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To Make a People in the Eyes of the World

To Make a People in the Eyes of the World

Not so long ago, statesmen delivered speeches to reforge a sense of national identity by invoking the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Rebecca Burgess

Not so long, but long enough ago that the likelihood seems foreign for us today, American statesmen and civic leaders delivered eloquent and stirring speeches, the best of which they delivered not on aircraft carriers or in the halls of Congress but in local park gazebos and bandstands, and on Independence Day. As so scenically portrayed by George Caleb Bingham in his Election Series, these were celebratory events, drawing the whole town’s public as an audience and retaining them sometimes for hours. The speaker would harken back to lessons of the American Founding and to that generation of individuals who, as Abraham Lincoln would later write in praise, had had the vision and foresight to “embalm” in its first great declaration of their country’s right to sovereignty “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” about human liberty and political equality.

Such speeches were not merely paeons to the past or occasions of indulgent hero-worship. They were meant to reforge the sense of America for their audiences by bringing them back to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and, by reminding them of the political and moral causes and sequence of events leading up to independence from Great Britain, to renew Americans’ sense of themselves as a people and the unfinished work of liberty they were every day engaged in by virtue of living in this democratic republic. Hence these speeches would traditionally precede, include, or follow a recitation in full of the Declaration of Independence—and not just of its famous first two paragraphs.

With his characteristic drollness, Mark Twain liked to describe the public recitation of the Declaration “with its majestic ending, which is worthy to live forever,” as an in fact serious civic ritual, of a hurling of its truths “at the bones of a fossilized monarch, old King George the III, who has been dead these many years,” but which “will continue to be hurled at him annually as long as this republic lives.” Daniel Webster had earlier provided the sense of why such an annual ritualistic hurling was necessary—to remind American citizens “on whom the defence of our country will ere long devolve” about “the duties incumbent upon us,” lest they “pusillanimously disclaim the legacy bequeathed” and so have to “pronounce the sad valediction to freedom.” But Samuel Adams may have been more to the point when, in 1776, he pronounced the necessity of reminding the American people about the fundamental contrast between the American political system and other nations; that whereas “other nations have received their laws from conquerors,” or “are indebted for a constitution to the suffering of their ancestors through revolving centuries,” Americans alone “have formally and deliberately chosen a government for themselves” in a defiant stand against political tyranny from abroad.

There has always been a vivid awareness of the global character of the Declaration in these Independence Day speeches, whether Webster’s in 1800 or in his 1851 “Speech at the laying of the cornerstone of the capitol” (“the whole world was the stage and higher characters than princes trod it”), in Samuel Adams’ speech quoted above, or in John Quincy Adams’ famous 1821 address that includes the now contentious-in-policy-interpretation tenet, “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own…. [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.” Even Frederick Douglass’ celebrated 1852 “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” speech has a comparative politics/foreign policy element to it, in his scathing criticism of how Americans had no problem denouncing the external or international slave trade with righteous indignation but were consciously blind to the growing internal slave trade then in existence in America.

That global characteristic is twofold. For the Declaration of Independence is both a foreign policy document and a diplomatic event—however revolutionary (and therefore contentious) its tone and intent—and a culmination of a project begun years before to craft a distinctly American people.

The Declaration is the public rationale that the Continental Congress issued to the world, explaining “with a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” why it had voted on July 2nd, 1776, to break from Great Britain. Thus, while the Declaration is indeed a statement of the governing principles by which our break from Whitehall and our future government was to be judged, it is also a foreign policy statement. By drawing the proverbial line in the sand that any government’s failure to take account of the truth that “all men are created equal” and that a failure by government to secure men’s individual rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” gives a people justifiable grounds for “abolishing” its allegiance and ties to that government, the Declaration’s promoters were putting the world on notice that its revolutionary principles extended far beyond the sliver of the North American continent they inhabited. Even the monarchies and despotisms that then ruled the vast majority of the rest of mankind recognized the revolutionary moment for the rest of the world in this one government, for the first time in history, coming into being, whose legitimacy explicitly rested on the claims of human nature and not on common blood, soil, language, religion, or ancient tradition. (Winston Churchill’s July 4, 1918 speech on “The Third Great Title-Deed of Anglo-American Liberties” is a nice nod in this regard.)

This helps to explain why we more properly celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, rather than on July 2nd, the day the Continental Congress actually voted on the Declaration’s resolutions. By adopting the Declaration on July 4th and publicly proclaiming its philosophical and legal rationale (the “long train of abuses and usurpations” which make up the bulk of the document) for political separation from Great Britain on that date, the (now) former thirteen North American colonies were officially taking their place on the world stage as a new and sovereign nation.

Naturally then, we tend to think of the Declaration as the beginning point of a truly “American” politics, and as the first salvo of fighting words used to propel America as a political entity onto the international stage. But in truth, the Declaration is just as much a terminus. It’s the endpoint to a project begun years earlier by men such as the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, to make a people out of the numerous, disparate peoples of the thirteen American colonies. However much a government’s legitimacy does not depend on a common blood or soil, as the Declaration affirms, the Founders knew full well that a government not the product of such accidents and forces was uniquely dependent for its survival on a people made distinct by their mutual acceptance and belief in a common set of principles. Thus, well before the Declaration, Jefferson was already engaging in a type of stealth diplomacy across the Thirteen Colonies, drafting public documents ostensibly addressed to King George III that detailed long trains of abuses to the colonies from the hands of the British Parliament, but which were intentionally directed closer to home, toward shaping the sentiments of the American colonists—into being Americans.

Seen in this light, Jefferson’s 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America is less easily dismissed as some clumsy, naïve telling off of the king. Political theorist Ralph Lerner argues in Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic, that there’s a strategic reason Jefferson never refers in the Summary View to his fellows as Britons or Englishmen living in America. Jefferson “is intent on preserving as great a gap as he can between the transplanted or emigrant man of America and those whom that man or his forebears left behind in old Europe.” For this reason, Jefferson expounds—to King George—on the Saxon Urureltern for some paragraphs in order to focus—for the sake of the American colonists—on the Saxons’ “priceless bequest—a readiness to live free or die.”

Summarizing the argument in Jefferson’s voice, Lerner writes:

From such stock are we, the free inhabitants of the British dominions in America, descended…. [T]he striking parallel between the ancient Saxon emigration to Britain and the modern emigration of Englishmen to America offers a telling example of the proper relation of a mother country to its expatriates. Can one imagine the indignation and scorn with which today’s Britons would greet a latter-day German monarch’s claim to reassert his dominions over descendants of those early Saxon emigrants now resident in Britain? And yet George III and his ministers and Parliament presume to assert such “visionary pretentions” with respect to the descendants of early English emigrants now resident in America.

Not only was Jefferson highlighting for his American peers a historical trait of a love of political liberty handed down from Saxon to American colonist, but he was also putting words to an argument vaguely felt rather than crystalized in the colonists’ heads. The litany of complaints he makes to the king in the Summary View ring familiar to us today because they anticipate the grievances in the Declaration, not to mention in the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress (October 14, 1774) and in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms of the Second Continental Congress (July 6, 1775). 

But in 1774, no one yet had suggested a single answer to two perplexing questions: “Why were the British brethren so deaf to the Americans’ appeals to justice and consanguinity? Further, why were the expatriated colonists so long accepting of metropolitan encroachments, usurpations, and high-handedness?” Lerner’s insight into the Summary View is that Jefferson answered both questions through the listing of evolving political complaints. “It was rather a failure on both sides to fully grasp that modern Britons and modern Americans (whatever their shared biological inheritance) had become two different peoples.” Because British authorities failed to acknowledge that Americans had become a breed as well as a land apart, “they persisted in treating New Hampshire as though it is old Hampshire.” Meanwhile, the Americans had let themselves be consistently mistreated, because they also had been slow to recognize how historical circumstances had “altered the political spirit of the two peoples.”

Jefferson’s end goal with the Summary View was thus for his fellow American colonists to become one American people, “capable and worthy of shaping their own destiny,” by means of coalescing around the then-radical principles he was giving voice to in writing the Summary View. The less-than-radical-propositions and conclusions expressed to King George in the Summary View (for example, a type of British Empire over which the King would preside, as a neutral umpire) are mere cover then, for the truly revolutionary political principles Jefferson is already crystalizing for his peers in 1774, and which they will officially publish to the court of the world’s public opinion with the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

To get to July 4, 1776, required no small amount of strategic thinking, of prudent statesmanship, of expert melding together of situational awareness, rhetorical prowess, alliance-leveraging, and political maneuverings. Jefferson was acutely aware that among the American colonial politicians of his day, there was an “inequality of pace with which [they] moved” toward the end goal of political independence from Great Britain, and that therefore a great “prudence [was] required to keep front and rear together,” for them ever to hope to be successful in the undertaking. How Jefferson and the more zealous members of his set built up to the Declaration of Independence is arguably a masterclass in statecraft, with publication of Jefferson’s Summary View as their opening move: Unsolicited, Jefferson drafted and sent to Patrick Henry and Peyton Randolph a set of supposedly anonymous instructions 

to be adopted by a body of Virginians meeting as a specially elected albeit irregular convention. These instructions, if adopted, would be carried by Virginia’s deputies to what we now know as the First Continental Congress and proposed to that body for adoption as “an humble and dutiful address” to King George III. At each level, then, there [were] objections to be met, opinions to be won over, and ultimately actions to be taken.

Lerner gives a short summary of what happens next: Randolph brings the draft to the attention of the members of the First Continental Congress, who, though they feel it is “too bold for the present state of things,” nevertheless still print it in pamphlet form under the title of “A Summary view of the rights of British America.” The rhetoric, and the principles argued, by some supposedly anonymous “Native, and Member of the House of Burgesses” in the Summary View could now reach an audience of thousands, if not millions, and on both sides of the Atlantic.

The rest, we could say, is history. But it is worthwhile to note along with Lerner, that it was a junior member of the Virginia colony’s political establishment that took it on himself to set all this in motion. Without Jefferson and a Jefferson-led similarly-minded and similarly-spirited coterie of individuals, when and what type of declaration of political independence would the American colonists have produced? To return to Lincoln’s 1859 Letter to Henry L. Pierce, despite his failure to ultimately resolve the political problem of slavery:

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

The Declaration of Independence was not inevitable, neither was the successful forging of the American people as a people predetermined. It took a distinctly human element of thoughtful—crafty yes—strategic, and even hot-blooded individuals laboring in the intellectual and political vineyards, communicating about such truths with their peers, to pull off the political revolution of July 4th. That was what American statesmen and civic leaders used to remind their large audiences of, with their Independence Day speeches. That human element of especially principles-based democratic politics requires an “electric cord” as Lincoln put it, linking succeeding generations to those foundational principles that can only happen by a conscious renewal to them as a people.

It’s high time for our statesmen and civic leaders to revisit the entire text and history of the Declaration of Independence, and to offer the American public something more than mere fundraising pro-forma PR releases on Independence Day. But it’s equally high time for all Americans to make it their Independence Day tradition to reread the Declaration, and to sit awhile with the latent considerations of politics and statecraft, diplomacy, international relations, and grand strategy—of Grand Politics as it were, (or at least, Politics with a capital “P”)—that the act as well as the words of the Declaration represent.

Rebecca Burgess is acting editor -in-chief at American Purpose, senior fellow at the Yorktown Institute, and a visiting fellow at Independent Women’s Forum.

This article was originally published by Law & Liberty.

Image: The reading of the "Declaration of Independence." Filippo Costaggini, Artist via Wikimedia Commons.