Historians Provide 'BackStory' on Declaration of Independence

Once More, With Feeling

By Historians Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf

July 4, 2008 — This morning, on Independence Day, Americans will turn on their televisions or radios and hear Thomas Jefferson's ringing affirmation of human dignity: "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."

But two centuries ago, when Americans gathered in churches or in the baking sun to recite the Declaration of Independence, they spoke mostly about killing their king. The opening paragraphs of the Declaration — the glittering bits that we remember — were just the set-up for what really mattered: a list of grievances against George III, the King of England.

And with good reason, too. To make a new nation, the first Americans realized, you needed more than just lofty abstractions and sweet-sounding phrases. You needed a villain, an evil target who would help define "America" by what it was not. And King George provided it.

The grievances — the "long train of abuses & usurpations" that took so long to recite — made the case against George in a direct, powerful even visceral way. The cool logic of Jefferson's opening gives way to a compelling narrative of a king's abandonment and betrayal of loyal subjects: "He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people"; he has sent "large armies of foreign mercenaries" to wreak "death, desolation and tyranny" on an innocent people.

Jefferson's overheated prose sometimes threatened to burst into self-immolating flame, leading more prudent Congressional colleagues to moderate the temperature. Most famously, Jefferson had the audacity to blame King George for American slavery: "He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's [sic] most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere." His editors thought such an outrageous claim could undermine their case to a "candid world." 

They also purged passages that revealed the sentimental Jefferson's personal stake in independence: "We might have been a free and a great people together," Jefferson concluded, but must now "forget our former love" for our erstwhile countrymen. The king's crimes against his American subjects constituted "the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren."  

Most scholars agree that the chastened prose of the adopted Declaration represented a vast improvement on such stuff, making the American people sound more sensible, even less embarrassing. Yet the expurgated passages actually illuminate the document's original purpose and impact. The Declaration's appeal was to the heart, not the head, transforming what might have seemed random events that affected some colonies but not others into a powerful and persuasive story about the birth of a nation. 

The Declaration of Independence was instant history, the first coherent account of the coming of the Revolution. Its provocative rhetoric, reverberations of a violent and disruptive civil war in progress, was crafted to heighten a people's determination to defend their "inalienable rights" against all challenges. The grievances that made their nation-making war seem necessary may now look exaggerated, tediously self-interested, even boringly banal.

But if the Declaration was propaganda that has now outlived its shelf life, it still helps explain the strangest thing about independence — that it was belatedly declared 15 months after the fighting began at Lexington and Concord. Yes, the document was partly for the edification of France and other potential allies. But it was far more important for Americans to convince themselves that they needed "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." The various peoples who lived in what became the United States needed a "back story," a history that spoke to how they came together as a united people. They needed to remind all concerned of why they were willing to persist and sacrifice everything for each other, knitted together by common feelings as well as dedication to common principles.  

Ed Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, and Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf, professors of history at the University of Virginia, are co-hosts of a new radio program, "BackStory with the American History Guys," on the Web at www.backstoryradio.org.