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 6)


VI. Consequences and Tradition

The rebels won the war with military support from France, Spain, and the Netherlands; and the signers of the Declaration of lndependence were not executed for treason but honored as Founding Fathers. Only slowly did the Fourth of July become the day of national celebration as we know it. John Adams with his sense of history in the tival.. .ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more. "

The Declaration itself became the sacred writ of American nationalism only during the nineteenth century. Jefferson was so proud of his literary accomplishment that shortly before his death in 1826 he determined that his gravestone was to list it as the first one of his greatest achievements. In his last letter, in which he declined for reasons of health the invitation to join the 50th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence in Washington, the old fighter once again professed his undiminished faith in the enlightenment ideals he saw spreading across the globe. Sooner or later they would break all chains of ignorance and superstition and lead to man's self-government everywhere. The American form of self-government, Jefferson added, "restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles an their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. " This made Jefferson hopeful for the future of the world. For the sake of America's future, he wished that "the annual return of this day forever refreshes our recollection of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them."

Most Americans who have visited their capital as tourists can describe where the Declaration of Independence is on display today. In a special wing of the National Archives an Constitution Avenue, half way between Capitol Hill and the White House, behind a heavy bronze portal, in a churchlike, twenty-meter high rotunda, with subdued light, you line up between red velvet cords until you can move up the three steps, past a guard, to an altar-like showcase. Behind bulletproof glass, in dim light, you see the first and last of the large parchment pages of the Constitution of 1787, further to the right, the parchment copy of the Bill of Rights that was added in 1791. Upright in the center, with folding-doors that complete the impression of an altarpiece, is the Declaration of lndependence. There is no time to read. The line keeps moving in small steps. You quickly compare: yes, it's like the picture in the history textbook, John Hancock's and George Washington's signatures are the largest. And on you go, down the steps, past another guard, towards the brightly lit shelves with memorabilia to buy. The envelope with all three documents in facsimile on brownish fake parchment is nine dollars.

The constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany is treated differently, safely stored away in an archive, and for good historical reasons. The American tourists lightheartedly celebrate what Germans could not: the positive founding myth of their nation. Its two hundred years of growth, on the whole, are felt to be a success story. Although they love to describe their society as young and unfinished, Americans are proud of the age and unbroken tradition of their nation, its institutions and symbols. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, like the sacred writings of a civil religion, proclaim to one generation of Americans after another, and to the world, the ideals of legitimate government in a society of the free and equal. Generations after generations of American politicians, journalists, and other active citizens have ever since evoked the values of 1776 and the Constitution of 1787/1791 when they wanted to justify certain political proposals. Whatever serious problems there are, and however bitter political debate may get, the ideals of 1776 are still accepted by most Americans as the beacon showing the way to the safe harbor of a more just social order. Because of this lasting significance, the interpretation of the signals of 1776 is a never-ending task of American historians, political scientists, lawyers, philosophers, editors, and educators. Comparable to the stream of tourists in the constitutional shrine, there is a stream of scholarly analysis, of schoolbook descriptions, critical exhortation and morally uplifting rhetoric on every Fourth of July. They all contribute to putting the positive founding myth to use for the better functioning of the democratic process today.


Adams, Angela und Willi Paul Adams, Hg.: Die Amerikanische Revolution und die Verfassung, 1754-1791. München, dtv-Dokumente 1987; enthält Bibliographie, auf die hier verwiesen wird.

Adams, Willi Paul: "The Colonial German-Language Press and the American Revolution." In: The Press and the American Revolution, Hg. Bernard Bailyn and John B. Hench, Worcester, Massachusetts, 1980, S. 151-228.

Becker, Carl L.: The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas. New York, 1922, Nachdruck mit neuer Einleitung 1942.

Boyd, Julian P.: The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text. Princeton, 1945.

Dumbauld, Edward: The Declaration of Independence and What It Means Today. Norman, Oklahoma, 1950.

Friedenwald, Herbert: The Declaration of independence. New York, 1904.

Gay, Peter: The Enlightenment. 2 Bde. New York, 1966-69.

Hamowy, Ronald: "Jefferson and the Scottish Enlightenment: A Critique of Garry Will's Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of lndependence."William and Mary Quarterly, Bd.36 (1979), 503-523.

Jefferson, Thomas: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Hg. Julian P. Boyd u. a. , Bd. 1, Princeton, 1950.

Lucas, Stephen E.: "Justifying America: The Declaration of Independence as a Rhetorical Document." In: Thomas W. Benson, Hg., American Rhetoric. Carbondale, Illinois, 1989. S.67 -130.

Ranke, Leopold v.: Über die Epochen der neueren Geschichte. Hg. Theodor Schieder und Helmut Berding. München 1971.

Sheldon, Garrett Ward: The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. Baltimore 1992.


* 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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