As Americans prepare to celebrate July 4th, and enter into an election cycle in which politicians of every stripe are apt to misappropriate the Founders’ legacy, there has never been a better time for us to reflect on the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Contrary to popular misconceptions, July 4, 1776 was neither the beginning of the War of Independence nor the date on which our independence was secured. American patriots had already been fighting the British and their Loyalist allies for over a year when the delegates in Philadelphia signed the Declaration, and it would be another five years before our independence was won on the battlefield at Yorktown.
If the Declaration of Independence did not establish our independence, what did it do? Jefferson drafted, and Congress ratified, a declaration of “the causes which impel them to the separation.” They carefully explained to the world the grievances they had endured and set forth the theoretical justification for an independent American republic that would better protect our liberties than the British Empire had. It is in the Declaration of Independence that we see best how the Founders envisioned state and federal authority uniting to form a national union. Contrary to the now-popular view that regards the Declaration as Holy Writ, the Founders viewed the great document as illuminating and explaining the foundations of the American republic as resting upon a political compact. Such an agreement formed a republic in which there existed the same equality of rights among the states composing the union as existed among the citizens composing the states themselves. The Declaration claimed legitimacy for a political compact that had developed with “time and experience” into a model of political and social stability. The Declaration preserved the center of authority within each individual state, and it allowed for secession when government “becomes destructive of these ends,” for then “it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.” While the Declaration appropriately described the status of “Free and Independent States” as essential to the republic, the document also confirmed the true story of the creation of the country: the states “ordained” or created the republic.
The Declaration introduced—or rather, officially recognized—the original design of the republic. The Articles of Confederation—the first American constitution—incorporated this design into the fundamental law of the regime. For the Founders, the provisions and language of the Articles served as an authentic guide to the American Constitution. The Constitution of 1787 cannot be understood without first understanding the defense of local authority contained in the Articles. Drafted in stages from 1776 to 1777, the Articles extended and revised the Declaration’s defense of local and state authority, and the delineation of state autonomy, while establishing popular rule based upon the deliberative, decentralized, community-centered participation of the citizenry. As with the Declaration, the Articles recognized the original design for a union of liberty—a republic of independent and sovereign states.
So, while charlatans seek to revise Paul Revere’s ride or to diminish the accomplishments of Washington and Jefferson, let us pause to reflect on the true significance of our founding. We should rightly celebrate the Declaration of Independence as a beginning of our political principles, not the final word. Often abused by politicians and scholars of every ilk, the grand document remains a fundamental American defense of diffused power that our leaders in Washington and the professorate cannot ignore.
H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Ph.D., Is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and Professor of Political Science and Religion at the University of North Georgia, and Senior Fellow of Alexander Hamilton Institute. His books include Political Philosophy and Cultural Renewal, Calhoun and Popular Rule, Order and Legitimacy, among others.