Dr. David Armitage, Professor of History at Harvard University, has written a great essay on the Declaration of Independence in The Wall Street Journal over July 4th weekend, “The Words Heard Around the World”.
In it, he makes many good points, but the most insightful is the importance of recognizing and separating two distinct elements of the Declaration that often are conflated—(1) the assertion of popular sovereignty to create a new state in dissolving the political bands with Britain, and (2) the more famous element in the second paragraph, its ringing endorsement of the sanctity of the individual (“We hold these truths…………”).
He then goes further to trace the worldwide impact of the Declaration over the past three centuries and notes that this impact has had much more to do with the spread of sovereignty and the creation of new states than with the diffusion and acceptance of the ideas of individual rights, and that this remains one of the more pressing dilemmas of international politics. In fact, of the 120 or so declarations of independence written since ours, scarcely any of them included the self-evident truths of individual rights embodied in our Declaration.
He closes with the observation that today’s authoritarians are eager to flex their sovereign muscles, but they don’t like the other half of the equation, the notion that, in fact, their authority derives from the “unalienable rights” of their citizens.
As I read this essay, in particular the closing comments, it occurred to me that this is the essence of American exceptionalism. Happy Birthday!