Paul M. Craig: For whom was the Declaration of Independence written?

Published: 7/3/2020 4:00:22 PM
Modified: 7/3/2020 4:00:11 PM

In my letter of last July 4th, I explained what Thomas Jefferson might have meant when he wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps I misread the historical evidence; perhaps my thesis was exactly right. Jefferson’s real meaning has been a contentious issue among politicians ever since the Declaration was first read in Congress on June 28, 1776; and, then among historians after the first official public reading on July 8, also in Philadelphia.

This letter, then, is about both historiography (the study of how historians ply their craft) and history (the study of the past since the advent of writing).

In writing history we use what evidence we can find to interpret, as nearly as possible, just what was going on in earlier days. But to leave the story there is the antiquarian part of the historian’s job; while keeping the study of yesterday walled off from the passions and prejudices of today, the historian must also enliven the past so that it provides lessons to enhance our understanding of today.

To understand the past historians ask questions. Among the questions asked of the Declaration of Independence is: For whom was it written? There were three main audiences for the Declaration: international, American and British.

First, the Declaration had to establish America as a legitimate new nation “among the powers of the earth.” Second, it had to convince the peoples of 13 separate colonies to unite as one aggrieved American people in a righteous struggle against “an absolute Tyranny.” Third, it had to explain to “our Brittish [sic] brethren” how King and Parliament had violated the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” so that the 13 United Colonies must by right and reason dissolve the bands of empire.

In writing the Declaration of Independence, albeit with changes made by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the whole Congress itself, Thomas Jefferson wove the lessons of history into a revolutionary political narrative that all three audiences could readily understand.

Paul M. Craig

Northampton


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