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The Declaration Of Independence Defends American Citizenship, Not Abstract Ideas

Lincoln knew the declaration was more than a historical curiosity to be ‘frittered away’ as an ‘interesting memorial of the dead past.’


For many Americans, the Fourth of July, celebrating the American Declaration of Independence, has fallen into disrepute. The holiday has lost its meaning because Americans have forgotten their duties and rights as citizens and have become accustomed to their status as subjects. 

Some Americans, primarily on the left, associate the document and the society that birthed it with slavery. They mock the declaration’s principles as hypocritical or even as an outright justification of tyranny. They demand new holidays, separate national anthems, and the destruction of national monuments. 

Other Americans, primarily on the right, attack what they see as the abstract character of the document. They equate its natural rights doctrine with unlimited freedom rather than with liberty in accordance with nature and the duties of citizenship. They see it as endorsing unlimited despotism. 

Still others, including our leading politicians, defend the document from these claims by arguing that America is an “idea” — a form without content, a nation without a people or a way of life. Indeed, they say, that’s its strength: we are Americans precisely because we are diverse. We are nothing. But the declaration is far more resilient than this.

Lincoln vs. Douglas

One hundred and sixty years ago Stephen Douglas, the brilliant author of the Compromise of 1850, also belittled the declaration. Criticizing its application to abolitionism, he interpreted it and its principles as historical artifacts without present application. If it were the expression of a bygone revolt with narrow objectives, then he could deny its application to the fierce debate over slavery. 

But Abraham Lincoln, Douglas’ opponent in the 1858 Illinois Senate race, seized on the absurdity of treating the Fourth of July as a mere historical fact. 

During a speech in Springfield on June 26, 1857, Lincoln summarized Douglas’ version of the declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all British subjects who were on this continent eighty-one years ago, were created equal to all British subjects born and then residing in Great Britain.” 

If the declaration’s principles lacked timeless significance, then there would be no need to celebrate the Fourth of July at all. “I understand you are preparing to celebrate the ‘Fourth,’ to-morrow week,” Lincoln said. “What for? The doings of that day had no reference to the present; and quite half of you are not even descendants of those who were referred to at that day.”

Lincoln knew the declaration was more than a historical curiosity to be “frittered away” as an “interesting memorial of the dead past.” It was inseparable from the American Revolution, which is to say inseparable from what defined the American people, if we may be so bold as to claim such an entity exists. Thousands of men fought precisely to establish, in the words of that document, “one people” in “separate and equal station” with all others on the earth.

More than a mere abstraction, the declaration expressed a rich tradition: a people of similar ethnicity, language, religion, and republican governance and manners. The citizenry was 98 percent Protestant, 90 percent British, and 60 percent English. 

Thomas Jefferson said the declaration was not aimed at “originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing,” but “was intended to be an expression of the American mind” — to describe a people already in existence. He specified that “all American whigs thought alike on these subjects.” 

Those who did not support the Revolution were not part of the American people. Revolutionary committees forged unity through oath-taking and often at the barrel of a gun. The situation turned nasty for those who refused to swear allegiance to the new nation. They were ordered to depart. Their property was confiscated, or they were fined and taxed. Their civil rights were revoked. They still possessed their natural rights but not the privileges and immunities of citizenship.

A New Kind of Citizen: Free and Equal

And that is what the declaration means to us — indeed, what it always has meant and always will mean: citizenship. In the British Empire, all were born subjects owing allegiance to the crown, not citizens with inherent rights. Britain accorded privilege and status through various hierarchical and overlapping group identities based on tradition, statute, and common law. But the declaration claimed a new republican relation between free and equal citizens according to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

The North and South did not fight the Civil War over racism but slavery, which violated natural rights. Lincoln accused the Democratic Party — Douglas, Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, and President James Buchanan — of a vast conspiracy to introduce slavery into every part of the country and to force Americans to accept it in their own towns. 

Slavery violated more than an abstract creed. It violated the sacred republican traditions that defined the American people. 750,000 Americans, 95 percent of them white, died in that gruesome conflict — more than the American casualties in both world wars combined — to defend what they saw as their way of life.

Just as the American Constitution was an experiment in self-government, the post-Civil War era introduced another experiment: whether new groups — blacks, then Indians, and then Asians — could become American citizens without destroying the republican way of life. 

Northern blacks had been denizens, not citizens, like American expatriates who dwell abroad today. Nor did they have a right to become citizens. They had no more right than an American today to demand to become an Austrian, Israeli, or Japanese citizen. Still, white Americans voted to admit those diverse groups as citizens, while preserving the local institutions that allowed Americans to govern themselves.

And that is the great challenge of the declaration to us. Can we still hold these truths with such diversity, which our founders saw as inimical to republican liberty? 

A Disunited Herd of Subjects

The founders equated diverse populations, each adhering to their own mores, with empire, in which subjects are assigned group identities that determine their unequal privileges and duties. If this be our lot, then freedom has a desperate cause at hand. And if this be our lot, let us lay aside the farce of “democracy” and “republicanism” and admit that we are a disunited herd of subjects ruled by a pseudo-aristocratic plutocracy. 

Let us reject the myth of equal citizenship and admit our return to racial tribalism. Let us recognize that the melting pot has failed. 

Let us admit that our Congress no longer passes laws but delegates lawmaking authority to experts in league with government-subsidized corporations. Let us concede that our courts no longer interpret laws but fabricate judicial tests whole cloth as their replacement. 

Let us acknowledge that our soldiers and police officers are no longer citizen soldiers but military professionals or mercenaries who do not distinguish between the occupied peoples of the world and their fellow citizens. And let us admit we do not need borders because new immigrants seek not the rights and duties of true citizenship but the welfare status of laboring serfs.

Any true American — that is, a citizen who still bears in his habits the principles of that ancient declaration — revolts at the above description. The citizen sees through the sham of liberty as licentiousness. Only a slave would accept inequality under the law and call the most wretched servitude peace.

And the challenge for us, lest we admit the experiment in admitting diverse groups has simply failed, is to nourish those ancient habits of freemen. We can rule ourselves and overcome the tribalism that divides us by looking to the republican traditions that formed the American people. And that requires moral responsibility: demanding we take part in our children’s education, our fraying private associations, our local governance, and our state politics.

James Madison addressed this question in The Federalist:

“If it be asked, what is to restrain the House of Representatives from making legal discriminations in favor of themselves and a particular class of the society? I answer: the genius of the whole system; the nature of just and constitutional laws; and above all, the vigilant and manly spirit which actuates the people of America, a spirit which nourishes freedom, and in return is nourished by it. If this spirit shall ever be so far debased as to tolerate a law not obligatory on the legislature, as well as on the people, the people will be prepared to tolerate any thing but liberty.”

That is what the Fourth means to us Americans. After all, good republicans can have no loyalty to an empire.

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