Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Tuesday 12th December 2017 | Manchester, UK

A Lost Egalitarianism? Reflections on the US Declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”

When conflict broke out between bands of American revolutionaries and British soldiers in April 1775, few had the ultimate objective of independence in mind. Initially fighting for their rights as subjects under the British crown, the growing support of the movement pushed it to dramatically change course, in favour of full independence from Britain. The period of early 1776 was particularly transformative; public debate was stimulated from January, when Thomas Paine – a recent migrant from Britain – published a pamphlet entitled Common Sense, which praised the cause of republicanism, and tensions rose even higher after colonialists learned of Parliament’s passage of the Prohibitory Act in February, which declared American boats as enemy vessels and enabled a blockade of US ports.

Although the pressure to declare independence from Britain was great, the political prowess required to push thirteen separate state governments to sign a single document delayed the process of independence until June. On 7 June, Virginia’s Richard Henry Lee presented the first resolution of the Independence Declaration to Congress. While the resolution was met with Congressional resistance, their suggestion of a means of formal discussion enabled the foundation of a five-man committee headed by Thomas Jefferson, which concluded in the formal acceptance of the document by Congress on 4 July 1776.

The Declaration saw independence as a ‘natural right’ of the US citizenry, and put forward a list of grievances related primarily to abuses of the legislative rights of that citizenry by the British crown, thus viewing independence as the single obligatory course of action.

A reprinted version of the handwritten document was distributed across the thirteen states, primarily through publication in newspapers and readings to public audiences. A backlash of action ensued; crowds protested and tore down any remaining markers of royal authority. In terms of the British reaction, the Conservative party denounced the contents of the Declaration for its failure to consider the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of Americans of African origin. The Document itself was thus neglected until the 1790s, with the act of presentation used more readily in public circles than the actual printed content.

However, this changed from the 1790s onwards – with the document proving itself as possibly one of the most important influences on the course of US and world history. One could argue that the document’s contemporary significance lay in its tangible departure from the power politics of the day;  instead, the focus on the idea of ‘equality under the law’ created a new egalitarian political discourse that has continued to resonate with communities not only in the US but across the world. Perhaps more specifically, future attempts to secure rights under the law, such as the French Declaration of Rights, seem to emulate the US declarations, and even developments made on US soil were made with the Declaration in mind, such as the publication of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

In wider historical terms, the ideal of equality has been the bedrock of independence movements across US history ever since, with 1848 women’s rights activists modelling their demands on the document’s core principals, and the African-American protest movement of the 20th century adopting the renowned Conservative denunciation in their attempts to demand and fight for their own civil rights.

Today, the desire to emulate Jefferson’s eloquent appraisal of ideals such as equality and justice remains a celebrated subject on American soil, but a void is beginning to develop between the egalitarian ideals published in the 1776 Declaration and their application in the practicalities of daily US life. Grievances raised in the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement show that egalitarian treatment across the board has by no means been achieved, and the developments caused by the re-invigoration of the extreme right-wing in the US political arena perhaps serves as a reminder that liberty and conservatism don’t always go hand in hand.

So, while the Fourth of July certainly remains a widely-recognised celebration of the egalitarian ideals that the US was founded upon, the influence of these ideals in the everyday life of the citizenry remains less certain.

By Beth Cole

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