Don Robinson: Reclaiming our Declaration of Independence

Published: 7/30/2016 2:27:14 PM



Why has our nation proven so vulnerable to Donald Trump’s demagogic appeals? There are many reasons, of course, among them the prolonged and patchy recovery from the economic collapse of 2007-2008, social pressures from immigration and the disruptive effects of a globalized economy that defies national regulation.

But I believe some of the unrest can be traced to a deliberate misreading of the Declaration of Independence. Our culture has been taught to value liberty over equality.

The best remedy is to take a slow walk through the Declaration’s own text. Happily, a recent book – “Our Declaration,” by Danielle Allen – provides excellent guidance.

The Declaration begins with a breathtakingly bold sentence. It has become “necessary,” it says, to separate from Great Britain; the colonies, “one people,” have to assume the “separate and equal station” among nations to which “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitle them.

Let’s unpack this sentence. What made the inhabitants of the 13 colonies “one people” in 1776? Geography had them spread, very thinly, along the Atlantic coast, from New Hampshire to Georgia. Their largest cities, Philadelphia and New York, had populations of about 30,000, about the size of Northampton’s today. Most of them spoke English and had roots in northern Europe, but some had come as indentured servants, and one-fifth of them had been brought here from Africa. The size and status of the native population was undetermined. “One people”?

What held them together, writes Allen, was a set of “fledgling institutions.” The stunning claim is that these infant institutions had bound them into something that entitled them to a “separate and equal” standing among the nations. Equal to the world-girdling empires of Britain and France and Spain? Preposterous!

But hear us out, the founders say. With a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” they proceed to lay out their case.

The second paragraph is the foundation of the document. It begins with a series of “self-evident” truths. All men are “created equal,” endowed by “their Creator” with “unalienable Rights.” Whoa!

First of all, self-evident cannot mean obvious. We are obviously not equal to one another in intelligence or skills. But by claiming that they are self-evident, we mean that reason and human experience lead us to accept them.

The Declaration proceeds to insist that our equality resides precisely in these rights, rights that are given to us, not by a government, but by our “Creator.” And they cannot be taken from us by any king or parliament; they are “unalienable.”

What then are these “unalienable” rights? “Among” them (this is not intended as a complete list) are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Governments are instituted to secure these rights; they derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Who “wrote” the Declaration? It was drafted by a committee of five men, including Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, after a decade of intense deliberation. But it was written, not by Jefferson alone, nor even by the five men who drafted and refined the version adopted on July 4, 1776. Its principles had been hammered out over a decade. Allen counts 57 decisive episodes (conventions, colonial legislative resolutions, actions by the Continental Congress and the like) that together produced the gathering consensus that it was necessary to break from Great Britain and establish a new nation.

In other words, the Declaration of Independence was the product of democratic politics. Producing such a document is an exhausting business. Unlike a great poem or essay, which is the work of a single genius, the Declaration reflected consensus building that required years of hard work by a population that was just beginning to feel its nationhood.

This was truly grassroots democracy at work. It transformed words into action, changing history by creating a new nation dedicated to the “proposition” (using Lincoln’s term at Gettysburg) that all men are created equal.

The revolutionary notion on which the Declaration of Independence is based is that people are equal in being, each of us, the best judge of our own happiness. We are also capable of appraising the course and direction of human events. We can figure out that the king’s actions reflected a determination to rule the colonies tyrannically, and we can “therefore” make the perilous decision to shatter the bonds that tie us to Great Britain.

Once set on the course of independent nationhood, basing our action on these principles, our nation embarked on an ever more radical commitment to their real meaning. We expanded the suffrage and built political parties as instruments of the popular will. We abolished slavery and enfranchised women.

Now we are engaged in another series of important struggles: to decide whom we will welcome to join us as owners of this enterprise, and how much economic disparity we choose to tolerate. The Declaration of Independence bids us to consider these questions courageously and democratically, respecting one another’s dignity as we forge an evolving consensus.

Lincoln at Gettysburg said that the Civil War was a test of whether any nation so conceived and so dedicated could long survive. We are at it again. The democracy project is never finished. Its challenge is perpetual. The coming months will be another severe test for us.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College, writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at

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