On the 4th of July, 1776, the British subjects of thirteen colonies in North America declared through a makeshift congress that they were gunning for total independence from Britain. They were already in a state of war against the British, but it was a defensive war against occupation, a war without aims.
Since the fighting had broken out a year earlier, representatives of the American colonies had applied themselves to the problem of how to win the war, a war against one of the world’s great military powers. The Declaration successfully articulated the colonies’ grievances against the British Crown. It presented a catalog of grievances against the monarchy, using the language of natural rights to justify throwing off a remote government that Americans feared would reduce them to “slaves.” The Declaration legitimated war on the grounds that the British government did not represent the will of Americans. Britain’s colonial system condemned Americans to live under an authority that was not of their own making, in which they had no voice.
The Declaration was a radical document, a glorious aspirational document that, beyond firing up the colonists, has inspired oppressed people to seek independence, equality, and self-determination down through the years. With its ringing assertion of each person’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and its rejection of government without “the consent of the governed,” the Declaration gave the colonists a sound philosophical justification for rejecting British rule. Their rebellion was justified because becoming a self-governing nation was their aim.
Inspiring in its idealism, the Declaration was never intended as a blueprint for national government. The Continental Congress that approved it never approached the stature of the English system of King and Parliament that the colonists threw off. The Declaration’s fiery phrases recalling past grievances couldn’t sustain the Revolution as it dragged on. Having put the super-capably George Washington in charge of the war effort, Congress became diffident. Enthusiasm waned. Each state wanted what was best for itself, and no state wanted to give up much of its newly gained independence for the sake of a more powerful collectivity.
General Washington had to beg and cajole Congress for the basics to keep the Revolution going. Valley Forge was the shameful nadir of the states’ indifference and irresponsibility. Continental troops, encamped there for the winter, perished not from battle but for want of human necessities such as clothing, shelter, and food. Washington despised the Continental Congress for its weaknesses, blaming it for a war that was unduly costly and long.
Peace and independence came after eight tedious years. Congress’s deficiencies became even more glaring once the colonists’ common enemy, Britain, had been expelled. The fragile nationhood achieved through the Revolution began crumbling, as citizens and states grew tired of the extraordinary effort that acting in concert as a nation required. Returning home, Washington confronted his own near-bankrupt condition. He faced the same uncertain prospects that all Americans faced, after shunning membership in an imperial economy that, for all its faults, had helped power American prosperity.
No wonder that Washington and other leading Revolutionaries put their weight behind the Constitution of the United States, which, in 1789, with the consent of the states then extant, became the supreme law of the land. In subsequent decades, as the nation grew, western states sought admission to the United States, voluntarily placing their states under subjection to the Constitution. States like Texas, briefly an independent nation, eagerly sought to become part of the US, its sovereignty pale beside the Constitutional Union’s advantages.
All this matters because aggrieved Americans now justify their anti-federalism by quoting phrases from the Declaration, as if they do not realize that all that they owe to the Constitution, all the benefits and protections that have accrued to them and their states, thanks to this transformative Founding document. Oddly, people who don’t know the history or limitations of the Declaration misuse the fiery document that Thomas Jefferson wrote as a young revolutionary hungry the very self-government that Americans gained.
The glorious heights this nation and its people have attained since the War for Independence rest entirely on the Constitution. The individualism and liberty that the Declaration makes so much of would have come to nothing had the United States not subsequently embraced a strong centralized vision–the Constitution, which spells out the federal system of self-government and individual rights we live by now.
It’s disturbing to hear anti-federalists railing against the federal government using phases from the Declaration. These benighted citizens come across as yahoos. The Constitution, not the Declaration, supplies the legal basis of government. It ensures our freedoms, balances our interests, and gives us sufficient power to be self-governing. The Constitution, not the Declaration, is the font of all present-day rights, court decisions, and laws.
The Declaration of Independence was never intended to pit Americans against one another or to attack the representative self-government that, thanks to the guarantees of the Constitution, is the birthright of all Americans.