Politics & Policy

The Declaration of Independence Is Not Important

If our national holiday were celebrated on July 2, we would have a much more accurate understanding of what America is about.

America as a political entity dates to July 2, 1776, not July 4. It began with a resolution that took the center ground politically: It called for both the independence that radicals wanted and the union of the colonies that moderates and conservatives had wanted to come first, in order to establish America’s readiness to govern itself without risk of further civil wars and convulsions.

The radicals ran off with the public-relations trophy: They got a beautifully written Declaration of Independence two days later. With it came a falsification of America’s self-consciousness, and a veritable Achilles heel in the national mind.

Thanks to this literary triumph of the radicals, the Declaration is treated as the beginning of America, something that it assuredly is not. The beginning was the Jamestown colony of 1607; or, if the beginning was the Word, then we must go back to Sir Walter Raleigh and the British advocates of colonization in the late 1500s.

Even if we concentrate only on the political refounding of America in the 1770s and 1780s, the Declaration is not the fundamental document; it is a derivative work, a commissioned piece of writing for the sake of public announcement of a decision that had already been made. The decision was made in the resolution of Congress of July 2, 1776; the Declaration was a statement of advocacy for the decision, not a decision of its own. To understand the purpose of the founding (or refounding) of America in the late 1700s, we have to look, not to the Declaration of July 4, but to the resolution of July 2.

The resolution of July 2 mandated three things:

1) drafting a declaration of independence and dissolving the bonds with Britain, to be issued in the name of the “United Colonies”;

2) seeking out foreign alliances; and

3) drafting and ratifying a “plan of confederation” — that is, a constitution for the united colonies.

Independence, we can see, was only one of the things commissioned. The formation of a constitution for the union was co-equal with independence in this resolution; it was an integral part of the plan for founding a country. America was not founded under a radical star, nor under a conservative star. It was founded under a balanced constellation of stars.

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Foreign alliances were only a tactical matter, by comparison, but it is worth noting their prominence in the resolution of July 2; it shows that America was not founded under an isolationist star. Some historians have argued that the main reason why a declaration of independence was issued was in order to win foreign allies: France would not have backed America if it thought that in the end the Americans might get back together with Britain anyway. The American leaders in Philadelphia that July were still divided on the question of whether independence was desirable, but they united on declaring it for this tactical reason. The one thing that it seems they were not divided on was the need to maintain the union that existed in embryo through the Congress, and to give that union a constitutional foundation.

However, the Founders proceeded inevitably to divide on a number of secondary issues just as soon as they began negotiating the specifics of a federal constitution. The complexity of negotiating the constitution left it in limbo. Months dragged on into years. The initial strong draft of a union got whittled down as the multilateral negotiations went back and forth interminably; the initial spirit of the common enterprise became depleted, much as happens in multilateral negotiations nowadays. Meanwhile the Declaration of Independence was completed and issued in a matter of days. That gave the false impression that the Declaration stood by itself as a founding document.

SLIDESHOW: The Signers of the Declaration of Independence

The July 2 resolution was laconic, not written to stir the emotions. The subsequent constitutions for the Union — the 1781 Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and the 1789 Constitution of the United States of America — were legalistic in their wording. It was only the Declaration of Independence that satisfied the spirit, with its mix of theory, principle, and rhetoric.

Of the four founding documents of the period — the July 2 resolution, the July 4 declaration, and the two constitutions — the Declaration had by far the best public relations. That was not surprising: It was written as a piece of public relations, calling the people to war. It was announced with fanfare. It was quickly sealed in blood, the most powerful sanctification a document can received.

It is for these reasons — reasons unrelated to the intentions of the Founders — that the Declaration came to be viewed as the founding document of America. In historical reality, the July 2 resolution would have better claim to that title; so would the Constitution of 1789. The Declaration would then stand as a statement to justify the July 2 resolution; a vigorous statement, but an incomplete one, because focused one-sidedly on justifying the war of separation. The preamble of the Constitution, devoid though it is of rhetoric, provides a more comprehensive and balanced view of the purpose of America. It also has exclusive legal standing as the official statement of the purpose of the American federal government.

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For the Founders, freedom and union went hand in hand. They were conjoined in the resolution of July 2, as two halves of a single coin. Daniel Webster later encapsulated their spirit in a formula, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”

When independence has been equated with freedom, union has been left to be seen at best as a pragmatic compromise.

However, as a consequence of the priority usually given to the Declaration of Independence, there has been a tendency in the popular mind to separate freedom from union. Instead of the two halves being conjoined, the Declaration tends to be read in a way that equates freedom with independence – a reading that is encouraged by a leap in the Declaration’s logic, as its wording slipped from the rights of man at the start to the rights of states at the end.

The costs of this have been severe. When independence has been equated with freedom, union has been left to be seen at best as a pragmatic compromise, at worst as a sacrifice of some freedom for the sake of convenience. The gains in freedom that are made by union get lost in the rhetorical shuffle. This is what made it possible for the southern states to secede in the name of freedom — even as they thereby upheld slavery.

The mistake of isolationism, which kept us out of World War I until 1917 and out of World War II until 1941, also flowed from the prioritization of independence above all else. With freedom being reduced to independence, freedom became associated with total separation from all things European. In the resolution of July 2, freedom was connected with alliances with European powers whenever these powers are willing and able to serve the cause of freedom. Instead of this sensible approach, freedom became equated with non-involvement in European struggles.

The doctrine of isolationism came to be deepened ideologically by creating a mythological version of the “Pilgrim founding”: America was described as having been created by pure people of faith struggling to get away from corrupt Europe, with the freedom flowing from their purity, faith, and separation from all that was European and corrupt. Forgotten in this myth was the fact that the first settlement was Virginia, not Pilgrim Massachusetts, and that most of the settlers in all of the colonies came with three very unpuritanical thoughts: personal profit, adventure, and developing America as an extension of the freest and most enlightened society thus far existing, namely England.

The myth of a Pilgrim origin of our freedom leads Americans to put out of mind how we inherited most of our free institutions and ideas from England and Europe. Freedom came to be pictured imaginatively as something created out of American purity, rather than out of a good liberal inheritance brought over from Europe and enabled to flourish in more favorable conditions. Instead, involvement with Europe was equated with “old world corruption” which would destroy our purity and freedom. Thus the ability of isolationists to demand non-involvement in World War II, and to think of this isolation as the way to save our freedom — at a time when freedom was under totalitarian attack worldwide. Neo-isolationists made the same mistake in the Cold War. Their heirs repeat the mistake today.

To bring her conscience in line with her real history and her future needs, America would have to rearrange her schedule of national celebrations. She would have to celebrate July 2 in place of July 4. She would have to make a big thing of September 17 — Constitution Day. And instead of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving, she would celebrate the planting of the Jamestown colony, which had the first colonial assembly and the first American Thanksgiving.

The odds of such a change are, alas, infinitesimal. And as long as it does not take place, America will continue to suffer from a mistaken concept of who she is and where her freedom comes from — and how to preserve it.

A false identity can be a dangerous thing. It proved a national Achilles heel when it inspired “libertarian” secessions in 1860; when it inspired isolationism “to save our freedom” in the 1930s; and in lesser degree on countless other occasions.

America is too good and great a thing to be put at risk for a false self-concept. Yet at risk she has been from it several times in the past, and at risk she will again be in the future. The false identity will persist for a long time to come. It is vital that conservatives understand it well — well enough that they will know when to put it to the side, and how to bring forth the requisite qualifiers and correctives to it when America needs them.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. He has also been a Fulbright professor of political science and international relations. The views expressed herein are solely his own responsibility. 


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