Graphic created by German-American photographer Henry Ries
Happy 4th July, everybody! Have a great weekend!
The 4th July 1776 was the day when the Americans declared themselves independent from an autocratic Empire. It was an event which inspired many people around the world, as the Wall Street Journal explained an interesting article from 2014.
The Declaration of Independence is the birth certificate of the American nation—the first public document ever to use the name "the United States of America"—and has been fundamental to American history longer than any other text. It enshrined what came to be seen as the most succinct and memorable statement of the ideals on which the U.S. was founded: the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; the consent of the governed; and resistance to tyranny.
But the Declaration's influence wasn't limited to the American colonies of the late 18th century. No American document has had a greater impact on the wider world. As the first successful declaration of independence in history, it helped to inspire countless movements for independence, self-determination and revolution after 1776 and to this very day. As the 19th-century Hungarian nationalist, Lajos Kossuth, put it, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was nothing less than "the noblest, happiest page in mankind's history."
The Declaration of Independence was addressed as much to the world at large as to the population of the American colonies. In the opening paragraph, its authors— Thomas Jefferson, the five-member congressional committee of which he was part and the Second Continental Congress itself—appealed to "the opinions of Mankind." They submitted an extensive list of facts to "a candid world" to prove that King George III had acted tyrannically. His colonial subjects could rightfully leave the British Empire. They solemnly declared "That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES," possessing "the full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which INDEPENDENT STATES may of right do."
The colonists declared, in short, that they were now citizens rather than subjects and asked other "powers of the earth" to decide whether or not to acknowledge the United States of America among their number. The colonists needed military, diplomatic and commercial help in their struggle against Great Britain; only a major power, like France or Spain, could supply that aid. So long as they remained within the British Empire, they would be treated as rebels. If they organized themselves into political bodies with which other powers could engage, then they might become legitimate belligerents in an international conflict rather than treasonous combatants in a civil war.
The Declaration thus marked the entry of one people, constituted into 13 states, into what we would now call international society. It did so by invoking the "law of nations," especially as described in the hugely influential 1758 book of that title by the Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel, a copy of which Benjamin Franklin had sent to Congress in 1775. Vattel spoke the language of rights and freedom, sovereignty and independence, and the Declaration's use of his terms was designed to reassure the world beyond North America that the U.S. would abide by the rules of international behavior. It was as much a declaration of interdependence with other powers as it was a declaration of independence from Great Britain.
This rebellion against autocratic monarchic rule, created a system of democratic rule, was a truly revolutionary act. In addition, this was a genuine, and very powerful progressive act. The fact that today many right-wingers in the USA claim "1776" for themselves can only be a huge misunderstanding.
What I find particularly interesting in light of current political discussions is that the powerful language contained in the Declaration of Independence regarding the equality of all people even today can provide inspiration to make society a better place. It is more than obvious that the Declaration of Independence is a very important liberal document, and it should be treated as such.
From the Wall Street Journal:
It is a striking historical irony that, among white Americans, the Declaration itself almost immediately sank into oblivion, what Abraham Lincoln in 1857 described as "old wadding left to rot on the battlefield after the victory is won." African-Americans, however, were quick to see the Declaration's liberating potential. As early as the summer of 1776, Lemuel Haynes, a free black who had served in the Continental Army, turned to the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal" and possess "unalienable rights" as inspiration for an abolitionist sermon.
Among whites, the Fourth of July was widely celebrated but not the Declaration itself. It re-emerged in the early 1790s as a bone of political contention in the partisan struggles between pro-British Federalists and pro-French Republicans after the French Revolution. Only after the War of 1812 and the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 did it become the revered cornerstone of a new American patriotism.
A nice copy can be found online, an original print from the "Pennsylvania Packet" from July 8, 1776:
An interesting historical document is also the "rough draft" by Thomas Jefferson (see the full rough draft here).
First page, click to enlarge:
Also, in a historic recording, Senator John F. Kennedy reads the Declaration of Independence in 1957:
Let's not forget that the founding fathers also were liberals.
For me as a German, it is a joyful historical fact that two years after the Declaration of Independence, in 1778, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived in Pennsylvania and subsequently had a significant influence on the Revolutionary War.
An interesting clip about von Steuben can be found here.
That's a funny quote from Wikipedia:
As he could not speak or write English, Steuben originally wrote the drills in French, the military language of Europe at the time. (...) The Baron’s willingness and ability to work with the men, as well as his use of profanity (in several different languages), made him popular among the soldiers. He occasionally recruited Captain Benjamin Walker, his French-speaking aide, to curse at them for him in English.
But that's enough history for today!
Enjoy the weekend, and let's work together to make the world a better place!