Every American schoolchild is taught that the Declaration of Independence was published on July 4, 1776, and that it proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that we are endowed by our “Creator” with the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Although the declaration further decrees that these “truths” are “self-evident,” historians have been disagreeing for generations about what the declaration actually means. John Turnbull's 1819 painting, "Declaration of Independence," is shown above. (U.S. Capitol via Wikimedia Commons)
What does the Declaration of Independence mean?
Scott Gerber July 04, 12:00 AM July 04, 12:00 AM
Every American schoolchild is taught that the Declaration of Independence was published on July 4, 1776, and that it proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that we are endowed by our “Creator” with the “unalienable” rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Although the declaration further decrees that these “truths” are “self-evident,” historians have been disagreeing for generations about what the declaration actually means.
The most famous book about America’s founding document is almost certainly Carl Becker’s 1922 classic The Declaration of Independence: A Study on the History of Political Ideas. Becker argued that the declaration memorialized the political ideas of John Locke, an English philosopher and physician who is widely regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers. Becker wrote: “The Declaration, in its form, in its phraseology, follows closely certain sentences in Locke’s second treatise on government.” Locke’s ideas continue to this day to have a profound influence on the theory and practice of limited government and the protection of individual freedom.
Garry Wills won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978 for Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, a book that contended the opposite of what Becker had argued. Wills insisted that Scottish moral philosophy, not Lockean liberalism, was at the heart of the declaration. The Scots emphasized virtue, while Locke stressed rights. Consequently, Wills maintained, the declaration “stood at a conscious and deliberate distance from Locke’s political principles.”
Pauline Maier’s American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence was a finalist in 1997 for the same prestigious award that Wills had won two decades earlier. Maier minimized in her book the principles expressed in the declaration because, she concluded after an exhaustive examination of documents prepared by townships, county associations, state assemblies, and other local groups, the declaration “restated what virtually all Americans … thought and said in other words in other places” and was, therefore, “as a statement of political philosophy … purposely unexceptional.” Maier preferred these local “declarations” because they were addressed to action rather than to the “fancy ideas” Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the declaration, preferred. Indeed, Maier once told American Heritage magazine that Jefferson is “the most overrated person in American history.”
The most recent contribution of note among the scores of books about the Declaration of Independence is Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, which won the Society of American Historians’s Francis Parkman Prize as the best book in history in 2015. Allen reads the declaration closely — line by line, comma by comma — and concludes that, whereas Alexis de Tocqueville privileged liberty in order to avoid the slough of individualistic apathy, the declaration, through the privilege-denying language of equality, can invigorate and elevate our collective life.
Personally, I think that Becker got it right from the beginning. My own books about the Declaration of Independence have convinced me, at any rate, that America’s founders were thoroughly committed to the primacy of individual rights and to government’s role in protecting them. “To secure these rights,” the declaration proclaims, “governments are instituted among men.” A clearer precis of Lockean liberalism would be difficult to write.
But the works of Wills, Maier, and Allen are also worthy of our consideration. Wills’s Inventing America is a master class in revisionist history that forces readers to question the conventional wisdom that America’s animating principle is libertarian rather than communitarian. Maier’s American Scripture is a testament to the new insights that can be gleaned from previously neglected historical sources. And Allen’s Our Declaration encourages everyone to remember that freedom alone is not the supreme virtue in the declaration; equality matters too.
Scott Douglas Gerber is a law professor at Ohio Northern University and an associated scholar at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. He has published two books about the Declaration of Independence.
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