Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Reflections on the Declaration of Independence (American Revolution vs. Civil War)

Today is the 240th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. And, while many Americans are out celebrating this national holiday with feasts and fireworks, I find myself considering the document this holiday is meant to celebrate. For the past few months I've found myself obsessed with the American Revolution, and after reflecting on the birth of our nation for so long, I find this day holds much deeper meaning to me than it did before.

So, I'm going to reflect on the Declaration of Independence a bit tonight. Perhaps you should, too. You can read a transcript at the National Archives website.

In fact, I may do this every Independence Day from now on. There are many things to consider when reading the Declaration of Independence: the concept of nations, human rights, justified rebellion, the meaning of freedom, and the power of language to convey these ideas, for instance. Today in particular I'm thinking about the way this document justified the secession of the states from Great Britain.

One thing that strikes me immediately is to wonder what it is about this declaration that distinguishes the American Revolution from the southern rebellion during the American Civil War.

The Declaration of Independence has the following structure: first, it explains the reason for its existence and the ideals it stands for, from self-evident truths to the value of governments and the fact that they are not destroyed or rejected lightly. It then goes into a list of grievances against the British government; a long list, suggesting that the colonies had been willing to deal with many of these injustices individually, but taken altogether they become to much to bear. Finally, the declaration explains the ways in which the colonies had attempted to reconcile their differences with Britain to no avail, and how they now basically have no choice but to declare independence and to fight for the right to govern themselves.

Reading the Declaration of Independence, it's clear what the colonies intend to do and why. Their grievances are many and legitimate. They are united in their cause. They weren't really united in that cause, of course, but through compromise and some abstaining votes, they managed to produce the all-important appearance of a unanimous decision.

During the Civil War, each seceding state issued its own declaration similar to the Declaration of Independence. They each cited their grievances and reasons for seceding. So why, I wonder, were these declarations less successful? Is it simply because their cause lost their war while the American colonies won theirs?

I don't think so. A reading of these declarations makes me doubt that they would have ever become nearly as successful and influential as the Declaration of Independence, even if the South had won the Civil War.

One reason is because, unlike the colonies, the southern states did not declare their secession in a united voice. In short, though they banded together as a confederation similar to the colonies during the revolution, they were never as united as the colonies. I blame this in large part to the fact that their grievances were nowhere near as legitimate and fundamental as the colonies' grievances against Britain.

For the colonies, their concern was for their fundamental rights as human beings, not to mention British subjects. They were being taxed without any way to represent themselves and have a say in how they would be taxed. They were being denied their rights to hold their own trials. They were, in short, being completely denied any agency in their government. And, of course, there was the fact that they were already fighting British troops, as the Revolutionary War had started over a year before America declared independence.

Compared to the Declaration of Independence, the southern declarations of secession sound flimsy and petulant. They had as much of a say in the government as any other state, but things weren't going their way, so they decided to secede. In stark contrast to the laundry list of grievances in the Declaration of Independence, the southern states couldn't really pull together a cohesive argument for their secession other than their lack of sovereignty and, in particular, the fact that the abolition of slavery seemed imminent. (Not even that slavery was abolished, just that it seemed likely to be abolished.)

Not every revolution lives or dies by the strength of its declaration. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, powerful though it was and written with the help of Thomas Jefferson, led to the bloody disaster that was the French Revolution. However, it continued to be an influential document despite the horrors of the revolution it inspired.

I believe the same would be true of the Declaration of Independence; that even if the American Revolution or the resulting government had failed, that the Declaration would have survived as an important and influential document. That even now, 240 years later, we would still be pondering its importance and feeling its influence, even if we were still British subjects.

That was never the fate of the southern declarations of secession. The Declaration of Independence perseveres, not simply because it was written by the winning side, but because it was simply a superior document. And that, to some degree, is what we celebrate on America's Independence Day.

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