What’s the Point of the Declaration of Independence?

Happy July 4th, everyone. There was a little item in the New York Times yesterday, about whether or not a mark in the Declaration of Independence is a period or an ink smudge, and what that means. Why is this important? In the grand scheme, it isn’t. But it lends some interesting insight into whether or not the Continental Congress thought that the state is a necessary component of liberty.

At question is whether the list of natural rights – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – is part of the same sentence as what followed: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Whether or not this is a period or an ink dot (or a comma, the article doesn’t go into that) doesn’t substantially change what Congress was trying to say, but it does indicate how close they thought the relationship was between the two concepts.

One interpretation, which is most strongly held by libertarians, is that the state is something foreign and extrinsic to liberty – that it is a necessary evil, so to speak. But there is another interpretation, which is that the state is a necessary good, and that liberty really can’t be enjoyed without it.

Generally speaking, it is the second interpretation that I think is closer to the Lockean philosophy held by most of the delegates to the Continental Congress. According to Locke, the commonwealth emerging from the social contract was an organic part of society, not something that existed in opposition to it. Locke could hold this view because the state in 17th century England was just as Locke described it: it was small, it was local, and it was limited by traditions emerging organically from English society, particularly feudal relationships, the Magna Carta, and the common law. The large Anglo-British state that fought France and later alienated its American colonies didn’t exist until after the Glorious Revolution – a good ten years after Locke composed his Second Treatise on Government.

Locke provided fertile ideas to the colonists because they continued to exist in this smaller, pre-Glorious Revolution state. Some good research has been done on the extent to which colonists were still utilizing 17th century political ideas as late as the 1770s (see the work of JGA Pocock, John Phillip Reid, and Eric Nelson). Meanwhile, the governments of the American colonies remained small, local, and limited by legal traditions. This was why they so strenuously objected to the imposition of the British imperial state after 1763.

The issue of the period separating natural rights from the role of government in the Declaration of Independence is a useful reminder that the American Revolution could be a “revolution in favor of government” while at the same time being a rebellion against a large external state. It indicates that what the Continental Congress really cared about was not rebelling against the government, but establishing government that was rooted in the needs of the community and under the control of its subjects.

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About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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One Response to What’s the Point of the Declaration of Independence?

  1. banuski says:

    Reblogged this on Paul's letters to… and commented:
    A nice post from my friend Dan for your July 4th reading…

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