Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Declaration of Independence: A Global History

Armitage, David . The Declaration of Independence: A Global History.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2007

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Professor Armitage’s, The Declaration of Independence is a terse examination of that hallowed
document placed within both a transhistorical and transnational context. The Declaration was an event, a document, and the beginning of a much imitated genre. While the founding fathers sought a legal method of establishing the United States a member in good standing of the established international order, and avoiding the unseemliness of a call for colonial liberation, the document has taken on a life of its own.

Thomas Jefferson and the other members of the committee charged with drafting the Declaration were operating in a political environment without any concrete precedence. They attempted to straddle the twin rails of natural and positive law. After the first half century following its publication the Declarationlargely passed into positive law (allowing for Abraham Lincoln’s dual interpretation of the document as having one message in 1776 and another message for the future). Like one of the imported bottles of wine in Jefferson’s cellar the Declaration has aged well. Edward Gibbon commenting at the time of French diplomatic recognition (1778) remarked: “…the dark agents of the English Colonies, who founded
their pretended independence [did so] on nothing but the boldness of their revolt.”

The Declaration has served as the model for political movements justifying their existence as varied as the Vietnamese nationalists following Ho Chi Minh in 1945, the Haitian Declaration of Independence in 1804, to numerous documents in Central and South America. The irony, of course, is that whether it was Simon Bolivar or Ho Chi Minh seeking political legitimacy Americans have almost universally rejected these efforts as something less worthy than the original.

Also by David Armitage:

The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800
E18.82 .B75, 2002.

The Ideological Origins of the British Empire
JV1011 .A75, 2000.

Milton and Republicanism
PR3592 .P64 M55, 1995

Theories of Empire, 1450-1800
D210 .T45, 1998

A Union for Empire: Political Thought and the British Union of 1707
JA84 .G7 U55, 1995.

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