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Does the Declaration of Independence Still Mean Something in 2014?

A remarkable document in human history, without precedent or rival, the Declaration outlines not what the United States should be, but what it should not be, defining America in opposition to Britain.
(Photo: Mike Flippo/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Mike Flippo/Shutterstock)

­­This year more than 111 million Americans were watching as the Declaration of Independence was read aloud on Fox before the Super Bowl. It was the fifth time that the network has hosted the Super Bowl since September 11, 2001, and the fifth time it has chosen to acknowledge our national tragedy, honor soldiers, and fan the flames of patriotism with a reading of the Declaration of Independence.

If the Declaration seemed an odd choice in 2002, this tradition has only gotten stranger with each repetition.

The Articles of Confederation established only a weak federal government but strong sovereign states, all but ensuring failure.

Don’t tell Fox, but the Declaration of Independence was a deeply flawed document, far from democratic. It marked an imperfect start to an imperfect union. It’s a document declaring mostly what America is not, a screed against what its signers argued was an oppressive form of colonialism.

Although it marked the beginning of the formal struggle for independence, the Declaration had a limited positive effect on daily life and left its promises vague. Far from embodying the democratic principles it proclaimed, the document was drafted by one author, Thomas Jefferson, then edited and passed in a closed-door session, never voted on by the public. It was only afterward that Congress sent the Declaration to newspapers and printer John Dunlap for distribution as a single-sheet broadside throughout the colonies. The Declaration’s “We” is not “We the people” but a self-selected subset of white, wealthy, educated colonists who considered but never got around to repudiating the practice of slavery in the colonies.

The Declaration itself was essentially a political “IOU” to the rest of what was to become America. Granted, it’s a beautiful IOU. The preface situates the document historically and philosophically:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The declarants followed their grand statement of purpose by defining the rights they would fight to guarantee. Their language remains at the core of American conceptions of rights and justice:

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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Then they moved to the topic at hand: justifying the Revolutionary War. The document sweeps onward:

[W]henever 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 organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Despotic Britain drove the colonies to this extreme, the Declaration warned:

[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

Tyrannical George III got his own shout-out:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

The Declaration then legalistically enumerated “facts ... submitted to a candid world” to prove just how tyrannical George III had been. The grievances borne by the patient American colonies were detailed in 27 clauses, from the monarch’s refusal to allow the passage of new laws by colonial governors to the “uncomfortable” locations he chose for conventions to deter American representation and habit of impressment, conscripting “fellow Citizens” on the “high Seas” into service in the Royal Navy.

Take our side, the Declaration urged France, the Netherlands, and Poland. Presumably conscious of the colonial possessions and designs of potential allies, the Continental Congress went to great lengths to distinguish the government from which they wished to divorce themselves and their war for independence as exceptions.

The signers attempted to exude reasonableness in their denunciation of Britain: Americans “Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms,” they wrote, but “repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” The colonists claimed to have “appealed to [Britons’] native justice and magnanimity” and “conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow ... usurpations.” But the British people, like their monarch, were “deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity.”

Only in the last paragraph does the Declaration “solemnly publish and declare” how the country and its constitutive states intend to proceed:

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.

The document doesn’t explain what these “United Colonies” would be or become. Even though the 56 signers got into the nitty-gritty details when it came to complaining about the monarchy, they imparted little about what was to come after independence or how it should be structured. The Declaration implies states’ independence would be qualified but doesn’t state such explicitly.

The only structural provisions the Declaration made turned out to be the greatest weaknesses of the government that followed from it under the Articles of Confederation ratified by the states in 1781:

[A]s 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. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The Articles of Confederation established only a weak federal government but strong sovereign states, all but ensuring failure. The Articles didn’t give Congress legislative or governmental power; legislators couldn’t tax, legislate, establish courts, or raise troops. They were succeeded by the Constitution in 1789.

The American Declaration of Independence is a remarkable document in human history, without precedent or rival. Its vagueness and focus on the British owes to the need to reach consensus and maintain the tenuous union among colonies. Unable to agree on what the United States would be, Congress agreed on what it should not be, defining America in opposition to Britain.

The ambition and originality of the Declaration make it quintessentially American, as does the easy expectation that others would recognize in the ring of its words proof of American exceptionalism and grant Americans a global audience from go—even, or especially, in the act of conception. Without precedent, the Declaration assumed the world would be watching: it addressed “a candid world” and concludes by “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.”

We celebrate the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July. For the Super Bowl, a star-spangled presentation of the national anthem would be more appropriate.