The Declaration of Independence has stood throughout time as a beacon of principles for self-government, sounding themes that would shake empires to their foundations and inspiring the oppressed to action. Its authors declared that free men had not just a right but a duty to end tyranny and to act to preserve the unalienable rights of all people as granted by their Creator. This became a template for all future acts of independence, rebellion, and revolution.
However, at the same time, the entire Declaration is an explicitly political document. The authors of the Declaration wanted to express high-minded ideals, but at the same time win popular support for them. Consider, for instance, the argument that is made in its second paragraph:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But 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 common question for revolution is when does it stop? And what should be the threshold for its inception? The Continental Congress intended on establishing its own form of government, one that could just as easily foment its own rebellion — and perhaps easier once the precedent had been set, as the Civil War would later prove. Understanding this argument, the Declaration attempted to head it off by proclaiming the current situation as so untenable as to be singular in its existence.
The long list of offenses committed by King George III, painted in rather extreme rhetoric, intended on building political support for that notion. In fact, this takes up the largest part of the Declaration, consisting of more than 30 paragraphs of what would have been a brief document otherwise. These indictments were intended to bolster domestic support for independence, which at the time did not enjoy widespread popularity. It had taken months to get the Continental Congress to unanimously agree on that course of action, and these were the activists of the Colonies.
The Declaration also attempted, in a fashion, to appeal to British sensibilities. While the document casts King George III as an arch-villain, it takes a much softer tone in regards to the people of Great Britain:
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
The underlying message here has echoes to today. The Continental Congress wanted the British to know that they didn’t want to declare war against the people of Great Britain, but just against its monarchy. It’s an attempt to separate the Realm from the Crown to the extent possible, to make war against Britain’s American cousins unpopular and force a quick acquiescence to independence. It didn’t work, but it set a precedent for American views on war between the US and its enemies.
The brilliance of the Declaration can be found in both its timelessness and its contemporaneous context. The former shows the eternal truths into which it taps, and the latter demonstrates the wisdom and pragmatism of its authors.