As Ben posted a few days ago, we at Continue to Serve are going to cover the disgraceful 1776 Report, a vicious document produced by a bunch of neoconservative hacks and released in the last days of the Trump administration as a final, desperate attack on the BLM movement and justice in general. The report is pure propaganda. It is a thin layer of fancy words over a clear message - America is, and always has been, for rich people, for white people, and for no one else. It has already been condemned by reputable historians. The report tries to define the Real America as the America of the Declaration of Independence, and to make everything else which includes Communism, Fascism, and “Identity Politics,” into a threat to that America. The authors' interpretation of the Declaration is the foundation of their argument. The Declaration is quoted in full in the report, and the authors repeat over and over that it is the core of what makes America special. So let’s talk about what they want to pretend the Declaration is, and what it actually is, and maybe even what we can really learn from it.
The report makes two claims about how the Declaration made the United States unique. The first (and funniest) is that the Declaration was signed on a specific date “the United States of America is unique [among nations].. . . it has a definite birthday: July 4th, 1776 (Pg 2)” The authors do agree that “Other nations may have birthdays (Pg 2),” but they clearly didn’t bother to look any of them up. As a reminder, (Google is free), Canada was founded on July 1st, 1867, and Mexico’s Grito de Dolores, considered the beginning of its war for independence, was on September 16th, 1810 (and that’s just other countries in North America). Also, the Constitution was ratified in 1787. Before that, there was no such thing as the United States. July 4th 1776 is an important, symbolic date in our history, but every nation has important, symbolic dates, and America did not spring into being when the Declaration was signed.
The next (and more important) reason they spend so much time talking about the Declaration is that they want us to believe that by signing it, the Founders created something new and special. They bound together a population into an unprecedented political entity based on unprecedented ideas, a “new principle of legitimacy” (Pg 4), a government that exists because the people of the nation agreed to come together to form it instead of the powerful imposing rules from above. The problem is, this wasn’t a new idea in the eighteenth century, and the founders didn’t invent it. When Jefferson wrote that government derived its just powers from the consent of the governed, he was referring to the idea of the social contract, first developed by Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 work Leviathan, that theorized that men, in the “State of nature,” before kings or governments, finding that life was dangerous and unstable, came together to appoint leaders in order to ensure stability, sacrificing liberty for security. Hobbes was so horrified by the theoretical instability of the state of nature that he believed that even an unjust king was superior to anarchy.
This was a very popular theory. Most educated people in eighteenth century England and America believed it, and believed that it already applied, even in a monarchy. After all, King George’s power was restrained by law, by Parliament, and by tradition. When Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he was not arguing that kings were a bad thing. He was arguing that George III was a bad king. You can see the reluctance to challenge authority clearly in the text. He wanted to make sure everyone knew that independence was a carefully considered last resort. Like Hobbes, he believed that stability was essential, and change was dangerous. In his words -
Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. (Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 2)
Jefferson also explained that the colonists had tried everything they could before declaring independence, including petitioning the King, Parliament, and the British people. The bulk of the Declaration is actually a list of reasons why King George had been so despotic that there was no other option. The King broke the contract. If he had treated the colonists fairly, and if they had representation in Parliament, they would not have needed independence. This is all based on the way that prosperous, powerful people in 1776 ALREADY believed that power and law should work.
For some additional context, let’s consider England’s own revolutionary history. When William of Orange took control of Britain from James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, here is how he justified himself:
It is both certain and evident to all men, that the public peace and happiness of any state or kingdom cannot be preserved, where the Laws, Liberties, and Customs, established by the lawful authority in it, are openly transgressed and annulled; more especially where the alteration of Religion is endeavoured, and that a religion, which is contrary to law, is endeavoured to be introduced; upon which those who are most immediately concerned in it are indispensably bound to endeavour to preserve and maintain the established Laws, Liberties and customs, and, above all, the Religion and Worship of God, that is established among them; and to take such an effectual care, that the inhabitants of the said state or kingdom may neither be deprived of their Religion, nor of their Civil Rights.
Note the words “evident to all men,” and the appeal to “established laws, liberties, and customs,” religious freedom, and to “civil rights.” A century before the Revolutionary War, William was using the exact same philosophical and legal arguments as Jefferson. These arguments (and his army) were so powerful that he was able to depose a king and change the government of England itself, leading, among other things, to the British Bill of Rights.
So if government by the consent of the governed and military action against a British king who had overstepped his authority were both mainstream ideas in 1776, then the Declaration looks a lot less unique. But if the Declaration doesn’t make us special, then what does? I think the answer is how we change over time. The report argues the idea of liberty as expressed in the Declaration is eternal and universal, (Pg 6), but in order to see liberty as Jefferson saw it, you would need his experiences and education. You would have to spend a lot of time thinking about the rights of men who own property, and none at all thinking about the rights of the people who wash their clothes or pick their crops. The rights of women, of people of color, and of indigenous peoples were not “self-evident” to Jefferson or his contemporaries. Even the rights of the men who signed the Constitution apparently weren’t “self-evident” enough in 1787, because the Bill of Rights had to be added four years later.
We have continued to make progress ever since. This is a good thing. It gives us a chance to extend the freedoms hinted at in the Declaration to more people. The 1776 report was written to convince us that we have plenty of freedom so we should stop asking for more. Of course it tries to drag us back to the eighteenth century. That is exactly the wrong lesson to take from the Declaration. The founders demanded more freedom from an unjust system. Today, our job is to demand the same thing.
None of this is an attack on Thomas Jefferson, or on the Declaration. Jefferson summed up a century and a half of philosophy in a handful of paragraphs and wrote an eloquent justification for a momentous decision. It’s a fine piece of writing, but it was only one step in an ongoing conversation about what America was going to be. In 1776, no one knew how a “State” would function without the British Crown. The Articles of Confederation were a work in progress. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were years away. America could have turned into a very different nation (or nations) from what we have now if things had gone differently without compromising the Declaration. We can admire the Jefferson’s words and the justice of his cause (if not the way he lived at Monticello), but the Declaration was not the blueprint for our democracy or our society.
The real meaning of the Declaration is that in 1776 the colonists were being treated unfairly, and they decided it was time to do something about it. A lot of us are still being treated unfairly in 2021. If we are really going to follow the founders’ example, we don’t need to go back to the past. We need to get to work building a better future.