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 5)

view Thomas Jefferson engraving

V. The Declaration's Content

The Declaration of lndependence does not copy any one model. One can compare it to the renunciation of rulers in the continental European post feudal tradition, e.g. the Netherlands' repudiation in 1581 of king Philipp II of Spain. But the substance of these declarations barely related to the Situation of Anglo-American colonists seceding from their motherland. The Americans were quite aware, however, of the Bill of Rights of 1689 that ended the Glorious Whig Revolution and listed the conditions under which both houses of Parliament offered the crown to William of Orange and his wife Mary. The Bill of Rights-later enacted as any other law - enumerated the king's violations of the liberties of the subjects, construed an abdication of the throne (which king James III never uttered), and goes on to list as part of "their ancient rights and liberties" thirteen rights of English subjects, among them free elections and frequent meetings of Parliament. This terse catalog of the king's misdeeds and his subjects' rights did, however, not amount to an ideological manifesto of Whig political doctrine.

More closely, Jefferson could make use of the Continental Congress's declarations of 1774 and 1775 and of the Virginia Bill of Rights in shaping content and form of the American Declaration. This in no way lessens Jefferson's own intellectual and rhetorical achievements as the Declaration's principal author. On the contrary, his task obviously was not to write a highly original essay in order to win some learned academy's essay contest. He was to apply well-known political ideas of the American enlightenment to justify the decision of a whole nation, a decision with consequences of historical dimensions and with immediate effects on the lives and fortunes of those who, with their signatures, committed themselves to an action that was condemned as treason and sedition by one side and praised as the founding of a nation by the other.

Hence, the Declaration was meant for the king and members of Parliament (although it did not address Parliament explicitly) and their loyal followers in America as well as for those colonists actively opposing British rule, especially for the soldiers in the militia and in Washington's army, who had to have a clear sense of friend and foe, "patriot" and "tory". The absolute monarch of France was the third party the Declaration spoke to. It was to speed up his decision to provide military aid and therefore had to ignore his totally incompatible system of government.

The few substantial changes that were made in the draft show how well Jefferson had reasoned and spoken for the others. The other four members of the drafting committee, as far as we can tell, made few and insignificant editorial changes. The Congress struck out 630 words and added 146, leaving a total text of 1,322 words. The only substantive change was the omission of one of the indictments: the king's toleration of the slave trade. The other 84 changes essentially were stylistic improvements and streamlining of the argument.

The headline avoided the word "independence", perhaps because it was still considered a provocative term. The new name "United States" emphasized the unity of action among the rebelling colonies, who did not declare independence one by one as the rebels took power in one colony's capital after another. Instead, revolutionary conventions, as soon as the local radical pro-independence wing had gained control, instructed their delegates in the Continental Congress to vote for a joint Declaration of Independence. Advocates of the colonists` interests had known since their successful resistance to the Stamp Act in 1765/66 that only together were they strong.

The preamble, in one sentence, describes the purpose of the declaration, just as the preamble of an act of Parliament announces the purpose of a new law. The masterly opening presupposes what ought to be proven: that Americans are "one people" and that " by the laws of nature and of nature's God" they are entitled to a "separate and equal Station" among nations, such as Great Britain. This claim is not grounded in ancient English rights any more but is derived from the enlightenment's highest authority, "the laws of nature." Locke had articulated this Whig idea in his second Treatise of Government of 1690: " The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. "

This Whig idea was contested by the Tory justification of hereditary monarchy as God-given and hallowed by history, by the doctrine of the divine right of kings that still dominated continental Europe. To neutralize that doctrine, Jefferson and the Congress employed the deistic concept of God as speaking to man through nature, so that there could be no contradiction between the laws of nature and God's will.

The second part of the Declaration explains the fundamental rights of citizens under free government. These two sentences by themselves did not create rights individuals could sue to have enforced by an American court. Yet they became the political creed of the American republic, because they formulated the norms of legitimate government that had been violated by British colonial rule and that from now on were to be protected by the new political order. "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" constituted the core of liberal individualism and the social contract-idea in the political philosophy of Anglo-American Whigs since 1688. "Happiness" here meant well-being and safety. A secure life in liberty, Whig social theory held, was impossible without the opportunity to acquire and safely possess property. The Virginia Bill of Rights, three weeks before, had spelled out what was commonly assumed, when in its first article, cited above, it combined the enjoyment of life and liberty with "the means of acquiring and possessing property and obtaining happiness and safety. "

Characterizing rights as "inalienable" in Whig rhetoric meant that no circumstances deprived a human being of these rights -not even migration from the realm of England to the colonies. Social compact theory according to Locke assumed that persons voluntarily leaving the state of nature for the state of civil society keep these basic rights as the foundation of their demands on government, whose monopoly of applying force they help create by giving up their personal right to use force against a fellow citizen. Only just laws, not mere government fiat, may curtail these fundamental rights in the interest of the whole. "The dignity of the human being is inviolable, "is a later way of expressing this fundamental tenet of enlightenment liberalism and its social contract and individualist components.

The postulate of equality in the Declaration of lndependence referred to the right to equal participation of all citizens - without regard to their location in the mother country or in the colonies. Without the mention of equality as a fundamental assumption, a vital component of American revolutionary thought would have been missing in the Declaration. All citizens had to be equally free. The controversial issue was, who was a constituent member of the republic's citizenry. When Jefferson wrote that "all men are created equal and independent", he owned 175 slaves. Yet, his and his fellow founders' behavior is not to be dismissed as hypocrisy. Jefferson and many of his contemporaries were quite aware of the contradiction between the liberation of European Americans and the continued enslavement of most of the Africans. Public calls for the abolition of slavery never ceased after 1776, the unequal treatment of women also became an issue in 1776, at first in private and without a chance for public debate. Delegate John Adams, even before he left Philadelphia, was admonished by his wife Abigail: " In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, l desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. "

"The consent of the governed, " was probably the most often used formula in the decade-long debate about just government. It did not mean Greek market-place democracy, as everyone knew, but electing representatives. This well-established phrase made use of the terms "democratic" and "republican" in the Declaration unnecessary. In case of repeated violation of the consent of the governed, the Declaration maintained, a government or the underlying system of government - "government" here means both -can be altered or abolished, but only by "the people". The Declaration does not proclaim an individual's right to resist government.

The third and longest part of the text consists of the eighteen points of indictment of the king. Each count names specific actions and opens with the rhetorically effective phrase "He has. . . ". Taken together, the twenty-eight individual misdeeds do not characterize a murderous, scheming tyrant but rather a negligent trustee who broke his part of the contract. A "tyrant" in the Whig vocabulary was any monarch who failed to fulfill his constitutional obligations, harmed his subjects' well-being, or disregarded the division of powers with the other constitutionally defined branches of government.

The list of indictments, therefore, also enumerated decisions that to us do not appear to be grave injustices, such as the adjourning of the Massachusetts assembly "at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records. " Or the complaint about the Quebec Act of 1774, which concerned two Privy Council decisions about the size and self-governance of a colony that was not even part of the coalition of resisting colonies. Quebec's southeastern border had indeed been extended to the Ohio and the western slope of the Appalachians. The Congress's anger was directed against the crown's clever move to guarantee to the Catholic French-Canadians their culture, their church and their Roman civil law; or, to put it the other way around, to deprive them of "the free System of English Laws" - a deprivation surely not experienced as an act of tyrannical suppression by the Quebecois.

The Congress struck out Jefferson's penultimate indictment, the king's toleration of the slave trade, which Franklin, Adams, and the other committee members had let pass. These two sentences (and the next one that survived in abbreviated form) mark a transition to the language of mere propaganda that the Congress was not prepared to accept, Jefferson had suggested:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

Since there are no minutes of the debate about the Declaration in Congress, we can only conclude from Jefferson's private notes that mentioning the topic displeased both Southern planters, especially those in South Carolina and Georgia who -in contrast to Virginians - wanted to continue to import more cheap enslaved laborers, and Northern merchants and skippers who profited from the slave trade. Perhaps they also felt that this propagandistic misrepresentation of the colonies' own responsibility for the development of slavery since 1619 was going a step too far.

The Congress accepted the second part of the slavery-indictment in abbreviated form. Jefferson wanted to blame the king by saying "he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another." This twisted reasoning referred to the declaration of martial law in Virginia by royal governor and military commander Lord Dunmore on November 7, 1775. Dunmore had promised freedom to slaves who came to fight under the king's banner. The Congress abbreviated the accusation to the more honest statement: "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us," and added its disapproval of the British troops' (traditional) use of Indian warriors.

The Congress also recognized an act of abdication by the Crown, as the Lords and Commons had done in the Bill of Rights of 1689. The act it interpreted as such was the king's Proclamation of Rebellion on August 23, 1775.

In the fourth part of the text the Continental Congress emphasized that the colonists, as behooves humble subjects, had petitioned for redress. Instead of concluding with an anti-monarchical, pro-republican ideological manifesto in the spirit of Tom Paine, Jefferson and the Congress limited themselves to condemning George III personally: "A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free People. " They then accused their "British brethren" of complicity in letting their Parliament usurp power over the colonies.

The fifth part draws the logical conclusion by repeating the core sentence from the Resolution of lndependence of July 2, 1776. In a final sentence, the delegates concluded a kind of nation-founding compact by appealing to "the Protection of Divine Providence" and pledging "to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor" for the Support of independence.

view Georg Washington engraving
view caricature on the American patriots from London Magazine 1776

* 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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