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Reading%203 - THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE A Global...

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Unformatted text preview: THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE A Global History DAVID ARMITAGE HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS Cambridge, Massachusatts London,Enghnd 2003 Introduction In the last public letter he wrote before his death in 1826, _ Thomas jefferson offered an expansive vision of the Declara- n‘on of Independence, a document he had drafted half a century before. As he declined an invitation to attend the commemora— ' tion in Washington, DC, of the fiftieth anniversary of Ameri- can independence, jefferson called the Declaration “an instru- ment, pregnant with our own and the fate of the world.” He regretted that illness would keep him from a reunion with “the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our counu-y, between submission or the sword.” He would have “enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citi- Introduction zens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, con— tinue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the bless- ings and security of self government.”' Jefferson died on July 4, 18 26, two weeks after sending this letter. He had written it in the tones of a prophefic utterance surveying past and future from the very brink of death. He surely intended the letter to be made public, and so it soon was, in a Washington newspaper on his deathday. Yet this was not the very last of jefferson’s letters. A day after sending it on june 24, 1826, he wrote two more, one to his business agent in Richmond, Virginia, the other to a merchant in Baltimore, re- garding a shipment of French wine that had just arrived from Marseilles and on which duty had to be paid.2 jeiferson’s last public thoughts may have treated the afterlife of the American Revolution, but his last private instructions concerned the stocking of his wine cellar. Both looked to the future. Both also acknowledged that the young United States was tied to a wider world, whether as an exporter of revolu- tionary ideas or as an importer of luxury goods. As ]efferson well knew, any independent country had to be an interdepen- dent country. Introduction By the time of jefferson’s death, “half a century of experi- ence and prosperity” had confirmed American independence as a political fact. Fifty years earlier, the Declaration had an- nounced independence at a time when it had yet to be achieved and when it was still under vigorous assault by Britain. For al- most four decades after 1 776, Americans valued the successful fact of that independence more than they did the specific docu- ment that had declared it. It was only in the last decade of Jef- ferson’s life that the Declaration began to be seen as the well- founded article of “American scripture" celebrated by Ameri- cans every Fourth of July then and since.3 The Declaration of Independence may have aoquired special significance for Americans, but its power as a Symbol was po— tentially global in extent, as Jefferson’s prophecy in 1326 af— firmed. Even during the former president's lifetime, the Decla- ration had already beoome something more practical than a symbol: it provided the model for similar documents around the world that asserted the independence of other new states. By the time jefferson called the Declaration “an instrument pregnant with . . . the fate of the world” in 18 26, it had already been joined by some twenty other declarations of indepen- dence from Northern and Southern Europe, the Caribbean, and Spanish America. Now, more than two centuries since 1776, over half the countries of the world have their own dec- larations of independence. 4. introduction Many of these documents drew directly on the American Declaration for inspiration. They adopted and sometimes adapted specific phrases from the Declaration. More often, they took its structure as a model for their own. Many more such declarations were written without the flattery of direct imita- tion. All shared clear similarities, whether in their motivation, in their language, or in their form, that make it possible to con- sider them collectively and globally. Before now, declarations of independence have not been treated as a global phenomenon.4 The reasons for this are cen~ tral to the definition of independence itself. At root, indepen- dence means political separation of the kind that the represen- tatives of the United States asserted against King George III in 1776. More broadly, independence implies national distinc- tiveness and difference. Over time, separation and uniqueness nourish a sense of exceptionalism, especially for a country like the United States, born out of secession and endowed by its vi~ sionaries with a mission in the world. The authors of the Decla- ration had claimed independence only for themselves and not for others. Their specific and particular idea of independence would nonetheless assume near-universal significance in the centuries after I 776 as the American example spread across the world . The American Declaration came to be seen as marking the beginning of a history separate from other national or imperial Introduction histories. Similarly, many other declarations of independence throughout the world became the property of particular com- munities that have celebrated their own declarations as charters of a special standing in the world. Almost by definition, the written embodiments of such exceptionalism are unlikely to be compared with other, similar documents. So it has proved with declarations of independence. Multiple declarations of independence have been collected for comparison on only two occasions. The first was in 1 9 55, in advance of a meeting of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., when reproductions and translations of the declarations of independence produced in the Americas and the Caribbean between I 376 and I 898 Were compiled into a single volume.5 The second sprang indirectly from the commemora~ tion of the United States bicentennial in 1976, when scholars published a collection of independence documents from around the world that included declarations of independence as well as various other instruments of independence, such as bilateral agreements and legislative acts.‘ Both these moments quickly passed. The compilations they left behind apparently led to no further reflection on what might be learned from considering declarations of independence as a group and in the round.7 Many declarations of independence have given rise to their own rich hinterlands of analysis and discussion. Most such treatments have tended to address the documents’ immediate Introduction origins rather than their place in longer, let alone broader, his— tories. In this respect, the American Declaration is at once typiw cal and unusual. It is typical in that many scholars since the nineteenth century have scrutinized its creation in the summer of 1776 and its dissemination thereafter. Their work has re- vealed a dizzying variety of possible sources for the Declara- tion’s language and inspirations for its form, as well as a wealth of information about how it was drafted, edited, and published. Much of their work has debated the various European sources for the Declaration’s statements concerning natural rights or the right of revolution, whether in English Political thought, Scottish moral theory, or Swiss philosophy, for example.8 That debate has concentrated mostly on the Declaration's second paragraph and its “self—evident” truths; it has not been broad— ened to consider other elements in the Declaration, such as the meaning of the independence it claimed for the United States. Recovering that meaning will be a major concern of this book. Americans have been exceptionally well informed about one of the key documents in their national history. They have also had the unique opportunity to learn just who in the United States read the Declaration, how they interpreted it, and with what political and legal consequences.9 No other declaration of independence has had its domestic legacy traced so fully or so revealingly. What Americans and others interested in the fate of introduction the Declaration have so far lacked is any systematic attempt to trace its afterlife in the world beyond the United States.Icl The Declaration of Independence is hardly alone among the major landmarks of American history in lacking such a global treatment of its legacy. America's growing sense of self~suf— ficiency and its apparent hegemony in world affairs for much of the twentieth century have bred lasting strains of forgetfulness and even ignorance about the American impact on the world and, until recently, about the world’s impact on America. Many other nations have suffered similar forms of historical amnesia about their place in the world. The very prominence of the United States in international affairs, however, makes resistance to thinking of its history in global terms especially glaring. The world beyond America has always shaped the United States—cs it also formed its pre-revolutionary colonial past—by immigra- tion, the spread of ideas, or the exchange of goods, and by al— most every other conceivable form of interaction over more than four hundred years.“ The growing awareness of these in- teractions in the past has spurred Americans and non-Ameri- cans alike to “rethink American history in a global age.”I2 Putting American history into global perspective in this way can help to show that what we now call “globalization” is not a novel condition. As one historian has recently written, the move toward a global level of analysis “reveals the interconnec~ Introduction redness and interdependence of political and social changes across the world well before the onset of the contemporary phase of ‘globalization’ after I 9453’” It can also help us see that globalization has not been a single, frictionless movement to- ward planetary integration. Rather, it has moved in a series of discontinuous and distinct phases that have unfolded at difl‘er— ent moments and in diverse places. Understanding globaliza- tion in this way makes it harder to produce triumphalist narra- tives of world history. It also makes it possible to compare discrete phases of globalization to see what they had in com— mon as well as how they differed. "‘ This book, written in one moment of acute awareness about globalization, is about another such moment, more than two centuries ago. The generation of Europeans and Americans that came of age in the decades before 1776 was almost the first in human history to have ready access to a comprehensively global vision of their place in the world. That vision was the product' of many linked developments: maritime exploration; the elabo- ration of interoceanic trade; the spread of European empires in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans; the diffusion of maps, histories, and travel accounts; and the ties created by the circu— lation and exchange of goods and ideas. It had also been greatly expanded by the titanic struggle between Britain and France for imperial dominance across the globe, known to Americans as the French and Indian War (1 354—1 76 3) and to Europeans as introduction ' er the Seven Years’ War (1756—1763), a conflict fought out ov four continents and across three oceans.ls The generation of 1776 thus grew up in a postwar world decisively shaped by im- perial rivalry and global competition. That generation’s global vision was enshrined in the compre- hensive histories of European commerce and settlement that burgeoned in the years around 1776: the Abbe Raynal’s Philo— sophical and Political History of the Settlements and liade g" the Eu- ropeans in the East and West Indies (177°), Adam Smith's inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), and the Scottish historian William Robertson’s History of America (1 777), to name only the most notable. Edmund Burke ecstati- cally wrote of Robertson's History: "The Great Map of Mankind is unrolld at once; and there is no state or Gradation of barba- rism, and no mode of refinement which we have not at the same instant under our View?” Raynal strongly supported the revolt of the British colonies. Smith published his work in part as an intervention in the debate on the futtu'e of Britain’s “great empire on the west side of the Atlantic. This empire, however, has existed in imaginatiOn only.” In the closing pages of the Wealth of Nations, Smith demanded that “this golden dream” of empire be either realized or abandoned entirely." For Robert- son, American independence definitively marked the end of that dream. He brought his History to an abrupt end with the loss of the American colonies: as he lamented in 1384., “alas 1 o introduction America is now lost to the Empire and to me, and what would have been a good introduction to the settlement of British Colonies, will suit very ill the establishment of Independant States.”m The global connections portrayed in the great commercial and oceanic histories by Raynal, Smith, and Robertson had come home forcefully to the American colonists in the course of the imperial crisis of the 1770s. The fortunes of Virginia planters and Boston merchants were bound up with the fate of the English East India Company in South Asia by great skeins of credit and debt that ran through banks in London and Glasgow, as well as by the circuits of trade that brought China tea in East India Company ships to Boston harbor in December 1 77 3 un- der terms set by the Westminster Parliament. The origins of the American Revolution cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the worldwide webs within which the colo— nists were enmeshed in the years leading up to 1776.” Traces of both anxiety and excitement about those connec— tions——were they chains or links, shackles or bonds?——can be found even in the Declaration when it announced the states’ in— tention to enter the international system on equal terms with the other “Powers of Earth.” These thickening global connec- in the balance of power within the Atlantic world that they brought in their wake, challenged contemporaries to under- stand their world in innovative ways. In this context, it seems Introduction to be more than just a coincidence that the English legal philos- opher Jeremy Bentham found it necessary in 1 jfio—durlng the crisis of the American War—to coin “the word international . . a new one, though, it is hoped, sufficiently analogous and intelligible,” to describe “the mutual transactions between sov- . fl. e neolo ism 1n- ereigns as such” that be encompassed under th g ternational law.”20 Every generau‘on gets the Declaration of Independence it cle— serves. Our own global moment merits a global history of the Declaration. Such a history can be pursued from the outside in, to bring universal perspectives to bear on particular moments, places, persons, or objects. It can also be written from the In- side out, from the local and specific to the worldwide and the general. These approaches are not competing but complemen— tary; indeed, each would be impossible without the other. One can find what a near~contemporary of the Declaration, the Eng- lish poet William Blake, called “a world in a grain of sand.” In the case of the Declaration, this means the traces of a wider world embedded in one relatively brief and pungent document. That document took on a life of its own as it circulated at home and abroad: out of its travels emerged another kind of global history, the history of its dissemination and reception. That history in turn spawned imitations and analogues of the Decla- ration. A global history can also be written from the patterns i 2 lnmdum'on revealed by the emergence and accumulation of other declara— tions of independence. In this book, I pursue all three ap- proaches to the global history of the Declaration of Indepen— dence as I examine successively the evidence of the world in the Declaration, the Declaration’s fortunes in the late eight teenth- and early nineteenth-century world, and the myriad declarations of independence produced since 1376. The Decla- ration of Independence cannot help looking different when it is put into such multiple global perspectives. No single document is so bound up with what it means to be an American and few words can sum up the American creed as succinctly as “the rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Hap- piness.” Yet even in its earliest material forms, the Declaration offered evidence of connections with a wider world. It first appeared in print on July 5, 1776, as a single-sheet broad- side for distribution and display. The printer of this version of the Declaration was a native Irishman, twenty~nine—year~old john Dunlap, who had migrated to Philadelphia from Tyrone, County Strabane, in 1757.“ He printed most of the copies on Dutch paper that had been brought from England, the source of much of the colonies’ paper in this period; his printing press and the type he used in it would probably also have been im~ ported from Britain.22 The Declaration would not be signed until late July and early August r776. Fifty-five delegates to Congress—Aline of whom introduction 1 3 had been born in Britain or Ireland, and over a dozen educated outside the colonies, in England, Scotland, and France—put their signatures to the engrossed manuscript copy of the Decla- rau'on. They did so using an inkstand fashioned by another Irishman, Philip Syng, J12, out of silver that would have been mined in Mexico or Peru.23 The earliest public versions of the Declaration thus arose from the intersections of politics and printing, the migration of individuals and the movement of goods, around an Atlantic world that over the course of the eighteenth century increas— ingly linked Europe, Africa, and the Americas into a single eco- nomic and cultural system. If such traces of the.world beyond the North American colonies can be discovered in a document vested with so much significance as an icon of Americanness, then surely similar vestiges can be found throughout the vari— ous materials out of which American history is built. I treat the Declaration of Independence variously as an event, a document, and the beginning of a genre. In the words of Carl Becker, one of its earliest students, the Declaration as an “event” was “the culmination of a series of revolution- ary activities” expressed in the “document in which that event was proclaimed and justified to the world?" The Declarations global history did not end~—indeed, it had barely begun—hm july 1736. The document inaugurated a genre of political wrlt- ing that has persisted to the present day. By “genre” I mean a 13,-: -.—.—- vv'r. 1.1:wm1fi. _ _ 14. Introduction distinct but repeatable structure of argument and literary form. Similar documents, whether or not they are consciously or di- rectly indebted to a specific original, become instances of such a. genre. Literary geanS can be as strict as a. sonnet 01' as 10058 as a no - ‘ ’ ' ‘ vel, utopias and constituuons, declarations of rights and declarations of independence, are among similar genres of 130- I litical writing. They supply the forms that capture, and allow us to comprehend and criticize, similar ideas and events. They provide the recurring shapes assumed by documents arising from comparable circumstances.25 Genres are born. They break apart and recombine with elements of other genres. Sometimes they die. Like the ideas they contain, they are both movable and mutable, and they do not recognize naiional borders. The Declaration marked the birth of a new genre of politi— cal writing. Part of its genius—and a major reason for its later success as a model for other dec...
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