On this historic day, should we celebrate our declaration of independence … or the Declaration of Independence? (More)

Two hundred thirty-seven years ago today, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence. Those weighty words have since achieved near veneration, both here in the U.S. and as a model for other nations around the world. Yet surprisingly, the text was largely ignored for the first 80 years of our history. We celebrated our declaration of independence – the political act – but not the Declaration of Independence.

Who wrote the Declaration?

Most of us would answer that question as we were taught in school, that Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence. And he did write the first draft, albeit not by choice. The “Committee of Five” – Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman – kept no notes of their deliberations and Jefferson and Adams disagreed in their later memoirs. Each wanted the other to write the first draft, and the committee finally agreed that Jefferson would do so.

Jefferson had plenty of source material at hand, as 90 other declarations of independence were issued between April and July of 1776: by guilds, grand juries, towns, counties, and nine of the thirteen colonies. Historian Pauline Maier was the first to compile and compare all of these declarations, for her 1997 classic American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence. She also reminds us that the “Committee of Five” made some initial revisions … and the Second Continental Congress then spent two days rewriting Jefferson’s draft, ultimately trimming away a quarter of his original wording.

What was the Declaration?

Maier not only reminds us that the Declaration was written by committee. She also tells the story of a declaration that happened by necessity, rather than by choice. Many American colonists did not want to leave the British Empire. Others grudgingly accepted that British government was not working for the benefit of the American colonies, but in Maier’s telling few were eager to establish an American state or bursting with anticipation at the idea of creating a new form of government.

In Maier’s thesis, the Declaration was less the announcement of a new political philosophy – “American scripture” – than an indictment and rejection of British governance. She presents support for that claim in the treatment of the text in the early years after its adoption. It was largely ignored until Jefferson began his presidential run, when both he and his opponents campaigned on details of the text. Most early Americans celebrated the act of declaring independence, but not the Declaration of Independence.

The spread of veneration

The Declaration’s preamble includes what is arguably the most famous sentence ever composed in the English language:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That core idea became a touchstone for later Americans, from abolitionists to suffragettes to the union movement. Frederick Douglas cited the Declaration, and the Seneca Falls Convention openly copied its form in calling for gender equality. Abraham Lincoln quoted the Declaration extensively, most famously in the opening of his Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The idea that all men are created equal grew not only through the U.S. As historian David Armitage writes in The Declaration of Independence: A Global History, that became an international idea that sparked independence movements from Haiti to Vietnam and Venezuela to Zimbabwe.

Selective veneration

My children had to memorize the Declaration’s preamble for school, as did I when I was in school. Most Americans hold the idea of “all men are created equal” as one of the cornerstones of our political identities. Yet my children’s teachers, like mine, gave the rest of the Declaration only a cursory mention.

Most of the particulars of the indictment and denunciation seem quaint, except perhaps to those who leap to cite “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”

But in fact the indictment leads with very practical clauses about failures of government: refusing to give royal assent to laws passed by colonial legislatures, forbidding colonial governors to implement those laws, calling legislatures to meet in remote locations to discourage local participation, and refusing to appoint judges to resolve disputes. Even decrees that barred immigration and international trade were listed before the oft-cited “imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.”

If the Declaration has become “American scripture,” most of us cherry-pick it in the same way most Christians cherry-pick the Bible, quoting the parts that support the arguments we want to make and ignoring the inconvenient parts that would rebut our arguments. Indeed venerating the Declaration and the Framers – as if that text were revealed to us by prophets rather than hashed out by committee – is most often a mere rhetorical trump, a way to say “I hold my truths to be self-evident” … and thus I needn’t provide evidence to support them.

Our declaration of independence was a political act, discussed and debated without certainty of its outcome, undertaken more for perceived necessity than to advance an ideological vision. The statement of that act – our Declaration of Independence – became something more. But that statement was also a political act, debated and discussed, drafted and revised by committees.

Today, as we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, a text, let’s remember to celebrate our declaration of independence … a political act whose primary intent was to achieve a government that worked.

Happy Independence Day!