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


Horst Dippel *

The Declaration of lndependence in Germany Reflections on Political Culture and Shared Values

view Iselin's translation in "Ephemeriden der Menschheit"



view Sprengel's translation  from 1777

What could be learned in Germany from an American declaration of independence? The name of the document, though not its original title which was "Unanimous Declaration", stuck to it from the very beginning but it was meaning less in Germany. Germany, as a nation, had faced many problems since the late 18th century. But independence in any significant political meaning was no part of it. No wonder then, as other political and constitutional documents seemed to be far more important, the declaration was widely neglected in Germany.

To be sure, there appeared some scattered remarks in one or the other German newspaper in June 1776 that the American colonies were an the path towards independence, and at least the Francfort Oberpostamtszeitung of August 23 and the Hamburgischer Correspondent of August 24, 1776, printed translations of parts of the Declaration. The Swiss Isaak Iselin of Basel was, however, to be the first in Europe to publish a complete German translation of it in the October 1776 issue of his Ephemeriden der Menschheit. But as far as we know, it did not arouse much interest. For several months later, Matthias Christian Sprengel, who was very interested in the Situation of the Anglo-American colonies and had already started to publish an the conflict, did not know Iselin's text and, therefore, professed amazement at not being able to find an unabridged German version of it. Curiously enough, Sprengel took his information of the document from a French translation which appeared in the Mercure historique et politique in the very month Iselin published his version, which most probably was directly translated from the English original. There are further differences between the two versions. In Sprengel's translation the catalog of grievances appears to be addressed to the British government while in Iselin's version, true to the original, George III is its addressee. Even if this difference may have passed unnoticed - though by it Sprengel distorted part of its meaning - the understanding of the significance of the Declaration of Independence proved to be all the more difficult.

Most German contemporaries commenting on it readily took it at face value. In their opinion, it was nothing more than a traditional document listing a catalogue of complaints in the well-established form of a remonstrance to make known alleged points of infringement of law and of abuse of power. Sprengel, therefore, though complaining about the lack of an unabridged translation, just published this catalogue, which he considered as being its essential part. The mildest reaction to the Declaration, therefore, was that it was unnecessary. Even Iselin considered its tone improper and undue while German opponents to the American revolution found its character mischievous and contrary to everything which religion, morals and civil society demanded.

The most remarkable aspect in all these contemporary German comments is the almost complete absence of any regard for its preamble explaining its political philosophy. To qualify these introductory statements as exposing merely some well-known general principles, as the Württemberg envoy in London did, fails to grasp the difference between a philosophical treatise and a revolutionary document. It was exactly this failure to understand the revolutionary nature of "these self-evident truths" exposed in the Declaration of Independence that caused the momentous neglect of this document in Germany.

This original misunderstanding of the Declaration mainly resulted in its being regarded as a document exclusively dealing with external relations of the former Colonies with Great Britain and not as a declaration of basic constitutional principles, thus contributing to its further neglect even in the time when American constitutionalism commanded some interest in Germany during the 19th century. While dozens of collections were published in Germany during this period containing American constitutions, in just four of them -in 1785, 1834, two in 1848, and again 1901(*1) -the Declaration of lndependence was included. None of them, however, reproduced the text of the German translation published in Philadelphia in July 1776 by Steiner and Cist and published again by Henry Miller in his Pennsylvanische Staatsbote, a text that obviously remained more or less unknown in Germany for more than 200 years.

Even rarer than the publications of the Declaration in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries, were the comments on it. Quite a few scholars stressed the idea that the Declaration laid the basis for American sovereignty, and regarding the German debate an the nature of the imperial constitution of 1871 it may have made Sense to point out that the Declaration proved that in constitutional terms through the act of the Declaration of lndependence the Union preceded the States. The idea, however, that the American notion of individual liberty and independence had its foundation in the Declaration hardly gained ground. Wilhelm Kiesselbach in 1864 who knew about the German translation of the Declaration published in Philadelphia but who published his own translation of it, may have been one of the first to place the constitutional principles of the Declaration rather generally within the context of the political debate in the colonies an the foundations of government.

It took, however, almost thirty years more until the universal character of the principles of the Declaration of lndependence was for the first time plainly revealed in Germany. Justus Bernhard Westerkamp, Professor of law at the University of Marburg, clearly expressed the four fundamental principles of the Declaration, quoting them almost verbatim: " 1. All men are created equal. 2. They are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of welfare. 3. To secure these rights governments are instituted among them; they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. 4. It is the right of the people to alter or to abolish a form of government obstructive to these ends and to Institute a new government based an such principles and whose powers are organized in such form as may be deemed most convenient to lay the foundations for their security and their welfare." (*2)

Westerkamp refrained from making comments on these principles. But the message was obvious for everyone listening to it and during the 20th century these fundamental principles became more or less associated with the Declaration in Germany, without, however, analyzing the document thoroughly. The deepened understanding of American constitutionalism since the later part of the 19th century, definitely enhanced by the constitution of the Weimar Republic and more thoroughly again by the Basic Law of the Federal Republic contributed to a perspective ready to take the Declaration of 1776 and the Federal Constitution of 1787 together with the Bill of Rights of 1791 as basic expressions of American constitutionalism. Ernst Freund, Hermann von Mangoldt, Ernst Fraenkel Carl Joachim Friedrich, Karl Carstens, and many others played major roles in broadening the German appreciation of American constitutionalism, including the basic principles of the Declaration of lndependence in Germany during the 20th century.

The problem to be solved, however, is why it took so long to grasp and diffuse the essential meaning of the Declaration and its universal principles in Germany? Why did so central a document of American history command so little interest in Germany during the first hundred years of its existence, only to be sweepingly included in broader interpretations during the subsequent hundred years without ever being properly analyzed? The question is all the more important as this lack of interest is not part and parcel of a general German neglect of the United States in two centuries with its several million German emigrants to the United States. America was an the German mind, and most Germans ever since the days of the American revolution considered the United States as the land of liberty. Why then was the basic document of the United States expressing these Ideals of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" so disregarded in Germany?

More than just a pretended wrong name must have been responsible for this Situation. For we encounter quite similar attitudes when we look for German responses to the American Bill of Rights or to basic constitutional principles such as limited government or popular sovereignty. There appears to be a curious discrepancy in Germany between the attractiveness of America as the land of liberty and opportunity an the one hand and traditional concepts of political participation and deep-rooted foundations of the judicial and constitutional Order on the other hand. Almost two centuries of diverging German-American attitudes give ample expressions of the clash of two different political cultures during this period.

It was, however, not just a clash between Germany and the United States. It was also a clash within Germany. This situation never becomes more manifest than in the late 1840s and early 7850s and again at the last decades of the 19th century when there was much of a political and constitutional debate in Germany an individual rights and the role of the state. While this debate did not result in enhancing individual liberty in Germany but in strengthening the idea of the preponderance of the State, we see in these same periods millions of Germans leaving the country to start a new life in America. Whatever their individual motives might have been for emigrating and choosing the United States as the place where they wished to go, they knew about liberty and opportunity, about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in America.

In other words, constitutional lawyers in Germany, "Staatsrechtler" as they were conspicuously called, might discuss profoundly whether in strict legal terms human rights were of a subjective or an objective nature and whether they could really restrict a state in its sovereign actions. At the same time, millions of Germans had quite different ideas of what individual liberty was about.

These fundamental differences in the political culture of Germany especially after the revolution which failed in 1848 and of the German Reich of 1871 as opposed to that of the United States hardly left any room for discussing thoroughly the ideas of the Declaration of Independence. A major change in Germany came about, however, with the revolution of 1918 and the establishment of the Weimar Republic. For the first time Germany became a republic, and especially the great western democracies quite naturally became a source of inspiration for those respecting and supporting the new constitutional order in Germany. Even though Germany's first republic disastrously failed, its fundamental constitutional principles, essentially western as they were, were carried an and deepened, and it may be more than a token example that Hermann von Mangoldt who had written the most important German interpretations of American constitutionalism during the 1930s, and thereby dealt with "the famous Declaration of Independence", was a member of the Parlamentarische Rat of 1948/49 drafting the Basic Law and afterwards became one of its most authoritative interpreters.

Mangoldt was just one thoroughly contributing to diminishing the cultural gap between German and American constitutionalism. With the increasing similarities regarding the basis of the political culture of Germany and the United States the ground was laid not only for scholarly studies of the Declaration in Germany but also for closely associating modern German constitutionalism with the fundamental principles of the Declaration and with its democratic ideals of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". In this context, it, therefore, seems to be of major importance that alter the dark years of Nazi dictatorship of all articles of the German Basic Law the one coming closest to the wording of the Declaration of lndependence, is art. 20,4 an the right of resistance, echoing Jefferson's famous phrase "that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it".

The Basic Law did not create a new political culture in Germany. But it constituted a milestone in the secular changes in German constitutionalism and politics bringing the country after almost one and a half centuries of drifting apart back into the mainstream of western constitutionalism. The first modern constitutional projects drafted in Germany at the very end of the 18th century were definitely rooted in it, and the political culture in the Federal Republic, solidly founded an the Basic Law, found its way back to this heritage of shared ideas and values.

Within this broad context, the acquisition and the display of the first German translation and edition of the Declaration of Independence by the Deutsches Historisches Museum makes Sense. More than honoring an important American document whose language in its translated version happened to be German due to the fact that a major part of the Pennsylvania population of the late 18th century was of German descent, it gives credit to a common western stock of shared political principles and values which lay the foundation of the American as well as the modern German constitutional order. For obvious reasons, in no former epoch of German history anything of the like might have happened. But alter 1949, and even more so after 1990, it will be impossible to explain the basic ideas and principles of contemporary German constitutionalism without due reference to the ideas and principles first laid down in the Declaration of lndependence whose contents so thoroughly expresses common European heritage, just "quelques principes generaux assez connüs (some well-known general principles)". (*3)


(*1) Staatsgesetze der dreyzehn vereinigten amerikanischen Staaten, A.d.Franz., Dessau-Leipzig 1785, 444-456; Die Verfassungen der Vereinigten Staaten Nordamerika's, A.d.Engl. v. Georg Heinrich Engelhard, 2 Bde., Frankfurt/M. 1834,1,1-6; Traugott Bromme, Die Verfassungen der Vereinigten Staaten von Nord-Amerika, der Freistaaten Pennsylvania und Texas, der Königreiche Belgien und Norwegen, der Bundesverfassung der Schweiz und die Englische Staatsverfassung, Stuttgart 1848, 1-6; Friedrich Wilhelm Schubert, Die Verfassungsurkunden und Grundgesetze der Staaten Europa's, der Nordamerikanischen Freistaaten und Brasiliens, welche gegenwärtig die Grundlage des öffentlichen Rechtes in diesen Staaten bilden, 2 Bde., Königsberg 1848-1850, I, 268-275 (englischer und deutscher Text); Die Verfassung für die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika, übers. u. kurz erl. v. Adalbert Rentner, Tübingen-Leipzig 1901, 40-45.

(*2) Wilhelm Kiesselbach, Der amerikanische Federalist. Politische Studien für die deutsche Gegenwart, 2 Bde., Bremen 1864,1, 328, vgl. 328-334; Justus Bernhard Westerkamp, Staatenbund und Bundesstaat. Untersuchungen über die Praxis und das Recht der modernen Bünde, Leipzig 1892, 69.

(*3) Wilhelm Römer an die Regierung in Stuttgart, 20. August 1776 (Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart, A 74, Bü. 178).


Dippel, Horst: Americana Germanica 1770-1800. Bibliographie deutscher Amerikaliteratur (Amerikastudien - Eine Schriftenreihe. Bd. 42), Stuttgart 1976.

Dippel, Horst: Germany and the Revolution: A Sociohistorical Investigation in Late Eighteenth-Century Thinking, transl. by Bernard A. Uhlendorf, with a Foreword by R. R. Palmer. Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture at Williamsburg, Virginia, Chapel Hill 1977 (desgleichen als: Veröffentlichung des Instituts für Europäische Geschichte Mainz, Bd. 90, Wiesbaden 1978).

Dippel, Horst: Die amerikanische Verfassung in Deutschland im 19. Jahrhundert. Das Dilemma von Politik und Staatsrecht Goldbach, 1994.




view Staatsgesetze der dreyzehn vereinigten amerikanischen Staaten


view lithography of German National Assembly



view Germany's Basic Constitutional Law with Adenauer signature

* Professor for British and American Studies at the university of Kassel



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