Robert Hole shows how important historical context is for an understanding of the most significant document in American history.
'We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ These famous words are all that most people remember of the American Declaration of Independence, but the text as a whole is far more complex and subtle than this piece of liberal rhetoric might suggest.
Like many ground-breaking documents in the history of government, the Declaration is firmly planted in a highly specific historical context. The rhetoric of universal human rights occupies only 20 per cent of the 1,340-word document. Over 60 per cent of it is a detailed list of grievances which the American colonists felt against George III and the British government.
It includes very illiberal attitudes towards black slaves and Native Americans. The British had called upon the slave population of the southern states to rise against their masters and make common cause with the British troops. The Declaration complains that George III has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
It is easy to be critical of the Declaration when you read beyond its first two inspirational paragraphs. But the purpose of the historian is to understand, not to criticise, and the real fascination of the document relates to its precise dating, and the diplomatic tight-rope it walks.
The American Declaration of Independence does three main things:
Each of these three has to be set in an historical context if we are to understand or make sense of the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps the most interesting and most important of them is the first, but we shall discuss that last. Let’s look first at why the Americans were discontented at being part of the British empire and why they declared independence when they did. And note that the when is every bit as important as the why.
The Declaration gives a lengthy list of grievances, but neglects to explain the cause. The American colonies had been founded to help expand the British economy and they provided a new society where those anxious to escape from life in Europe could go. Virginia was the first, founded in 1607 and the colonisation of New England by the Pilgrim Fathers followed in 1620. For a century and half, the British government largely ignored the colonies. After his Restoration to the throne in 1660, Charles II tidied up some of their charters and in the 1690s, after the Revolution of 1688-89, William and Mary’s government modernised and codified the way they were governed and administered. But for another half century after that Britain largely ignored the colonies and the colonists enjoyed the freedom which that neglect gave them. It was therefore a shock when, in the middle of the eighteenth century, British governments started to develop a proper imperial policy and wanted to make changes in their relationship with the colonies. In the eighteenth century Britain was engaged in a number of wars against the French which were fought in three theatres: Europe, India and North America. These wars were increasingly expensive. Eventually they bankrupted the French crown and that in turn helped bring about the French Revolution. The British tried to tackle the problem of cost earlier, however, and when the Seven Years War ended in 1763 they looked to the American colonists to contribute. The British army did, after all, defend the colonists from the French and the Native American Indians, or so the British argued, and it was only fair they should help pay.
Over the next 12 years, time and again the British tried to tax the Americans, and time and again the Americans refused to pay. The British tried a variety of means, by law and by force, to try to make the Americans obey and the American rejection of those means is restated in the Declaration at length and in detail. So to understand about two-thirds of the Declaration you need to known the history of British-colonial relations from 1763 to 1776. Finally argument led to armed conflict and war broke out in 1775 between Britain and the American colonies.
The American Declaration of Independence was not issued until 15 months after the War of Independence had begun. In it, after 1,200 words of self-justification, at the very end of the document the colonists finally declare 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; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do.
But why did it take them so long? Well, mainly because they wanted to carry a majority of opinion in each of the 13 states with them. The colonies were not united until after the war was over and, if the radical leaders of colonial opinion had moved too fast, it could have been that some states would have declared independence while others did not. Many colonists had no desire to break away from Britain. They just wanted to use the war to establish a better negotiating position for the eventual settlement with Britain of their future role in the Empire. For over a year, Thomas Jefferson and the other radical separatist leaders in America delayed and argued their case as the war developed. It was only by June 1776 that it was clear that Independence would win a majority in all of the 13 colonies and on 10 June a committee was set up under Jefferson to draft the Declaration. Finally it was safe to take the big leap and on 4 July the Declaration was approved and issued.
Jefferson was acutely conscious of the momentous step that was being taken. This was both a great act of rebellion and the creation of a new state which covered a vast territory. He was therefore anxious to provide a philosophical justification for what was being done and he took his model from John Locke’s defence of the 1688-89 Revolution in Britain. Locke had justified the deposition of James II by arguing that government rested on a contract between government and governed and that, if the government failed to deliver the ends which had persuaded the people to enter that contract, it could be overturned. Jefferson spelt this out explicitly in the Declaration. Men had rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. The idea that governments get their authority from the consent of the governed was still in 1776 a contentious and provocative notion which ran counter to many traditional ideas of monarchy.
But even more revolutionary than this was the claim that that all men are created equal and have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many regarded rights as specific privileges which had been granted to certain people. For example, in England, 40-shilling freeholders had a right to vote in the election of county MPs. But to claim that a right was universal to the whole of mankind, that people had certain rights simply by virtue of their humanity, was extraordinary.
It’s great rhetoric, but what does a phrase like ‘all men are created equal’ mean? Obviously they are not equally tall or equally strong, or equally intelligent. Nor did Jefferson mean they should be equally rich. He was probably suggesting that everyone had an equal right to life, to liberty and to the ability to pursue happiness. But his other writings and actions seem to suggest that by ‘all men’ he meant all free, white, property-owning males.
Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. Although he almost certainly fathered several children of Sally Hemings, one of his black slaves, Jefferson claimed in his Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston, 1829) that blacks were less beautiful than whites, and went further:
‘The circumstance of Superior beauty, is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour ... I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind ... This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.
It’s easy to be critical of Jefferson, easy to regard the high ideals in the Declaration of Independence as no more than fine sounding, empty words. He was a man of his age, economically dependent on slavery in a state in which the ruling class shared his interests and his prejudices. But even if he couldn’t follow his ideas to their logical conclusions, at least he set out fundamental principles which later ages can interpret in a more thorough-going way.
Just as each age re-writes history according to its own values and beliefs, so men and women interpret words like those of the American Declaration of Independence in a way which reflects their own ideas and aspirations. It’s important to remember that our views today are as limited and specific to our time and society as Jefferson’s were to his. It may be that future ages will censure us for spending our money on books and CDs instead of giving it to famine relief, while claiming we believe that all mankind has an equal right to life. The job of the historian is not to judge Jefferson, but to understand why he penned the Declaration of Independence in the way he did.
Robert Hole is Principal Lecturer in History at the University of Plymouth. He is the author of Renaissance Italy (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998).