“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another . . .” The necessity has occurred. The 13 colonies have a long history as self-governing societies, a condition that is now threatened. As all governments derive their just powers from the consentof the governed, the people have a right to alter or abolish a government whenever it becomes destructive to those who have given their consent. The occasion calls for a statement of rights violated, in the good old English tradition of the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution. Therefore, “these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.” There you have it: the sovereignty and self-government of existing societies. Of course, as s always the case in human events, the Declaration still had to be made good by bayonets wielded by free men.
Mr. Jefferson drafted a legal document to be adopted (or not) by 13 sovereign states. He was not Moses releasing a prophecy. Contrary to befuddled scholars, he did not get his fillip about equality from reading French books. It came from his belief in the self-governing equality of the colonists’ primitive Anglo-Saxon ancestors before they succumbed to Norman centralism. “All men are created equal” meant that a Briton on this side of the water is just as good as the firstborn, and that no man is entitled, as the author said on another occasion, by birth “to ride booted and spurred over his fellows.” Aristocrats were to be identified, as he said on yet another occasion, not by birth but by talents and services.
Every thoughtful American of the 19th century feared (oftentimes openly) that “all men created equal” was a cannon that might break loose on the deck and destroy everything in its path—particularly after the French Revolution endowed the minds of a great number of Westerners with a vision of the Rights of Man bestowed by a centralized, self-justifying state.
On this side of the water, there were several effects. First, the disintegration of New England Puritanism spawned utopian and blasphemous Transcendentalism and various enthusiastic religious cults. The thrust of these phenomena was to create a popular ideology which lumped together God’s plan for the universe and the New Man’s destiny of perfection with America’s destiny as the trailblazer for mankind (at least the New England version of America). In an 1844 public letter to American leaders, Mormon founder Joseph Smith argued that the Declaration of justified the federal government’s authority to overrule the states on behalf of his beleaguered sect.
Second, among theGermans, the French Revolution sired a bastard offspring: an ideology even more abstract, ruthless, and state-worshipping than the original. The human debris of the failed European Revolutions of 1848 poured into the free confederacy America, which they mistakenly assumed was the embodiment of their version of the Rights of Man. It is easy to demonstrate that, demographically, the Puritans and Forty-Eighters, along with ruthless economic exploiters, diverted politics out of its accustomed paths in the Midwest and helped elect Abraham Lincoln to the presidency by a 40 percent vote.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln declared that the Declaration had created a “nation,” not free and independent states. Specifically, it produced a nation dedicated to the proposition of equality, presumably justifying its pursuit by any means. Massive battalions made the reinterpretation stick. Contrary to what countless mountebanks have proclaimed since, Lincoln was not proclaiming the equality of African-Americans, which was never a sincere goal and was soon forgotten. He was proclaiming that the French Revolution had replaced the American Founding. Anyone who looks honestly at the Union’s was will see that, aside from a few pretty speeches, it was justified in terms of blood-and-iron nationalism—an indestructible government.
Consent, the central idea of 1776, was gone. It could be given only once; from then on, the Union was forever binding. This was not the recurrent process portrayed in the Declaration. The people were no longer the center; the government was. The plural United States was now an artificial singular. “American,” which had meant the fellow feeling of related peoples, now meant merely obedience to the same government.
Americans have never lost the idea of, and the instinct for, equality—and that is a good thing. But we appear to have lost the idea of, and the instinct for, freedom and independence. Can we recover them? The prospects are not good, but stranger things have happened in history.