to the  document in different resolutions

From the collection of the Deutsches Historisches Museum:

First Printing in German of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4, 1776


Willi Paul Adams *

The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America (part 1)


view Trumbull's Signing of the Declaration...

I. The Enlightenment's Program in Practice

Like no other text in modern history, the Declaration of Independence of the United States proclaims the ideals of liberty, equality and popular sovereignty. In concise and elegant rhetoric it puts enlightenment ideas into political practice. How did this text come into being? Which political ideas are expressed by this document that is revered in the United States as providential approval of the nation's mission?

On the second day of July, 1776, delegates of twelve of the sixteen British colonies an the American mainland, meeting in Philadelphia as the Continental Congress in order to coordinate resistance to British colonial rule, resolved: »That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective colonies for their consideration and approbation.«

This meant that the radical option had been chosen. The advocates of further negotiations aiming at reconciliation and continued membership in Britain's global empire had finally lost. The patriots, those who were determined to fight to the end the war that had begun in April 1775, had gained the upper hand in twelve of the colonies and had instructed their delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for independence. To make up for the rebels' hopeless military inferiority in their confrontation with the greatest naval power, the next step had to be an alliance with the king of France. in addition, the provisional government by the Continental Congress had to be replaced of a properly constituted permanent Confederation.

The delegates, who were meeting behind closed doors, wanted to justify and proclaim the reasons for these unique resolutions in a proper way that would duly impress the public mind. They did not know how many of their compatriots, in whose name they acted, actually were prepared to break with King and Parliament and to fight a costly war to the end. Hence, a referendum on independence would have been too high a risk to run. The patriots first had to establish facts and then had to explain why renouncing King and Parliament did not violate the oath of allegiance and why the King and Parliament had already broken their end of the compact. To Europeans, to the enlightened public, to their former British fellow-subjects, as well as to the monarchs and princes who ruled continental Europe, the Congress wanted to demonstrate its resolve to fight for nationhood.

Hence, alter two days of debate, the Resolution for lndependence was followed on July 4, 1776 by the Declaration of lndependence as agreed upon by the colonies' representative political elite. They appealed "to the Supreme Judge of the World" and irrevocably pledged their "Lives, . . . Fortunes and . . . Sacred Honor" to uphold the principle of popular sovereignty as the sole source of legitimate government. King and Parliament, by violating the colonists' rights, they argued, had broken their contractual obligations and had lost their right to govern the colonies. The "good People of these Colonies" were now justified in governing themselves as "Free and Independent States" and "to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. "

Not just American national pride but a consideration of world history testify to the significance of the American Declaration of Independence. For the first time, Europeans settling outside Europe renounced their mother country's right to govern them and proclaimed themselves to be "one people", without whose consent there could be no legitimate government. In the American case, the assertion of a nation's right to self-government had to go hand in hand with the acknowledgment of popular sovereignty, because violation of popular sovereignty was said to justify the separation of the American from the British nation. One of the founding fathers of modern national historiography in Germany, Leopold von Ranke, recognized the revolutionary character of this thinking when after the failed Revolution of 1848 he explained in 1854:

"By abandoning English constitutionalism and creating a new republic based on the rights of the individual, the North Americans introduced a new force into the world. ... Up to this point, the conviction had prevailed in Europe that monarchy best served the interests of the nation. Now the idea spread that the nation should govern itself. ... This was a revolution of principle. Up to this point, a king who ruled by the grace of God had been the center around which everything turned. Now the idea emerged that power should come from below. ... These two principles are like two opposite poles, and it is the conflict between them that determines the course of the modern world. In Europe the conflict between them had not yet taken on concrete form; with the French Revolution it did. "

The French revolutionaries' ideas mentioned by Ranke were influenced by the French Enlightenment; similarly, the rebellious colonists were influenced by English, Scottish and French Enlightenment thinkers, who they had praised as exemplary throughout Europe the British constitution as it had evolved in 1688/89 during the Glorious Revolution of the parliamentary majority against the absolutist tendencies of the Stuart dynasty. John Locke and many lesser Whig publicists had justified and praised the free, balanced British constitution ever since.

What was new about the epoch-making Declaration of lndependence and the republican state and Federal governments that followed in its wake, resulted from the adaptation of British legal and constitutional thought ? including the Radical Whigs' vehement criticism of the corrupt practices in parliamentary representation - under the new conditions in American of cheap land and other economic opportunities and the resulting more egalitarian social structure. At least some of the enlightenment ideals could therefore be put into practice in North America earlier than in Europe, not because opinion leaders advocated a new, purely American political ideology, but because the colonials' economic success and Anglo-American political culture since the 17th century had permitted the rise of a broad middle class of property owners and a political elite capable of self-government. Kant's maxim "Dare to know," could, therefore, be expanded and elevated by Europeans in America to the call for action: "Dare to govern yourselves!" In his great interpretation of the Enlightenment Peter Gay aptly entitled the chapter on America "The Program in Practice" (1969). And Ralf Dahrendorf presented his historical and sociological observations on America in 1963 under the title Die angewandte Aufklärung (The Enlightenment Applied).

On both sides of the Atlantic critical questions were increasingly raised during the second half of the eighteenth century about the achievements and the legitimacy of established authorities in church and state. The same critical key words were heard throughout Europe: Privileges of the nobility and advantages of burghers protected by custom and traditional boundaries between estates as well as regions were challenged by the new ideas of natural rights of common men, of liberty, equality; the common good and the general welfare, of félicité, Glückseligkeit or happiness. Clearly defined accountability and the rule of law were openly discussed in efforts to bring about a more just social order. For this reason, historians like Robert R. Palmer and Jacques Godechot have labeled the final third of the 18th century in Europe and North America The Age of the Democratic Revolution (Palmer 1959). Dissatisfaction with the various ançiens régimes was expressed in quite different ways between Paris and St. Petersburg, Edinburgh and Naples. In this context, Britain's colonists in their war for independence carried out one of the several revolutions that initiated the age of the struggle for organizing popular sovereignty in the modern liberal, constitutional state.

view  "Dirge of oppressed Freedom"

* professor at the John-F.-Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerika Studien at the Freie Universität Berlin, i.a. editor of Fischer Weltgeschichtsband "Die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika" (1977) and of the dtv-Band "Die Amerikanische Revolution und die Verfassung" (1987) and together with Angela Adams translator of "Le Federaliste" by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1994)



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