A nation was born in a day.
—John Quincy Adams, July 4, 1821
Remember that those who fought and bled for your liberties were in their time considered as being against the law, as dangerous disturbers and troublemakers…. They wrote a dangerous document called the Declaration of Independence. A document that continues to be dangerous to this day.
—Emma Goldman, 1917
In the beginning, there were words.
On Wednesday, January 10, 1776, Thomas Paine anonymously published his historic pamphlet, Common Sense. He thereby lit a short fuse underneath the dry kindling of discontent experienced by many of the British subjects in North America. Paine’s intended audience was ordinary people. Addressing the “inhabitants of America,“ he sought to impart and reinforce a nascent sense of shared identity, expressed in a series of escalating acts of rebellion by increasingly restive subjects of the crown.
In Paine’s masterful exposition, the dictates of reason militated toward the inevitability of treason. He asserted that humans were created as equals, possessing natural rights. As such, they could be governed legitimately only by their own consent. The unwritten English constitution, based on hereditary monarchy and aristocracy, stood in flagrant violation of the fundamental principle of individual sovereignty.
Even were it defensible in theory, British governance in America was deeply flawed in practice. Rulers sitting in Westminster lacked the capacity or inclination to comprehend and effectively rule their thirteen American colonies. John Quincy Adams, son of the revered founder John Adams, recalled the circumstances in a July 4th commemoration in 1821:
The tie of colonial subjection may suit the relations between a great naval power, and the settlers of a small and remote Island in the incipient stages of society: but was it possible for British intelligence to imagine, or British sense of justice to desire, that through the boundless ages of time, the swarming myriads of freemen, who were to civilize the wilderness and fill with human life the solitudes of this immense continent, should receive the mandates of their earthly destinies from a council chamber at St. James’s, or bow forever in submission to the omnipotence of St. Stephen’s Chapel?
Many Britons emigrated to the untamed wilds of the American colonies in the perilous pursuit of freedoms proclaimed to flow from English principles, but not granted in fact by the government of the United Kingdom. To their consternation, in the New World they yet again encountered intransigent rulers who declined to recognize them as citizens possessing the full panoply of English rights.
Paine illuminated another path. He proposed representative institutions for self-government. Pursuing his logic to its inevitable conclusion, he argued that a war of independence was necessary. Lest it appear impracticable, Paine helpfully provided an inventory of military assets, a veritable tool box of sedition.
The text was laced with familiar idioms and references, rendering it accessible to people from all walks of life. Many allusions were biblical.
Common Sense reached a massive section of the American colonial populace. Precise sales figures are difficult to ascertain. Nonetheless, credible estimates of first-year sales are staggering. In a population approximating 2.5 million, as many as a hundred thousand may have been sold (some reckon far more). Many copies were read aloud to others, reflecting lower literacy rates as well as the contemporary custom of combining politics and entertainment in community gathering spaces.
Common Sense also sold well in other nations, notably France, which was germinating its own revolutionary consciousness. It remains, in the early twenty-first century, one of the bestselling books of all time.
A Nation Is Born
Common Sense condensed and guided the public sentiment that was quickening into an American national identity. In just a few months, the pen of another gifted writer, the polymath and politician Thomas Jefferson, would distill notions from various works, including Paine’s, into an extraordinary, living document: the Declaration of Independence.
Rarely in history have so few words altered the fates of so many.
The preamble would enter and alter the consciousness of peoples across space and time.
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.
With extraordinary economy of expression, Jefferson conveyed the essence of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government. Locke’s revolutionary notions would reach public houses and dining tables across the American colonies.
In declaring the “truths” to be “self-evident,” the preamble asserted that they are not capable of contradiction, much less contravention. Individual rights are endowed by nature, not dispensed by an earthly authority. All individuals are equal by creation. Certain fundamental, individual rights cannot be legitimately surrendered: The right to life; the right to liberty; and the right to pursue happiness as one is given the light to comprehend it. What is more, the list of such rights is expressly incomplete; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are “among these” universal rights.
The implication is clear: the rights recognized as inhering within individual autonomy are a living force, capable of deepening and extending over time.
Legitimate authority has a sole source. “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Should their natural rights be traduced, the ultimate remedy would be revolution—what Locke referred to as “An Appeal to Heaven.” Jefferson wrote:
Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The signers of the Declaration went all-in. Their seditious cannonade was brazenly aimed to strike King George III and the entire edifice of hereditary, class-based governance he personified. Most of the document comprises a bill of particulars, an indictment enumerating violations of the foundational principles:
When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security….The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.
A Universal Declaration
When people today think of the Declaration, most tend not to linger over the specific charges levelled against the English monarch. Those sections are time-bound and archaic, by turns overwritten and overwrought. They are something akin to a legal argument offered to justify and incite treason and rebellion.
By contrast, the handful of sentences conveying an American application of English principles of individual rights are timeless, inspiring, subversive, and universal. Jefferson framed the Declaration as at once reflecting history and making history: “When in the Course of human events….”
The heart of the Declaration conveys a far-reaching vision with rhetorical austerity. It can be recognized in direct lineage from John Winthrop’s determined design, expressed in 1630: "We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." Jefferson’s manifesto of 1776 committed to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” In a critical respect, Jefferson’s template was more universal than that of Winthrop and the Puritans of the prior century. The natural rights of the Declaration of Independence were not justified through religious dogma or institutions.
At the Independence Day commemoration in 1821, John Quincy Adams extolled the universal significance of the Declaration, arising from “the principles which it proclaims”:
It was the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the cornerstone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe. It demolished at a stroke the lawfulness of all governments founded upon conquest. It swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude. It announced in practical form to the world the transcendent truth of the unalienable sovereignty of the people.
Such phrasing might sound effusive, florid, and self-regarding to our ears two centuries later. When one considers the world as it was in 1776—or 1821—the breadth of ambition and influence of the Declaration is all the more stunning.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the dominant form of government was monarchy. It appeared natural in the eyes of many if not most people. Individual capacities, social status, and expectations were fixed at birth.
In 1776, few people, even in England, had the right to vote. The will of those few was subject to the authority of the crown and aristocracy to a great extent. Those arrangements came to be known as the “Old Corruption.” It was a daring leap of faith for inhabitants of a much less developed country to assert principles that could only be achieved within a democratic republic. It was one thing for a cloistered theorist such as John Locke to conjure up such a regime from the relative safety of his desk. It was quite another to draw up, in real time, an actionable vision of a continental nation built upon the foundation of largely untested ideas.
If the specifics of the Declaration took direct aim at King George III, the universal principles were spectacularly subversive. They applied to all monarchies. They were plainly incompatible with slavery and other historically recurring forms of servitude. Hierarchies of all sorts could possess only conditional legitimacy amid the notions irretrievably loosed into the world by the Declaration. These provisions of the preamble became an irresistible solvent, prospectively dissolving the legitimacy of many established institutions. Henceforth, those entrusted with authority would be answerable to those they were purportedly serving.
Jefferson and his colleagues were acutely aware they were venturing into the unknown. There was no historical precedent for a government, based on such ideals, extending over a population as numerous, diverse, dispersed, and defiantly independent as those who were asserting their identity as a new nationality: Americans.
“Hank Aaron’s name will replace a Confederate general’s on an Atlanta school,” Cindy Boren, Washington Post, April 15, 2021.
“Satellite Images Show Russia’s Expanding Ukraine Buildup,” Michael R. Gordon and George Kantchev, Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2021.
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