The Changing Declaration of Independence

Published: July 17, 2014

The Fourth of July is all about celebrating the Declaration of Independence, right? Americans come together at barbecues, fireworks displays, and public readings – and hopefully give some thought to those inspiring words about liberty and equality, penned more than two centuries ago. But the part of the Declaration we celebrate today wasn’t always what Americans focused on.

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Image: An outdoor reading of the Declaration on July 4th, 2013, in Philadelphia.

A few years back, we were fortunate to speak with the late Pauline Maier, renowned historian of the Early Republic, for our special July 4th show. Pauline pointed out that the meaning and importance of the Declaration has changed over and over again through American history:

“we all think of it as important for the first couple phrases of the second paragraph…but that’s part of the later life of the document.  The most important part in 1776 was the last paragraph….that’s the part that – da ta ta-daaa! – declared independence!  That’s what was new!”

It was that new aspect of the document – that politically revolutionary, rabble-rousing list of complaints and final declaration of sovereignty – which inspired Americans. The document, after all, was meant to be read aloud at mass gatherings, to rile people up, to get them on board with independence.

Sometimes it got them a little too riled up. In New York, the public reading of the Declaration on July 9th pretty much caused a riot! A large group of patriot sailors and sympathizers, so inspired by the grievances and the stirring declaration that “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” marched down Broadway and tore down a statue of King George III – one that had been erected barely 15 years earlier. The story goes that they melted down the statue – for bullets.

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Image: “Pulling Down The Statue of King George III,” an 1859 painting of the NYC riot (Wikimedia Commons).

It took about twenty years, Maier said, for public attention to turn away from the list of grievances and the declaration of sovereignty, and look to other parts of this founding document.

But even as Americans began to refocus on the second paragraph of the Declaration – the part about all men being created equal, and having the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – they weren’t exactly thinking in terms of deep underlying meanings. Instead, public readings of the Declaration on July 4th were becoming more of an excuse for a party – both political and literal!

In the 1790s and 1800s, the Declaration became enmeshed in party politics, as the focus shifted to the primary author of its words – Thomas Jefferson – and the Democratic-Republican party he was building. Partisans focused on Jefferson personally. His authorship of the Declaration, with its expressed commitments to liberty and equality, was heavily emphasized. But the effort was more about enshrining Jefferson as a political leader who symbolized those Enlightenment values.

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Image: Jefferson and the Goddess of Liberty, circa 1807.  Courtesy Library of Congress.

As Maier pointed out,

“We have nothing…in either the Constitution or the first ten amendments that repeats those assertions that are in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence – there’s no statement about equality, no statement about natural rights which God gave all men.”

And so, at first, Jefferson’s association with that paragraph helped his party lay claim to the powerful ideas he had articulated.

But in the 1820s, those broader ideas in the Declaration reached out to become not just a vehicle for Jefferson’s partisans, but a deeper statement about American political culture which anyone could lay claim to. As Maier put it, after the 1810s, it began to live primarily a document used by radical political movements to support their causes. They needed something to appeal back to, a way to connect their causes to the history of the nation. As she explained:

“People wanted a document to cite…felt the need of a document to cite, to ground their beliefs.”

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Image: An 1856 Boston pamphlet appropriating the Declaration for an abolition rally. Image Courtesy Library of Congress.

These activists turned to the Declaration to directly support their causes. Thus in the 1820s and 1830s, Abolitionists used the text and memory of the Declaration to attack the institution of slavery. Abolitionist David Walker’s 1829 “Appeal” famously quoted Jefferson’s entire second paragraph, ending with a call for rebellion among the slaves in Jefferson’s own words:

See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language? Hear your language, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776—“We hold these truths to be self evident—that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL!! that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!!” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and yourselves on our fathers and on us—men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!

But Maier points to a further transformation of the Declaration, during and after the 1850s – from a document for radical political movements to “a statement of the American creed.” And the places the credit squarely on one person’s shoulders: Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln returned to the Declaration again and again in his writing and public speaking. As he put it in Bloomington in 1856, he wanted the nation to “re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.”

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Image: A modern monument in Ottawa, IL to the debates in which Lincoln’s rhetoric helped reshape the national understanding of the Declaration (Wikimedia Commons).

In his influential 1858 debates with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and later as President, Lincoln argued that,

“…according to our ancient faith, the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed. The relation of masters and slaves is, PRO TANTO, a total violation of this principle. The master not only governs the slave without his consent; but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those which he prescribes for himself. Allow ALL the governed an equal voice in the government, and that, and that only is self government.”

Lincoln made the Declaration something more than a document to be cited like a legal precedent, or a formal expression of the United States’ separation from Great Britain. As Maier said to us, he knew the Declaration could not be

“buried in the past, history in the worst sense…some archival piece of leftover junk from the past.”

Rather, Lincoln and his legacy helped reshape public perception of the document as a shared “ancient faith” between all Americans, a statement of basic political culture that all Americans share.

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  1. R. Harding

    After I finished reading the Vidal book “INVENTING A NATION” I saw clearly how even in the early days of the nation personal rivalries, nasty politics, and the conflict between a strong or weak central government were all in conflict. Today’s fight for personal independence and responsibilities reflects the life of the Declaration and the meanings of words. Thanks for a thoughtful subject.

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