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July 4, 2011 9:22 AM   Subscribe

The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most masterfully written state paper of Western civilization. As Moses Coit Tyler noted almost a century ago, no assessment of it can be complete without taking into account its extraordinary merits as a work of political prose style. Although many scholars have recognized those merits, there are surprisingly few sustained studies of the stylistic artistry of the Declaration. This essay seeks to illuminate that artistry by probing the discourse microscopically -- at the level of the sentence, phrase, word, and syllable. The University of Wisconsin's Dr. Stephen E. Lucas meticulously analyzes the elegant language of the 235-year-old charter in a distillation of this comprehensive study. More on the Declaration: full transcript and ultra-high-resolution scan, a transcript and scan of Jefferson's annotated rough draft, the little-known royal rebuttal, a thorough history of the parchment itself, a peek at the archival process, a reading of the document by the people of NPR and by a group of prominent actors, H. L. Mencken's "American" translation, Slate's Twitter summaries, and a look at the fates of the 56 signers.
posted by Rhaomi (72 comments total) 115 users marked this as a favorite

 
Jefferson's working copy is a lesson in political writing all by itself.
posted by tommasz at 9:30 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Regarding the fates of the signers, you might want to look here instead.
posted by jadayne at 9:35 AM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Also, pretty heavily cribbed from the Virginia Declaration of Rights.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 9:35 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Some posts you know they deserve a favorite even before clicking on any links.
posted by Tsuga at 9:37 AM on July 4, 2011


What Tsuga said. Now let me go read some of them links .....
posted by blucevalo at 9:37 AM on July 4, 2011


I'm kind of astounded that even Jefferson messed up the possessive form of "it".

It's still some of the best writing ever, though.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:41 AM on July 4, 2011


More info on the fates of the signers.
posted by motorcycles are jets at 9:44 AM on July 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


It's no King James Bible.
/ducks
posted by stinkycheese at 9:55 AM on July 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


The royal rebuttal is quite the anti-American diatribe. Are you sure the internet wasn't around in the 1700's?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:57 AM on July 4, 2011


Overall, I'd agree, but the second amendment seems pretty poorly worded to me.
posted by Edgewise at 10:04 AM on July 4, 2011


I had never seen the rebuttal to the Declaration before - fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting this.
posted by Chanther at 10:05 AM on July 4, 2011


I read the document very closely, but I see no prohibition against landings on Europa, nor notes regarding manifest destiny or American exceptionalism. Why did they hate America so?
posted by humanfont at 10:06 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Overall, I'd agree, but the second amendment seems pretty poorly worded to me.

There was a second amendment to the Declaration of Independence?
posted by joe lisboa at 10:08 AM on July 4, 2011 [13 favorites]


That royal rebuttal is fantastic. It's interesting to compare its logic to the logic of current efforts to restrict liberties. Regarding the inalienable rights:
This they "hold to be among truths self-evident." At the same time, to secure these rights, they are content that Governments should be instituted. They perceive not, or will not seem to perceive, that nothing which can be called Government ever was, or ever could be, in any instance, exercised, but at the expense of one or other of those rights.
It definitely takes the punch out of "inalienable" and "self-evident" when you make exceptions for prisons, wars, capital punishment, etc. This seems to nicely highlight the cognitive dissonance underlying back-to-the-constitution types who at the same time eschew social justice. (I know, I know, the Declaration is not the Constitution, but still...)
posted by yourcelf at 10:08 AM on July 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


FYI about the rebuttal -- I linked to the section discussing the preamble, which I found to be most interesting from a historical standpoint, but you can also page back to the beginning to see detailed responses to all of the charges raised against the king.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:11 AM on July 4, 2011


Whoa, that "Short Review of the Declaration" rebuttal article is authored by none other than the famous radical Jeremy Bentham.
posted by Bwithh at 10:13 AM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


the pamphlet/book collection of essays "An Answer to the Declaration of Independence" is edited and published by John Lind, who is paid for his services by the British Government. "Short Review of the Declaration" is one essay in the collection by Lind's friend Jeremy Bentham
posted by Bwithh at 10:16 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some good material. I never heard of the royal rebuttal, I'm going through it now, in detail. It sounds like an account of what a tyrant would want, it founds government on the principle that people must give up their rights so that a government may do as it wishes. The rebuttal says the new government is subversive to the very concept of government. Hooray for that.

Somewhere else on the web, I read a comment that the Declaration occurred because the citizens wanted to enact laws, rather than to separate from England. The governors were prohibited by royal decree from enacting any laws on their own, even to promote the common welfare. America wanted government as a means to exert their own power, to promote their own common welfare.

This is also the time I point out The Mayflower Compact as the precursor to the Declaration. It was the first government I know of that explicitly said government was by the consent of the governed, and that government served the governed and executed laws for their common good.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:16 AM on July 4, 2011


The royal rebuttal is quite the anti-American diatribe. Are you sure the internet wasn't around in the 1700's?


Indeed. When I read this at random:

To go through the proceedings of all their Aſſemblies, to cite all their Reſolutions, Adreſſes and Petitions would be to the reader, as well as to the writer, unspeakably irkſome. Let us then begin by the proceedings of that Congreſs which ſat in seventy-four.

... I was astonished at the sort of dismissal (or diſmiſſal) which would not be out of place on an especially fighty thread on the blue. Then I was doubly startled to discover that two and a half centuries ago, years were apparently being elided down to the last two digits.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:17 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Then I was doubly startled to discover that two and a half centuries ago, years were apparently being elided down to the last two digits.

The only reason nobody remembers the horrible Y18 document crash is that the heroic mitigation effort was mostly successful.
posted by localroger at 10:26 AM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Permit me to nth the rebuttal-enjoyment currently going down:

If the right of enjoying life be unalienable, whence came their invasion of his Majesty's province of Canada? Whence the unprovoked destruction of so many lives of the inhabitants of that province? If the right of enjoying liberty be unalienable, whence came so many of his Majesty's peaceable subjects among them, without any offence, without so much as a pretended offence, merely for being suspected not to wish well to their enormities, to be held by them in durance? If the right of pursuing happiness be unalienable, how is it that so many others of their fellow-citizens are by the same injustice and violence made miserable, their fortunes ruined, their persons banished and driven from their friends and families? Or would they have it believed, that there is in their selves some superior sanctity, some peculiar privilege, by which those things are lawful to them, which are unlawful to all the world besides?


Mee-oww, Bentham.
posted by robself at 10:27 AM on July 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


ONE comment above noted that the 2nd Amendment was somewhat confusing. Here is what did not become the 2nd Amendment:

James Madison's original proposal for what would become the Second Amendment, read "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person."
posted by Postroad at 10:41 AM on July 4, 2011


The opinions of Americans on Government, like thofe of their good anceftors on witchcraft, would be too ridiculous to deferve any notice, if like them too, contemptible and extravagant as they may be, they had not to the moft ferious evils.
True in 1776, true in 2011.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:42 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


The "Rebuttal" link really is amazing.

If the right of enjoying life be unalienable, whence came their invasion of his Majesty's province of Canada? Whence the unprovoked destruction of so many loves of the inhabitants of that province? If the right to enjoy liberty be unalienable, whence came so many of his Majesty's peaceable subjects [...] to be held in durance?
Replace "Canada" with "[Philippines/Nicaragua/Vietnam/Iraq]", and the same criticism could have been made at any time in the last hundred years. I suspect the author would have giggled with schadenfreude if he got a glimpse of the Drug War or the Patriot Act.

Is it wrong that when I read old manuscripts with the script "s" that I can't help but picture the author writing with a lisp?
posted by auto-correct at 10:42 AM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Metafilter: unſpeakably irkſome.

Great post!
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:43 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


It looks like the barrister John Lind wrote the rebuttal, which would seem to not make it a royal one.
posted by markkraft at 10:48 AM on July 4, 2011


Thanks for the rebuttal link. If the author was Bentham (since it's not clear from the comments) it's interesting to read this paragraph from Wikipedia.

'His position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, usury, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children. Although strongly in favour of the extension of individual legal rights, he opposed the idea of natural law and natural rights, calling them "nonsense upon stilts."'

You sort of get the feeling he would have been more sympathetic had not Jefferson et al. been arguing from the position of natural law.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 10:52 AM on July 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


If the right of enjoying life be unalienable, whence came their invasion of his Majesty's province of Canada?

The 1775 invasion of Canada by the new American Continental Army (their first major military campaign) was essentially an attempt to take what is now the province of Quebec. The Americans believed that the French settlers would welcome the invasion and help them overthrow their British rulers. One might say that the Americans believed the Québécois would welcome them as liberators. With sweets and flowers.
posted by Bwithh at 10:53 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The King didn't write the pamphlet himself, but his ministry did (secretly) comission its publication and tacitly endorsed its views.
posted by Rhaomi at 10:54 AM on July 4, 2011


here's some clarification of the authorship of the rebuttal pamphlet/book. Lind is the main author and the publisher but the specific section of the book "Short Review of the Declaration" is by Bentham.
posted by Bwithh at 10:56 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country; but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person."

Holy shit, postroad, that's fascinating. I'm trying and utterly failing to imagine a history in which conscientious objection was enshrined directly and explicitly in the Bill of Rights.
posted by brennen at 10:57 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


We're two centuries away from common accepted use of the descending s outside of calculus courses. It's kind of vexatious to ſee it in this thread.
posted by blucevalo at 11:02 AM on July 4, 2011


GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!

Probably.
posted by Decani at 11:15 AM on July 4, 2011


The Declaration of Independence is perhaps the most masterfully written state paper of Western civilization

This has the well-aren't-we-just-the-best feed-good vibe of many other American myths, so I'm curious - once the Americans are out of the room, is the Declaration still the pinnacle of everything to the remaining political scholars?
posted by anonymisc at 11:22 AM on July 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


I'm more of a Declaration of the Rights of Man man, myself.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:25 AM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Regarding the fates of the signers, you might want to look here instead.
More info on the fates of the signers.

SecondedThirded. Please don't pass around the final link; it's full of falsehoods. If you see it passed around today on Facebook or wherever, please send out the Snopes link.
posted by dhartung at 11:50 AM on July 4, 2011


RESOLVED, That in this general Time of resolving, we have as good a Right to resolve as the most resolute.
posted by Invisible Hand at 11:51 AM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting, between 1841 and 1876, the document was exhibited at the patient office, were it slowly started to fade.


"For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:

For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing taxes on us without our consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:"
posted by clavdivs at 11:59 AM on July 4, 2011


I heard they were all abducted and now live in cages on Tralfamadore.

Personally I quite like the Charter of the Forest. Guns and fancy words are great for the ego, but the commons are more important to stomach and the soul.
posted by titus-g at 12:01 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, to be fair, Jefferson had two months to think about it, since Rhode Island declared its independence two months previously. Smallest state with the biggest mouth, apparently.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:09 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's a tendency to conflate appreciation of the American Declaration of Independence with notions of American exceptionalism and Tea Party style fundamentalist reverence, but the fact remains that it is an exceptionally well written crystallization of Enlightenment thought, and an incredibly influential document as well.

If the Americans hadn't gone out on a limb and risked everything like that, the history of the British Empire might have taken a more tragic and typical course than it eventually did. America taught Britain that it's sometimes better to let go, instead of fighting to keep every inch of colonial soil. It's a lesson they sometimes ignored, but more often heeded, and as a result Britain never suffered a collapse like Rome or Byzantium.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:20 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of the rebuttal does sound remarkably like Reddit or something...


...and they be so fat and loud, unſpeakably dreſſed in the tackieſt of garments. Coupled with their willful ignorance of Her Royal Majesty's game of football this becomes unſpeakably irkſome.
posted by codswallop at 12:24 PM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


It's a lesson they sometimes ignored, but more often heeded

Some historians differ with that assessment (not to mention people who live or lived in many of the colonies that Britain supposedly "let go" with such magnanimity).
posted by blucevalo at 12:27 PM on July 4, 2011


H.L. Mencken's version is awesome. I think I almost prefer "first, me and you is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain't got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has got a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time whichever way he likes, so long as he don't interfere with nobody else. That any government that don't give a man them rights ain't worth a damn"
posted by Chipmazing at 12:34 PM on July 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


I didn't say it was magnanimous. The lesson of the American Revolution was that big, self sufficient colonies (populated by the decendents of British colonists) are going to go their own way whether you want them to or not. Hence the eventual liberty granted to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Of course were other kinds of colonies, consisting of once independent non-British (ie: not white) people who were forcibly conquered and subjugated against their will. There were no lessons learned there, alas, and it took a lot longer for those people to gain their freedom.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:37 PM on July 4, 2011


once the Americans are out of the room, is the Declaration still the pinnacle of everything to the remaining political scholars?

This is a really good question. Also, I'm not surprised by the lack of responses ;)
posted by Chuckles at 1:01 PM on July 4, 2011


I didn't say it was magnanimous. The lesson of the American Revolution was that big, self sufficient colonies (populated by the decendents of British colonists) are going to go their own way whether you want them to or not. Hence the eventual liberty granted to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

No, you didn't say it was magnanimous -- that was me editorializing. But you did say that the Brits more often heeded the lesson of "letting go" than not, and that's not the case. New Zealand, Australia, and Canada are exceptions to the rule, not proofs of the rule. The "other kinds of colonies" of which you speak were the majority of the British Empire. You didn't say anything about white versus non-white colonies in your original comment.
posted by blucevalo at 1:11 PM on July 4, 2011


charlie don't surf: The Mayflower Compact as the precursor to the Declaration. It was the first government I know of that explicitly said government was by the consent of the governed, and that government served the governed and executed laws for their common good.

No, the US one is a pretty obvious crib from the Dutch Abjuration/Independence Declaration of 1581, which specifically says that if a "Prince" rules badly, then the "subjects" have a right to replace them with a less crappy ruler, acting through the agency of confederate States (which distinguished it from the syndicalist/anarchist/heretical declarations promulgated throughout the previous 400 years of Christendom that usually ended in mini-Crusades to stamp them out).
posted by meehawl at 3:39 PM on July 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


No, the US one is a pretty obvious crib from the Dutch Abjuration/Independence Declaration of 1581, which specifically says that if a "Prince" rules badly, then the "subjects" have a right to replace them with a less crappy ruler, acting through the agency of confederate States (which distinguished it from the syndicalist/anarchist/heretical declarations promulgated throughout the previous 400 years of Christendom that usually ended in mini-Crusades to stamp them out).

Well you could reference the Magna Carta, too. The major difference here is that it was obviously the intention of the signers to eradicate any system based on a monarchy or aristocracy. These were the landed gentry willingly proposing a system that would hamstring the powers they already enjoyed. I don't know a ton of history, but I believe that was pretty unique.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:05 PM on July 4, 2011


Kevin Street: as a result Britain never suffered a collapse like Rome or Byzantium.

Well, it's less than a century since the UK of GB and Ireland ceded a chunk of its territory to become the rather smaller UK of GB and NI. Looked at from a historical perspective, losing fiat control over basically all of your overseas Empire trading and a chunk of your core territory within less than a century is difficult to describe as anything less than a collapse. Or perhaps a Crisis. By comparison, after reconstituting after the Crisis, Rome managed another century of Western European dominance and a thousand years in the East. The Romanoi in the East remained a unitary regional superpower for 400 years after ceding continued occupation of the Western European territories as fundamentally uneconomically justifiable. Recent demands for progressive political devolution in the UK have ebbed a bit, but Scotland, NI and Wales all have their own national assemblies now and frankly, the cultural differences between many northern and southern British has always struck me as stronger and more energetic than those between many notionally independent Euro countries. Who knows what the "UK" will consist of in another 50 years?
posted by meehawl at 4:07 PM on July 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Benny Andajetz: it was obviously the intention of the signers to eradicate any system based on a monarchy or aristocracy.

Unless you were a pirate or sympathised with the Albigensians or Waldensian, it was difficult in the 16th century to talk about "rule" without invoking a "Prince" with a "Divine Right", but "Prince" was also seen as an office as well as an inherited title (cf Machiavelli and his Prince as as his contrasting, Republican Discourses on Livy). Indeed, the progress in political thought in Europe between the Duth and American Independence Declarations can be seen as a transition from the idea of the Divine Right to a shared appreciation for a more more contingent Chinese-style Mandate of Heaven, which allows for the "natural" removal of crappy rulers as a consequence of the very process of political rule.

And to be fair, after auditioning a few non-domestic nobility for the job (refusals and assassinations made this a less-than-desired job), the rebellious Dutch Provinces eventually constituted as a Republic. Becoming the first large-scale European Republic in 1581 meant a total and enduring beat-down by the horrified Royalist Powers in Europe for the next couple of generations until the right of a Republic to exist and to rule itself was conceded by the Peace of Westphalia. That stuggle for legitimacy, combined with tension between the Republicans and religious conservative/Royalist factions, meant that the Republic gradually slid towards Monarchy after a couple of centuries (with the coup de grâce administered after Waterloo in 1815 by the victorious Monarchies).
posted by meehawl at 4:43 PM on July 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


The high rez scan is kind of sad. There will be a time, soon, where this document will be functionally invisible.

I remember going to see it at the Nat. Archives. The reverence of the room and of the treatment of it was awe-striking. Especially when I imagined a bunch of dudes sitting around figuring out how to save the document from a disaster in which they would surely be disintegrated.
posted by gjc at 6:20 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think the language of the Declaration is clear, articulate and sturdy (with some gusts of wind). But those virtues were more common back then: to some extent it strikes us that way because of the muddled, allusive, demotic or bureaucratic styles we're more used to these days.

It's interesting to notice the absence of any claim that America is by nature or destiny independent. The right to secede is declared and rooted in sonorous principles, but the grounds given are just a catalogue of current grievances, all apparently avoidable or remediable. This makes sense in historical context, but I think it puts some limits on the wider relevance of the Dec: if it had set out a principled position on what rightly constitutes an independent nation, I think that would have been influential (and useful if they got it right).
posted by Segundus at 4:41 AM on July 5, 2011


I believe the document was designed as a list of grievances for two reasons:

1. It satisfied the more loyal citizens by actually giving the king a chance to address and change the situation.

2. In the event that everything got out of hand, the colonies could show the world that they had gone through a series of peaceful "steps"; they weren't just flying off the handle.

In other words, the Declaration of Independence is both politics and public relations.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:54 AM on July 5, 2011


once the Americans are out of the room, is the Declaration still the pinnacle of everything to the remaining political scholars?

Actually... yeah, I think it is. And I think one can see evidence of this in the rebuttal itself. One of the things that most jumped out at me was the constant emphasis upon the novelty of the Declaration. The Declaration contains what most now consider to be the bedrock of Western liberal political theory--government by the consent of the governed, an individual human rights regime predicated in natural law rather than civil law, the seeds of what is continuing to evolve into full-blown egalitarianism--and the response of the monarchy was pretty consistently "No one's ever suggested any of this before, so, uh, WTF?"

More specifically: "If to what they now demand they were entitled by any law of God, they had only to produce that law, and all controversy was at an end. Instead of this, what do they produce? What they call self-evident truths." The drafters of the Declaration are being accused, and accurately so, of circular reasoning. The Americans were--and still are--asserting that Western liberalism is axiomatic. The British response was "Bugger that."*

I think this emphasizes the importance of the Declaration for two reasons. First, as mentioned, this really was a new thing. Sure, political philosophers had been making noises along these lines for a little while by 1776, but this was the first time that anyone had seriously tried to make something of it. The reaction was almost one of bemusement. Second, I think we would do well to remember that the rebuttal is not actually all that far off the mark: the Western liberal values at the core of the Declaration really are 1) axiomatic. and 2) not universally believed. All men being created equal isn't a position for which there's an argument. It's an assumption, and it's entirely possible to make a different assumption on that point. Maybe it's an assumption we like, and maybe it's even the right assumption, but it remains an assumption nonetheless. I think remembering that would bring some clarity and perhaps humility to discussions where human rights are implicated. We tend to forget that they're actually rather novel concepts and far from uncontroversial.

*Also "You and whose army, hmm? Oh. Your army. And the frogs' navy. Right ho, then."
posted by valkyryn at 5:13 AM on July 5, 2011


And I think one can see evidence of this in the rebuttal itself. One of the things that most jumped out at me was the constant emphasis upon the novelty of the Declaration. The Declaration contains what most now consider to be the bedrock of Western liberal political theory--government by the consent of the governed, an individual human rights regime predicated in natural law rather than civil law, the seeds of what is continuing to evolve into full-blown egalitarianism--and the response of the monarchy was pretty consistently "No one's ever suggested any of this before, so, uh, WTF?"

There's nothing in the Declaration that wasn't in Hobbes and Locke and the author of the rebuttal seems to be relying a bit on "Leviathan", at the very least.
posted by empath at 6:01 AM on July 5, 2011


There's nothing in the Declaration that wasn't in Hobbes and Locke

True, but again, there's a difference between political philosophers going off about something and politicians doing it. Hobbes and Locke had indeed been around for a century by that point, but the Glorious Revolution, i.e. the last major political reform in England, happened without much reference to either--Locke himself was in exile at the time and his major works were published shortly after--and there had been essentially no real attempt to give legs to his theories. Locke allegedly had a hand in drafting the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, but the document was never ratified. The Declaration represented the first political document which reflected Lockean philosophy that went much of anywhere.
posted by valkyryn at 6:14 AM on July 5, 2011


Excellent post.

Yesterday I attended a parade in a village in the center of New York State. It included fully half an hour of politicians--well dressed people walking and waving next to or in cars--as well as many, many "floats" which were nothing more than advertisements for local businesses. None referenced the origins of the country; there were no Uncle Sams, Betsy Rosses or Spirit of '76's in the whole parade. It was nothing more than a long, 3D commercial with thrown candy.

I sincerely wondered if anyone present--the crowds were impressive for a small town--gave so much as a second's thought to the actual occasion and what it commemorates. Thanks for the reminder that the 4th of July really isn't about profit or votes.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:19 AM on July 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


once the Americans are out of the room, is the Declaration still the pinnacle of everything to the remaining political scholars?

valkyryn: Actually... yeah, I think it is.

*check profile*

Location: Fort Wayne, IN

*facepalm*
posted by stinkycheese at 8:28 AM on July 5, 2011


Seriously? Just because I live in the US doesn't mean I can't have knowledge about what people outside the US believe.
posted by valkyryn at 9:53 AM on July 5, 2011


I can't believe I missed this -- from Jefferson's rough draft:
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.
This passage was eventually deleted in Congress's draft. I wonder how American history would have differed if that strong pronouncement against slavery had been kept? Who knows, maybe it never would have passed in that form at all.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:51 PM on July 5, 2011


Who knows, maybe it never would have passed in that form at all.

As I recall, Southern delegates objected to that grievance pretty strongly.
posted by valkyryn at 3:17 PM on July 5, 2011


The seeds of revolution and liberty were around before 1776, indeed, the document is merely a compact of sorts. I was re-reading John Adams diaries and found this.

1774. TUESDAY. SEPTR. 27.
Dined at Mr. Bayards, with Dr. Cox,Dr. Rush, Mr. Hodge, Mr. Deane,Coll. Dyer.Dr. Cox gave us a Toast "May the fair Dove of Liberty, in this Deluge of Despotism, find Rest to the Sole of her Foot in America."

1774. WEDNESDAY. SEPT. 28.
Dined with Mr. R. Penn. A magnificent House, and a most splendid Feast, and a very large Company. Mr. Dickinson and General Lee were there, and Mr. Moiland [Moylan], besides a great Number of the Delegates. -- Spent the Evening at Home, with Coll. Lee,Coll. Washington and Dr. Shippen who came in to consult with us.

(consult about what?)
posted by clavdivs at 4:46 PM on July 5, 2011


About the First Continental Congress, I think. The Declaration was signed in 1776 by the Second.

(Yes, I admit it - I am relearning history through Wikipedia.)

I spent early afternoon of the 4th reading the Declaration of Independence aloud with some friends as we sailing careful around the fireworks barge (and its well protected exclusion zone) on the Charles River in Boston. Each of us adopted a signer and gave a short autobiography before starting. I know I've read the Declaration before (high school AP History), but re-reading all the grievances was interesting. A couple that stood out:

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.


This is the very first complaint. The first few grievances address, as charlie don't surf noted above, address the fact that the colonies had basically been stripped of any ability to make laws. Before laws could be enacted, they had to be sent to England for approval.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

A good portion of the complaints, in response to the Quebec Act (of the Intolerable Acts) I suspect, are that the colonies are not being allowed to expand. They bemoan the lack of immigration. A fairly amazing thing to read in the context of today's immigration debate - one that the Tea Party does seem to ignore.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

Paying these officials is what the revenue from the taxes on tea were used for. (Those taxes were also kept to maintain the right of England to tax the colonies.)

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States

Not entirely true - the officiers involved in the Boston Massacre had a fair trial and were defended by John Adams himself. Two were found guilty of manslaughter and spared the death penalty, but were branded as punishment.
What I learned this weekend that I hadn't quite realized before was that John Hancock (he of the large signature, though not of the insurance company), was the president of the Continental Congress. When the first printings of the Declaration went out to the colonies, his was the name attached to them. And ONLY his. That's an incredible risk he took.
posted by maryr at 5:16 PM on July 5, 2011


The first printings being the Dunlap broadsides.
posted by maryr at 5:17 PM on July 5, 2011


maryr: the colonies are not being allowed to expand. They bemoan the lack of immigration.

How this was taught to us in Ireland was, I suspect, a very British slant (history as taught in Ireland outside of UK-Irish relations tends to default to a British viewpoint). I recall the explanation was that after the expansion of British America following the victories against the French, the UK government found itself now occupying great swathes of formerly French-occupied territories with extremely sparse European colonisation (and many of them were not Anglophones). The most-recent British expansion into the Americas had been most successful and stable when characterised by slow, dense settlement along economically conservative frontiers wherein the native population was reduced and assimilated (they were using the successful Plantations in Ulster as a guide). The French expansion was just too messy and difficult to maintain given the UK's doctrines. Additionally, by taking over the French territories, the UK now inherited a vast array of mostly bilateral but also some multilateral treaties with native American nations that the French had built up over a century or so. With unchecked immigration, the Colonies - especially the southern ones - tended to ignore the existing treaties and just keep pushing into the native nations, antagonising them. Given the precariousness of the UK's hold on its new, vast territories, and its need to maintain good relations with the French/Spanish.etc and their vassal first nations, it was considered prudent to bottle the Colonies up behind some eminently defensible mountain ranges and rivers... at least for a couple of generations. Finally, the Caribbean and India were more prosperous at the time and just seemed more lucrative. Diverting immgration/manpower there instead of the fractious Colonies must have seemed like a safer bet. Finally, for at least some of the Colonists, a war against the UK would enable them to abjure all existing UK treaties with the native nations, creating for them a blank slate for expansion within the Americas.
posted by meehawl at 9:30 PM on July 5, 2011


once the Americans are out of the room, is the Declaration still the pinnacle of everything to the remaining political scholars?

valkyryn: Actually... yeah, I think it is.

*check profile*

Location: Fort Wayne, IN

*facepalm*


Besides the Magna Carta, is there anything in the political world that approaches the DoI in importance?

Despite the pain it causes in the haters of the US, I think one would have to admit that the US kind of hit a home run with that one.
posted by gjc at 6:03 AM on July 6, 2011


Declaration of the Rights of Man
posted by empath at 6:08 AM on July 6, 2011


See, the thing with the US Declaration of Independence is that it marked the beginning of a government which 1) is still around, 2) has served as a model for what liberal governments look like ever since, and 3) has governed one of the most powerful nations in history.

On the other hand, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is associated with a government that 1) lasted ten years (or less, depending on how one counts), 2) still serves as an icon for state brutality, and 3) lapsed into dictatorship ultimately resulting in the Napoleonic Wars.

It shouldn't be terribly surprising that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen hasn't had quite the influence that the Declaration of Independence has had.
posted by valkyryn at 8:06 AM on July 11, 2011


valkyryn: the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is associated with a government that 1) lasted ten years (or less, depending on how one counts)

The nascent USA was not immediately riven internally by several civil wars (the Whiskey 'Rebellion' and the ethnic cleaning of the Tories were relatively minor disruptions) and bordered on all sides by densely populated, massively powerful Loyalist nations that immediately invaded the country to restore the Monarchy (or *a* Monarchy). It's notable that even in his ascendency, while the dictator Bonaparte was spreading "Bonapartism" abroad, he was still fighting to quell domestic insurrections. The two new countries thus faced immensely different political and military challenges, and the strength or "worth" of their aspirational, foundational documents is not really reflected by their early, divergent political paths. The USA's Declaration of Independence was an effective declaration of nonexistence for many of the remaining native nations in North America... which is influence of a kind admittedly but admits of various interpretations of its desirability and whose remit depended on which side of the plantation line you lived within - and the colour of your skin or your gender. You could argue that not until race and gender equality was notionally achieved (or brought closer to parity) during the 1960s was the *promise* of the DOI actually made fact. That is to say, it took nearly two hundred years to realise its potential.
posted by meehawl at 4:32 PM on July 11, 2011


A nice piece on the calligraphy and typography of the DoI from the excellent Codex 99 blog.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:23 PM on July 13, 2011


lapsed into dictatorship ultimately resulting in the Napoleonic Wars.

Which lead to the Napoleonic Code, which still is the foundation for a lot of European civil codes.
posted by empath at 3:58 PM on July 13, 2011


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