed by each of the various intellectual traditions that underpinned the American Founding.”
The American founding was not based on neutral principles, and attempts to rewrite the Founding as a strict “classic liberal” endeavor are either mistaken or malicious. Elements of classical liberalism were present during the founding years, but they were tempered and mixed with many other influences, from the common-law legal heritage to classical republicanism to (most importantly) reformed Christian theology. The Declaration illustrates this, as it blends Jefferson’s borrowed liberal formulations with appeals to the divine and a determination to preserve the colonists’ established legal rights and practices.
Many of these rights and practices predated liberal political theory as expressed by the likes of John Locke. Here, as is often the case, theory followed practice. Theories of liberalism are not required for the practice of liberal, representative government, and are often harmful to it. Liberal ideology that insists on the selfish autonomy of the sovereign individual damages the relationships and virtues upon which liberal practice depends.
The Founders were trying to conserve a patrimony, not to implement abstract philosophical theories of government. This Fourth of July, we should follow their example. We can begin to honor and preserve our nation’s heritage by reading the Declaration of Independence. All of it.