The Dual Legacy of the Declaration of Independence

No one should raise the stars and stripes on the 4th. The proper flag to raise on the 4th of July is the black flag of anarchy.


The Fourth of July commemorates the anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, a document which the anarchist must view with mixed emotions.

The document’s stirring proclamation that “all men are created equal,” with inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that no government is entitled to infringe; its further insistence that all authority must depend on the “consent of the governed,” and that when such authority becomes abusive it is the “right of the people to alter or to abolish it” – all of these are welcome statements of a philosophical outlook which, if logically pursued, leads inexorably to a much wider liberation (an implication clearly grasped at the time by many of the Revolution’s critics).

In Charles Johnson’s words, the Declaration enunciates

the revolutionary doctrine that we all, each of us, are the equal of every puffed-up prince and President – that as such you, personally, have every right to refuse the arbitrary orders of tyrants – to ignore their sanctimonious claims of sovereignty – to sever all political connections if you want – and to defend yourself from any usurper who would try to rule you without your consent. There is no man or woman on this earth who has the natural right to rule over you, and you have every right, whenever and wherever you will to do so, to oppose, withdraw, resist, and thus stand aright as a free and sovereign human being.

The logical conclusion of the radical equality proclaimed by the Declaration is not, however, what Jefferson or any of the other quasi-revolutionists thought it was. It is not home rule, and it is not republican government. It is not majoritarian democracy or the elective kingship that passes for the Presidency today. It is not democratic government or limited government; it is not any kind of government at all. If you, personally, are equal in rightful authority to your would-be rulers, and so have every right to tell them where they can go promulgate their law; if you, personally, have every right to refuse their demands and nullify their authority over you, at your discretion; if you have every right to withdraw your allegiance, and every right to defend yourself if they should come after you; then the logical conclusion is not popular sovereignty, but individual sovereignty, for each of us, which is to say, anarchy.


But the reality underlying the Declaration must give the anarchist pause. At the time that the political leaders of the rebellious colonies were boldly declaring all men equal and trumpeting the inalienable right to liberty, the institution of slavery existed throughout those colonies; indeed one of the charges the declaration brings against the British monarch is that he has “excited domestic insurrections” (i.e., slave rebellions) in America – as though such insurrections were not a clear case of people acting “to alter or to abolish” the regime whose “long train of abuses and usurpations” had kept Americans of African descent from exercising their rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the words of abolitionist Thomas Day, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.” (Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration did contain a passage condemning the institution of slavery – though rather hypocritically characterizing it as something foisted on reluctant American colonists by the British government, a claim belied by the history of American slavery subsequent to separation from Britain – but that section was excised by the Continental Congress.)


Likewise, when John Adams wrote that the anniversary of declaring independence ought henceforth to be celebrated “with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more” – evidently endorsing the idea that the American Republic’s territory should expand indefinitely westward – he seems to have entertained no prospect of the continent’s existing inhabitants (identified by the Declaration as “merciless Indian savages”) being asked for their consent to this rising regime that was about to roll over them in its westbound juggernaut course.

And of course the slippery ambiguity of the generic “men” leaves the status of women among those supposedly “created equal” conveniently invisible.

When escaped slave Frederick Douglass gave his Independence Day oration in 1852, he asked “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” and answered his own question thus:

[Y]our celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery ….


(Douglass lived to see the end of literal chattel slavery, but the relegation of slaves’ descendants to second-class status would last far longer, and in many ways of course still persists today.)

The hypocrisy of the Declaration with regard to women and nonwhites is an issue that has finally percolated its way into mainstream public consciousness. But there is a further problem with the Declaration that has not yet done likewise, a problem visible to anarchists alone.

The aim of the Declaration of Independence is not to overthrow government as such, but rather to overthrow one government and replace it with another: “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish [their government], and to institute new government.” The American colonies are to become “free and independent states,” laying claim to a “separate and equal station …. among the powers of the earth,” including “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.”

It’s difficult not to hear in those lines the echo of the elders’ pleas to Samuel in the Bible, “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.”

Charles Johnson says that “What was proclaimed on July 4th was not the establishment of a new government, but the dissolution of all political allegiance to the old one.” But it seems to me that it was both.


Here, in the Declaration of Independence, we see the foundation of the toxic American state, exercising its military imperial might, shaping commercial exchange to its requirements, eagerly joining the “powers of the earth” as one – and today the mightiest one – of that flock of predatory raptors.

Moreover, while insisting that governmental legitimacy rests on the “consent of the governed,” the Declaration offers no solution to the problem of what counts as consent, or what is to be done about those who do not consent. Is consent to be by majority vote? If so, how can this bind the minority? And how far can any consent to state authority be binding, if the right to liberty is truly “inalienable”? (To say nothing of the fact that voting rights were restricted to a minority in the early republic anyway – or that the claim of the signers of the Declaration to be expressing the will of the populations they “represented” was dubious by even the most generous standard.)


But the American state, it may be objected, has provided its citizens with at least a wide range of rights and liberties. Has it, though? Certainly American citizens on average enjoy a level of freedom greater than that of people in many other countries. But in Kevin Carson’s words:

Who has given us our rights? Nobody. We have taken them. Every right we have, we have because we fought for it from below. We have these rights because we resisted violations of them, because we fought those who violated them … and compelled the state to recognize them. …

Rights have never been granted by authority. They have always been asserted against authority, and won from it. We don’t have our rights because the government and its soldiers are nice – but because we’re not. It’s… the dissidents, the hell-raisers, the dirty flag-burning hippies, the folks with bad attitudes towards authority in general, who have given us our rights throughout history, by fighting for them.

It’s easy to see, then, how the legacy of the Declaration of Independence might be viewed as purely negative – a veil of libertarian rhetoric cloaking and legitimizing a massive engine of aggression, oppression, and exploitation – and its annual commemoration a mere occasion for fatuous self-congratulation on the part of the ruling elite, their shills, and their dupes.

But if that’s a legacy of the Declaration that flows through the governmental institutions that have taken its words as their legitimation, the Declaration also has a second, distinct legacy that flows outside and against government, through the traditions of “dissidents” and “hell-raisers” invoked by Carson.

As I’ve written elsewhere,

any given theory is more than just a collection of its author’s opinions; it’s a structure in the space of reasons, with its own internal dynamic, its natural tendencies of development, its stresses and strains, its “objective tendency of the problematic.”

Thus the ideals that the Declaration has helped to establish in the deep layers of the American consciousness (and indeed more widely) – such ideals as liberty, equality, inalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness, justified revolution, and the illegitimacy of nonconsensual authority – have a momentum of their own that leads them to overspill the narrow confines of the document’s original purposes. That’s why it’s no coincidence that those outside the American state, struggling against that state, or against systems of oppression in which that state played a central role – abolitionists, feminists, labour activists, anti-imperialists, civil rights activists, LGBT liberationists, free-market anarchists, communist anarchists, and others – have so often turned to the language of the Declaration of Independence to express their aspirations.


The Declaration of Sentiments issuing from the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights was closely modeled on the Declaration of Independence; so was Emma Goldman’s anarchist manifesto of 1909, while the Black Panther Party’s 10-point platform of 1966 simply reproduces the Declaration’s preamble verbatim.

Frederick Douglass, in his aforementioned Independence Day oration, referenced the Declaration in saying: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? that he is the rightful owner of his own body? You have already declared it.” An earlier black abolitionist, David Walker, wrote in 1829: “See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?”

Pre-Stonewall gay-rights activism often took the form of Independence Day marches in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed; these events were called “Annual Reminders,” meaning specifically and explicitly reminders of the applicability of the Declaration’s language to the rights of gays.

In 1965, in the midst of the struggle against white supremacy, Martin Luther King Jr. gave an Independence Day oration of his own, in which he praised the Declaration – “Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality” – while at the same time noting that America has had a “schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against herself” in the disconnect between the principles it has “proudly professed” and those it has “sadly practiced.” In similar vein, the 1962 New Left Port Huron Statement cited the contradiction between the Declaration’s language and the ongoing reality of segregation as a “disturbing paradox.”

The language of the Declaration may serve as mere window-dressing for the American state, but it has been much more than that for those struggling against it.

What, then, to the anarchist, is the Fourth of July? If the Declaration’s legacy has two strands – one running through the state it served to establish, and serving to legitimate that state; and the other running outside that state and serving as a resource for resistance to the state – then while anarchists must condemn the first strand, they can celebrate the second.

Thus, for Charles Johnson, the Fourth of July can be a legitimate anarchist holiday:

Today is not a day for nationalist bromides; least of all is it a day for government or its laws or its foot-soldiers. It’s a day for radicals and revolutionaries. A day to proclaim independence, and a day to remember that the American Revolution, if it was worth anything, is far from over.

Other anarchists, like PunkJohnnyCash, have offered a different suggestion:

Your flag represents the largest criminal syndicate in the history of mankind. Your “Independence day” is a lie, there is no independence within a state. You will be extolling the virtue of mass murderers. …

The statist can celebrate the union of their states. I will celebrate after the state’s rule. I will celebrate after the state when we will abolish the state. They will celebrate the birth of the unholy union of their states on the 4th of july. I will take the 5th of july to celebrate anarchy.

Join me on the 5th in your own celebration. Celebrate the 5th of July … this will be the true “independence day”.


I think anarchists can reasonably disagree as to which strand of the Declaration’s legacy to treat as more salient, and thus in the same way as to whether to regard the Fourth of July as something that can be usefully redeemed and appropriated in the service of anarchism, or else as an unsalvageable chauvinistic ritual to be shunned as an “unclean thing.” (I’ll note in passing that one purely pragmatic reason to favor celebrating anarchist revolution on the fourth rather than, e.g., the fifth is that people are more likely to get off from work on that day – and if you like big fireworks shows, that’s also when they hold ’em.)

But those anarchists inclined toward a celebration of the more libertarian strand in the Declaration’s legacy must beware of its pitfalls. For Declaration-based resistance to the American state can all too easily turn into a plea for mere inclusion in the establishment power structure: “See, we speak the language of your sacred texts too! Let us in, so that we too may participate in being one of the ‘powers of the earth’.” Appeal to the Declaration can also serve as a way for people to still feel patriotic while struggling against the state – and that’s seriously dangerous, since patriotism has a tendency to lure people into ultimately supporting the state and proposing merely minor reforms within a persistingly oppressive framework. Emma Goldman in 1917 called the anarchist “the real patriot,” the kind who “loves America with open eyes”; but she said this in a courtroom, while on trial for subversion, a milieu conducive to defensive speech rather than to accurate speech; nine years earlier she had more frankly denounced patriotism as a “menace to liberty” and a “superstition artificially created and maintained through a network of lies and falsehoods.”


The Declaration is also difficult to separate completely from the personality of its author, Thomas Jefferson; and while Jefferson was certainly a brilliant and often insightful thinker, worthy of study, he was also a man who kept people enslaved on his farm like an 18th-century Ariel Castro, championed Indian “removal” (for the Indians’ own good, naturally), and abused power as President in precisely the way he warned that powerful people would abuse power. If one seeks a manifesto, there are less problematic authors. And from a purely rhetorical point of view, while appeal to the Declaration can on the one hand be an effective way of leveraging many Americans’ pre-existing values on behalf of anarchism, on the other hand such appeals can also serve to alienate those Americans for whom reference to Jefferson inexorably conjures up the slave pens of Monticello.


Moreover, even if Jefferson had been an anarchist saint, one must always beware of the risk of fetishizing a particular document; in Nicolas Walter’s words, “Anarchism has no prophets and no sacred texts … for more than a century anarchists have refused to give authority to writers and books as much as to rulers and laws.”

In her 1908 essay “Anarchism and American Traditions” (not a sacred text! but a good one), Voltairine de Cleyre praised the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence and noted with approval their anarchistic implications; but she also added: “Let the guarantee of free speech be in every man’s determination to use it, and we shall have no need of paper declarations.”

In closing, I wish you a happy Anarchist Revolution Day – but with the caveat that every day is Anarchist Revolution Day.

16 thoughts on “The Dual Legacy of the Declaration of Independence

  1. Pingback: The Dual Legacy of the Declaration of Independence | Austro-Athenian Empire

  2. I enjoyed this a lot, and mostly agreed with it (or agreed with most of it).

    I was struck by this passage:

    Thus the ideals that the Declaration has helped to establish in the deep layers of the American consciousness (and indeed more widely) – such ideals as liberty, equality, inalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness, justified revolution, and the illegitimacy of nonconsensual authority – have a momentum of their own that leads them to overspill the narrow confines of the document’s original purposes. That’s why it’s no coincidence that those outside the American state, struggling against that state, or against systems of oppression in which that state played a central role – abolitionists, feminists, labour activists, anti-imperialists, civil rights activists, LGBT liberationists, free-market anarchists, communist anarchists, and others – have so often turned to the language of the Declaration of Independence to express their aspirations.

    I say “struck” because the “non-coincidence” involved is worth systematic study, and I wonder if anyone knows of a good study of the subject.

    A decidedly unsystematic start: there’s a striking difference between the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which invokes the ideals you mention, and those of self-consciously ethno-nationalist declarations, which don’t. The ones I have in mind (naturally) are those of Pakistan and Israel:



    So those are cases where (implicit) rhetorical repudiation of the American ideal has led, in practice, to rejection of a rights-based polity. (This is complicated in both cases, as both Pakistan and Israel asserted–if that’s the right word–independence from British rule, and British rule in both India and Palestine left a mixed legal legacy, one part of which was respect for rights on the common law model.)

    A very different kind of example: the Vietnamese declaration echoes the American one in many respects,

    but here’s a case where rhetorical adoption of American ideals amounts in practice to repudiation of those ideals.

    I wonder whether there are good examples of the various other logical possibilities.


  3. Continuing with the ethno-nationalist theme I mentioned in my last comment, I wonder what you think of this claim of Ilya Somin’s about the Declaration (yes, I’m dragging you into an argument I had with him on Facebook):

    One of the striking differences between the American Revolution and most modern independence movements is that the former was not based on ethnic or nationalistic justifications. Nowhere does the Declaration state that Americans have a right to independence because they are a distinct racial, ethnic, or cultural group. They couldn’t assert any such claim because the majority of the American population consisted of members of the same groups (English and Scots) as the majority of Britons, and spoke the same language.

    That’s generally true, but it strikes me as an over-statement. Take this passage from the Declaration:

    Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish 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.

    There’s an understated ethnic theme here that Somin either understates or overlooks. I’ve italicized the relevant terms: “brethren,” “common kindred,” and “consanguinity.” (I hesitated a bit over “native justice and magnanimity.”) My claim is that there’s a justificatory appeal here to common ethnicity: it’s because Americans and Englishmen are members of the same ethnicity that they ought to recognize (or be more easily able to recognize) one another’s claims to justice. In particular, Englishmen should be able to grasp why Americans need a nation of their own: members of the same ethnicity should be able to understand why members of their shared, superior ethnicity would not want to live among savages of an alien, inferior one.

    On my view, the Declaration is about separating from Britain in virtue of the need to separate from the Native American nations. That was the issue that had dogged Americans since the Proclamation of 1763 and the Seven Years’ War. That’s why the Western theater of the Revolutionary War was about Indians, not Englishmen, and wasn’t won until the Indians were subdued in the late nineteenth century.

    Somin’s claim is that precisely because Americans and British were consanguinous, there is no claim to ethnicity to justify political separation. After all, what sense does it make to appeal to ethnicity as a principle of separation from members of one and the same ethnicity? I get that, but it seems to me to miss the point. There is no point in appealing to ethnicity to justify separation from members of one’s own ethnicity, but there is a point in appealing to ethnicity to justify separation from alien ethnicities in a context where that justification has to be made to members of one’s own.

    This may be a muted theme in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but later ethno-nationalists were more explicit about it, starting with Mill in the later nationalist chapters of On Representative Government. By the time we get to the Zionists, this theme takes on autonomous life of its own: the claim is that a Jewish State in Palestine is an outpost of Western civilization (understood in ethnic terms) amidst non-Western savagery; surely civilized Western gentlemen can understand the imperative of maintaining such an outpost, given the strategic opportunities that beckon, and the civilizational alternatives that threaten.

    In other words, maybe the legacy of the Declaration is not dual, but triple. It’s a precursor not only of American nationalism, but of the ethno-nationalisms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


        • Can’t seem to make the link work, but here is the actual exchange:

          Irfan Khawaja What do you make of the appeal to “the voice of justice and consanguinity”?

          Ilya Somin The latter is not part of the justification for independence. Indeed the fact that the two groups are “consanguineous” underscores the non-ethnic nature of the justification for separation.

          Irfan Khawaja I don’t see that in either case. The appeal to justice and consanguinity comes in a passage that tries to explain why the British are culpable for not accepting the justification, the point being its reasonability on those grounds, justice and consanguinity. And consanguinity implies common ancestry, which seems to me to underscore the ethnic nature of the claim, as implicitly do the references to “brethren” and “common kindred.” But “consanguinity” is more explicit.

          Ilya Somin Since the two groups are consanguinous, that means the justification for independence cannot be that the Americans are a distinct and separate race or ethnic group.

          Irfan Khawaja Ah, I see what you mean. But “consanguinity” does mean that the Americans can expect the English to see why Americans would need a nation of their own that excludes the Native Americans and other non-white ethnicities. It’s not that Americans are a distinct ethnic group from Englishmen but that both belong to a single ethnic group. Americans must separate from England because the distance involved makes self-government impossible, but Americans need a nation of their own on this continent because, like Englishmen, they belong to a distinctive ethnicity that must exclude the others. In short, I don’t think the claims of ethnicity can be written out of the document. The authors regarded them as compatible with claims of universality.


          • And of course one of the complaints in the Declaration was that the British government was pursuing an alliance with slaves and Indians against the American colonists: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.”

            (Another example of a hypocritical complaint, of course, as the American colonists had been happy to make common cause with Indian allies when fighting against the French and THEIR Indian allies two decades earlier.)


  4. Part 2 of my conversation with Ilya Somin, one of the better ones I’ve ever had on Facebook, which I generally regard as a wretched place to have a serious conversation about anything:

    Ilya Somin No such claims are made in the Declaration. “Consanguinity” is only brought up to make the British oppression seem even more heinous than it would be otherwise. The Declaration does not claim that distance is what justifies American independence. The justification is the oppressive policies of the British government.

    Irfan Khawaja Distance and oppression are not mutually exclusive considerations but complementary ones: the King’s distance from the colonies is part of what explains the oppressiveness of his policies. The bill of particulars in the Declaration makes clear that part of what is oppressive about the King’s policies is its neglectfulness, which imposes burdens of time and distance on the colonists incompatible with the right of self-government. Since the King’s distance from the colonies serves as a rationalization for the neglect, and the neglect is a form of oppression, it doesn’t matter whether the claims are explicitly made or not. It’s understood that distance is relevant to the nature of the oppression.

    Irfan Khawaja Just to be clear, neglect due to distance is compatible with being overly controlling. The same oppressive entity can use distance as an excuse for neglect and proximity as a means of over control. The Declaration accuses Britain of both.

    Ilya Somin The Declaration accuses the King of both neglect and oppression. But it doesn’t claim that distance is the cause of either. Indeed, the colonists could not make that argument, since they also claimed that the oppression and neglect were a relatively new problem (begun since 1763), and of course the colonies had been the same distance from Britain during the previous 150 years during which Britain (at least according to the claims of the 1776 rebels) did not engage in comparable neglect or oppression.

    Irfan Khawaja It doesn’t have to claim that distance is the cause of either. Distance isn’t the sole cause, but it’s causally relevant,and too obvious to belabor or even mention. If the King’s assent is required for laws that are pressing and urgent, and his refusal vetoes the passage of those laws, it’s obvious that part of the explanation for his refusal/neglect is that, given 18th century communications technology, he was too far away for this requirement of assent to be a feasible one. And yet, knowing that, he demanded it anyway. If I demand that you get my assent before you act, but then make myself scarce or distant, my calculated or foreseeable lack of proximity is obviously relevant to the unreasonability of my demand. It’s true that Britain was the same distance away in 1763 as in 1776, but distance became a political consideration in 1776 that it wasn’t in 1763. For one, the demands of the King were felt (whether rightly or wrongly) to have become more insistent and onerous by 1776. For another, the Declaration is a political document written (like many such documents) in a somewhat hypocritical and opportunistic spirit. So its authors would hardly be above fixating on a problem in 1776 and declaring it urgent when the underlying facts had been there much longer.

    Ilya Somin I think the point was that he refused assent because he unjustly opposes the laws – not because he was too far away. And, to reiterate, the colonists’ argument was that the oppression they complained of was a relatively new phenomenon- and therefore unlikely to be caused by distance, which had been there all along.

    Irfan Khawaja I think our discussion has reached what Robert McNamara (in a very different context) called “the crossover point,” meaning, the point at which any further response would cross back over into past discussion and reiterate points already made. Since McNamara was referring to the point at which enemy soldiers were being killed and couldn’t be replaced (in Vietnam), at least ours is the more benign one.

    Ilya Somin Yes, at least no one got killed in the process!


      • Both Somin and I are, I think, agreeing that salutary neglected operated, was unjust, and was one of the colonists’ stated grievances. The disputed issue is what that has to do with the role of ethno-nationalism in the Declaration. Somin sees no role at all, but I see a subtle, understated one.

        What I think Somin is missing is how salutary neglect operated and why the colonists were opposed to it. Salutary neglect operated by royal whim-at-a-distance, and the colonists opposed it not just because rule by royalty is unjust (which it is), or because rule-by-whim is unjust (which it is), or because rule-by-royal-whim-at-a-distance-is-unjust (which it also is), but because rule-by-whim-at-a-distance got in the way of the colonists’ desire to create an all-white ethno-republic that had free rein to deal with the Indian problem west of the line set by the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

        Somin is focusing on the first three sorts of grievances (whose legitimacy I grant), but ignoring evidence of the fourth. The stuff on consanguinity in the Declaration is there because it stresses that a white ethnos based on slavery and opposed to the national claims of the indigenous population cannot in justice rely for its self-governance on the assent of a disengaged, complacent, indifferent King residing thousands of miles away from North America. Self-governance has both a universalist, natural rights-based meaning and an ethnic meaning here, and the appeal to consanguinity is relevant to the latter. The colonists expect the British to grasp the justice of their claims, not simply because Americans and British share a universalist ethos, but because they share a common ethnicity. The claim is not simply, “The British are violating our natural rights, and that’s unjust,” but “How could white people consign other white people to such a fate as ours? Don’t they understand what we’re dealing with over here?”

        The whole issue of distance seems (e.g., to Somin) like a red herring, but I think it’s relevant because it lends credence to the colonists’ grievances, at least as seen from their perspective. It’s as though one were to say, “As fellow members of the white ethnic brotherhood, we’d expect you to understand our predicament in dealing with these non-white savages, but you’re so out of touch that you don’t.” Of course, the tacit subtext is: “Some white brothers you are. You’re the ones making common cause with non-whites, creating our predicament, then making demands from a distance that render us incapable of dealing with it. This means war.” Physical distance is not by itself the fundamental grievance, but an aggravating factor relevant to understanding the grievances.

        I don’t disagree with Somin that the universalist theme in the Declaration is the predominant one. What I disagree with is his claim that it completely crowds out an ethno-nationalist theme. My point is that the Declaration of Independence is not just a declaration of independence from Britain, but a declaration of war against their Indian allies in pursuit of aims that look westward across the continent. If you read the Declaration in terms of the revolutionaries’ clear designs on the west, you have to read the Declaration as doing at least two things: laying the groundwork for separation from Britain and laying the groundwork for westward expansion without British supervision, as in:

        He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

        It defies credulity to think that the American founders conceived of this migration in ethnically neutral terms. It also defies credulity to think that the future architect of the Louisiana Purchase and the future sponsor of the Lewis & Clark Expedition was uninterested in the western theater of the war he was declaring. Once you look at the Declaration as a declaration of war against Indians, the relevance of the understated ethnic language becomes more apparent.


        • <<>>

          Indeed it defies a plain reading of what the same fellows wrote down in the Naturalization Act of 1790 — cf. — which, among other things, made being “a free white person” an explicit precondition for naturalized citizenship.

          (The same formula, or a close variation on it, was repeated in every amended naturalization law passed by the United States government up until 1952.)

          Liked by 1 person

          • [That said, here are some of the standard “shit’s complicated” historical caveats: (1) the Naturalization Act was explicitly a racial or color bar on citizenship, not on entry or immigration as such; at the time, lots of people could legally enter and settle in the country who couldn’t become citizens. But there’s precious little evidence that any of those fellows thought it was especially desirable for them to do so; it’s just that that kind of systematic exclusion and immigration control, as a legal means, mostly belongs to a much later era.

            (2) The legal construction of “white person” during this period was also a pretty complicated question, which was contested at the time, and on the views of many avowedly white people at the time, it seems to have included a whole lot of “ethnicities” that today’s Americans would uniformly count as “non-white”.* But of course, no matter how broad the construction of the term “white,” it doesn’t make the term ethnically neutral; it just means that it was more of a rifle-shot aimed at a particular set of (black) intended victims, not a scatter-shot aimed at everyone outside of the magic Herrenvolk circle.

            (3) It would be a fair point to note that the 1st U.S. Congress and the Washington Administration in 1790 are not exactly the same as the drafters and signers of the Declaration in 1776, and there’s a lot of significant ideological revision and ideological drift involved in the transition that separates the one from the other. And some of that revision and drift does seem to include increasing conservatism on questions about race, color and citizenship — early on a lot of slaveholding colonies became free states due to gradual or immediate emancipations, and those were often justified by reference to the Declaration principles. By the 1790s that tide was rapidly receding. That’s important, but I think getting any really robust, coherently “universalist” reading of the enterprise through it is going to be an awfully big camel trying to get through an awfully narrow eye of the needle. The universalist strands of the Declaration are lovely, and genuinely important, but contra Somin, they are something that really need much more careful and painful effort — often by later and avowedly revisionist readers of the text — to tease them out from the complex, contested and obviously internally conflicted knot that they’re tangled up in.]

            * Re: “free white person,” In particular, many white politicos in the antebellum South explicitly adopted the legal view that it was a purely negative classification, broad enough to include anyone in the world who had no black ancestry, including Chinese immigrants, mestizo Mexicans, descendants of American Indians, etc. etc. On this, see for example the debates over the construction of “white … person” in the proposed Texas state constitution in 1846. There’s a whole bunch of federal “prerequisite cases” that begin to read “white” as much more racially exclusive, but those don’t go on the books until much later, beginning with a series of anti-Chinese cases decided in the 1870s-1880s, and the legal reasoning in those cases rested heavily on the way in which Congress amended naturalization law in 1870.

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        • “Both Somin and I are, I think, agreeing that salutary neglected operated, was unjust, and was one of the colonists’ stated grievances.”

          Isn’t the usual line that the rebels were objecting to the END of salutary neglect? Before they finally committed to independence, they kept saying they wanted to return to the pre-1763 status quo ante, when Britain had imposed fewer regulations and exactions on the colonies. That’s the period that the phrase “salutary neglect” refers to.


          • Yes, I miswrote. Actually, the terminology gets a little confusing; “neglect” means two confusingly different things in this context.

            In one sense, there is “salutary neglect,” meaning the spotty character of Britain’s enforcement of trade regulations on the books. This was Britain’s neglect with respect to enforcement, salutary from the perspective of those regulated. The rebels could in one sense object to the end of salutary neglect, as you say, and in another sense object to the regulations that Britain neglected to enforce through salutary neglect. But you’re right to say that the rebels were primarily objecting to the end of salutary neglect, not to salutary neglect. My bad.

            In another sense, there is the neglect involved in the King’s refusal to grant the colonists the powers they demanded for self-government. This is a case of non-salutary neglect, the point being that he was neglecting the demands of justice. The rebels were objecting to that, too.


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