Skip to main content

tv   Declaration of Independence Global Legacy  CSPAN  July 4, 2020 10:00am-11:31am EDT

10:00 am
next on c-span3, university of maryland history professor richard bell talks about the declaration of independence, its origins, purpose, and global significance during and after the american revolution. the smithsonian associates hosted this event. heather: dr. bell has presented many outstanding programs for us on topics related to early american history and on the revolutionary war period over the last couple of years. dr. bell received his phd from harvard and his ba from the university of cambridge in england. he is an associate professor of history at the university of maryland in college park, where he specializes in early american history and cultural history, and has been honored with more than half a dozen teaching awards at harvard and university of maryland. the american society of 18th century studies bestowed an innovative course design award
10:01 am
on his undergraduate course on the topic of ordinary lives in the american revolution. and his book, "stolen: five free boys kidnapped into slavery and their journey home," which tells the true story of five boys kidnapped in the north and sold into slavery in the deep south and that during attempt to escape and bring their captors to justice, is being published by simon & schuster in october. thank you once again for joining us this evening, and without any further ado, please join me in welcoming dr. rick bell. [applause] dr. bell: thanks to heather, thanks to c-span for covering this. those of you who might have been to the smithsonian associates before and heard me give other programs won't be surprised to hear my strange accent, which is not exactly a maryland native's accent.
10:02 am
i was raised in england yet find myself teaching about the american revolution as part of my job, which let me tell you is a blessing and a curse, an undergraduate classroom to teach with an accent like this. i'm very proud of where i grew up. i often carry in my back pocket a giant british flag. [laughter] i might drape it around the scenery for c-span to drink in. i was naturalized as a u.s. citizen a couple of years ago , something i am incredibly proud of. it is wonderful to be part of programming here as we move into july 4 weekend. so when you hear me say our declaration tonight, i'm talking about us americans. the downside of c-span being here unfortunately is that i don't get to swear. [laughter] at least i will try not to. it also means i don't get to show cute videos of my kids, or anything from "hamilton" the musical, for copyright reasons.
10:03 am
but that still leaves us with a lot, and i have a lot to say, so let's get started. there are a lot of microphones here. the document on display in the national archives that we call the declaration of independence has lived an interesting life. it has only been on display in that bombproof building since 1952. before that it lived in the library of congress, although for two years during world war ii, it hunkered down in a deep vault at fort knox in kentucky. before that, it bounced back and forth between the state department and the patent office. during the centennial in 1876, it briefly returned to philadelphia, the city of its birth. there, a grandson of one of its original signers read it publicly at part of this country's 100th birthday celebrations. reports tell us the massive
10:04 am
crowd burst into cheers at the sight of it. in its first 50 years, it traveled much more frequently. when the british earned -- burned down washington, d.c. during the war of 1812, the document we think of as the declaration of independence was not there. it was hiding in leesburg, virginia. it spent the second half of the american revolution years earlier rolled up and stuffed in a linen bag, as it accompanied congress from one temporary capital city to another. folks, i have shocking news. the document our government has gone to such lengths to preserve and protect over the centuries, that one, is not actually the declaration of independence. or at least that document is not the first declaration of
10:05 am
independence, or the last declaration of independence, and it is far from being the only declaration of independence. the document on display at the national archive, the one this gentleman is peering at, is in fact a special, commemorative edition that congress ordered up at the end of july, 1776, to memorialize the independence of the delegates that actually declared, in a simple vote weeks earlier, on july 2, and who then formalized that vote in writing on july 4. the document on display in the national archives is really a souvenir, a beautiful souvenir, made after the fact. it was engrossed on parchment in
10:06 am
the calligraphic hand of a junior clerk and was later signed by 56 of the delegates to the second continental congress, including several who had not been present at the actual vote, and at least one delegate who had voted against the resolution for independence. this is all interesting stuff, solid, cocktail party trivia i am giving you so far. but to borrow a word from the declaration itself that we used to describe the declaration, all of what i've said so far is just my preamble. my talk tonight is not about this parchment. instead, it is about all the other declarations of independence, that the prominence of this lovely keepsake has obscured them over the past two and a half centuries. i am thinking here of jefferson's own drafts. we have seven copies in his
10:07 am
handwriting, and of the final version approved by congress on july 4, the one that was disseminated in print across america and across the world. i am also thinking of several other sets of declarations, some that predate july 4 by several months, others that were written much more recently, some written here, others written far away, some written by propertied, elite men like jefferson, others written by people who could not be more different to him. putting all these declarations of independence in conversation with one another this evening, i hope will give us fresh perspective of the famous parchment that peaks out from behind bulletproof glass in the national archive rotunda. we can be reminded perhaps that, for all its kitschy reliquary, this parchment honors something
10:08 am
unambiguously momentous. it commemorates the creation, adoption, and dissemination of a 1310-word statement that forged the american people in union, justified their rebellion, asserted their independence and that announced this country's appearance on the world stage. that famous statement, the declaration of independence, it is our midwife, it is our birth certificate, and it is our promise to ourselves. there is much to admire about it and therefore much to discuss, and because i want to leave time for questions and comments, we need to get going. there is a founding moment in our history. declaring independence from great britain can seem to us today like this country's first date with destiny. but it did not seem like that at
10:09 am
the time, and declaring independence, the decision to do it, was a long, long time in coming. open rebellion was treason, remember. and in april, 1775, when new england militias took pot shots at the british army at lexington and concord, in april, 1775, the number of americans contemplating unambiguous revolution could probably still be counted on the fingers of a couple of hands. when the second continental congress assembled in philadelphia a month after these events at lexington and concorde in may, 1775, the delegates were under instruction from their colonial legislatures to find a way to patch things up with britain. that is what they were sent to philadelphia to do, patch things up. reconciliation and redress were the orders of the day.
10:10 am
for you at that point in may in 1775 were thinking of using this congress to foment insurrection against the monarchy, or to use it to break from the empire upon which the colonists depended for trade and security. in fact, it was king george iii who first declared the colonists' independence for them. here is how he did it. on august 23, 1775, the king in london issued a proclamation, the word of the king, saying the colonists had proceeded to open and avowed rebellion, and because of that they were now outside his protection, and because of that they should now be punished as traitors. august 1775.
10:11 am
and in december of that year, the british parliament acted on the king's declaration and declared war on the colonists' maritime commerce, beginning stop and search raids on american merchant shipping up and down the east coast. britain's belligerence was one of several things that nudged the delegates in philadelphia toward their famous written declaration. another thing that nudged them in that direction was the appearance of a pungent new political pamphlet in january 1776. it was the work of an outcast englishman named tom payne, who had come to philadelphia to start again. and it told readers that it was common sense for the colonists to respond to george's bullying by walking away and starting
10:12 am
afresh. tom payne's 46-page pamphlet sold like hotcakes and quickly made its way into the pockets, homes, and minds of perhaps many of the 100,000 americans in the spring of 1776, and it changed people. it worked to bind people throughout the colonies into a common struggle, giving southerners a sense of common cause with new englanders for the first time, and it gave them all a common enemy, by laying the blame for all the chaos and trauma of the past 10 years directly at one man's feet, king george iii. in these ways, this flimsy, plainspoken little pamphlet, "common sense," in many ways it was the american people's declaration of independence. it's a fact readers across the colonies made pretty obvious over the coming months. a historian demonstrated in her
10:13 am
brilliant 1997 book "american scripture," thousands of government officials in towns, counties and provincial legislatures spent the months after "common sense" was published issuing their own miniature declarations of independence, formal statements proclaiming their commitment to separate nationhood, and summarizing the chain of events that had pushed them to make that decision. some of these local declarations of independence were short, and in your handout there is one short, one-paragraph version, an example from ashby, massachusetts. but others among these local declarations of independence were much longer, one that goes several paragraphs from buckingham county, virginia. but all these local declarations said the same. in justifying their support for independence, they came back again and again to the king's
10:14 am
contempt for the colonists' petitions for reconciliation. they came back to the threat posed by the fleet and the armies he had already sent to repress and divide them. they came back again and again to the now escalating rumors the british government has recently dispatched, a large, invading force of german hessian mercenaries to the colonies. the writer of "american scripture" identified 90 of these state and local declarations of independence were identified, and she reckoned many more were written that were not rediscovered. they put pressure on the often cautious delegates of the second continental congress, so that those delegates in philadelphia
10:15 am
might find the courage to embrace the cause of independence and sever all ties with britain. they soon began getting attention. john adams, one of those delegates, observed on may 20 that every post on everyday rolls in upon us, independence, like a torrent. they are writing to the delegates about independence and the delegates are starting to get the message. it wasn't just john adams. other delegates, too, were starting to get this message from their own constituents. and on friday, june 7, 1776, richard henry lee, a member of the virginia delegation, introduced to the continental congress the first formal proposal for american independence in that body's history, a resolution to declare that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states, that they are absolved from all
10:16 am
allegiance to the british crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of great britain ought to be finally dissolved. two days of intense debate followed richard henry lee's revolution, although the outcome of the debate may not be the result you are expecting. richard henry lee, john adams, and other delegates in favor of independence did not have the votes to carry the day, at least not yet. so the members did what congress has always done best, they kicked the can down the road. [laughter] they delayed a final vote, and agreed instead to set up a committee to study the issue. [laughter] this is what they agreed, resolved that the first
10:17 am
revolution be postponed to this day three weeks or so from now, and that in the meantime lest any time should be lost in case the congress does somehow agree to this revolution, a committee be appointed to prepare a declaration to the effect of the said first revolution. this is hardly the rousing, nation-bursting moment that patriots might have been hoping for. still, it was enough to keep things moving forward and john adams himself vowed to spend those next three weeks lobbying his fellow delegates to vote yes when the vote for independence finally came along. john adams also agreed to serve on this new committee, a five-person team tasked to draft a declaration of independence that congress could quickly
10:18 am
rollout in the event that lee's original revolutionary resolution did somehow later pass. if we ever vote yes, we will need a declaration to show people, so we better get cracking on it. so, a committee of five. the other delegates assigned to this committee, which was not a plum assignment, there was probably arm-twisting involved, were benjamin franklin of pennsylvania, roger sherman of connecticut, robert livingston of new york, anyone know the fifth member? what was the guy's name? maybe a picture will help? thomas jefferson of virginia. all of these guys were busy with other committee assignments, so it made sense for just one of them to take the lead drafting the little document they had been tasked to prepare.
10:19 am
benjamin franklin, a gifted stylist and zealous supporter of independence by this time might seem to us to be the obvious choice to be the lead draftsman. he was a good writer who believed in the cause. but he was plagued by gout and he was exhausted. robert livingston, the fourth person, robert livingston was on the committee just as the token conservative. he was not there to do actual work. he had been urging reconciliation, patching things up, not independence. he was really just there to make sure things didn't get too crazy and out of hand. roger sherman, the guy in the middle, was largely window-dressing. sherman was a good man. john adams described him as being as honest as an angel. but roger sherman spoke and wrote like he was still in the
10:20 am
17th century, and his colleagues found him strange, if not weird. [laughter] that left john adams, a short lawyer who was an outspoken advocate for independence, and thomas jefferson, the tall, sandy-haired planter who had a reputation as a writer, but who had barely set a word on the congress floor so far. john adams later recalled that these two men actually bickered and argued about which one of them shouldn't do the work. [laughter] and who should lead the drafting. who should be the lead draftsman? and to reconstruct that exciting conversation, we are going to do some theater, live on c-span.
10:21 am
i am going to call up two randomly-selected volunteers. chuck, catherine, could you come around? give them a round of applause as they come up. [applause] adams later wrote a reconstruction of the conversation, the bickering and arguing that supposedly happened between thomas jefferson -- say hello, thomas jefferson. >> hello. dr. bell: and john adams. if i remember correctly, the conversation began like this. >> will you write? >> i will not. >> you should write it. >> oh, no. >> well, why not? you ought to do it.
10:22 am
>> i will not. >> why? >> reasons. >> what can be your reasons? >> reason one, you are a virginian and a virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. reason two; i am obnoxious, suspect, and unpopular. you are very much otherwise. reason three, you can write 10 times better than i can. >> well, if you are decided, i will do as well as i can. >> very well. when you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting. dr. bell: thank you. [laughter] [applause] dr. bell: that took 30 minutes
10:23 am
of rehearsal before we got started. i want to thank chuck and catherine, who were just fabulous. [applause] dr. bell: that is the conversation according to john adams, about the bickering. when jefferson was asked, is that how it happened? he said, absolutely not. [laughter] so jefferson is lead draftsman. the five men met a few times over the next few days to outline what exactly this document should contain, but they left it to jefferson to write it up on his own, and he did as he was told. he wrote quickly, used a portable writing desk that he brought with him from virginia, and he had a first draft done within two days. jefferson later claimed that he lent on a no other sources while he was scribbling away. jefferson was deeply versed on
10:24 am
enlightened political philosophy, and that fact is evident in the draft he came up with. the draft owes a considerable debt to several texts, including england's 1689 declaration of rights, including john locke's second treatise of government published that same year, including thomas jefferson's own 1774 pamphlet, a summary view of the rights of british america, and his more recent draft of the constitution of virginia, and george mason's virginia declaration of rights, an early copy of which jefferson received days earlier. the powerful opening lines of jefferson's draft drew directly from this wellspring of ideas and language. as you can see, jefferson's
10:25 am
language was decidedly simpler and more forceful. here is john locke, let me give you two examples. but if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people. and jefferson's writing, but when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism. you can see of borrowing of language and ideas. you can debate if jefferson's is better than locke, or vice versa. here is jefferson apparently borrowing from george mason. george mason had written, all men are created equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their
10:26 am
prosperity, among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. and jefferson's version in his first draft reads, "we hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. that is all i'm going to say for the moment about jefferson's famous opening paragraph, i will return to then later on. more about the political philosophies that informed those few famous sentences in the first two paragraphs of the declaration, i would recommend wonderful books by carl becker and gary wills if you want to learn more. i want to keep going. instead, i want us to think
10:27 am
about his declaration's long middle section, the least quotable bit, the paragraph everyone skips over between the famous opening and the rousing conclusion. i'm talking about jefferson's list of grievances. they are hugely important, because without the grievances, there is no motive for the declaration. without a motive, there is no declaration. let's look. there were more than two dozen grievances in jefferson's draft and 27 end up in the final version. the first 12 all assail king george's abuses of executive power over the 12 years since the 1765 stamp act. the grievances describe george's conspiracies with parliament to
10:28 am
use legislative powers to inflict more damage over that same 12 years. then come the final group of grievances, about five, and they highlight the king's capacity for cruelty in the war he has been waging against his own people over the previous 12 months. the tone of this long list of charges grows more and more urgent, belligerent, and accusatory as it goes on and on, as if jefferson were a prosecution attorney making a closing argument in a murder trial. the verbs jefferson uses in the first group of grievances, verbs like dissolved, refused, affected, are relatively even-tempered, but the verbs become more evocative in the last group of grievances.
10:29 am
one of those grievances charges the king of having plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. another raises the specter of those arriving hessian soldiers, dispatched, jefferson says, to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny. you can hear the emotional pitch rising as we move through the list of grievances. one of the final charges in that long list deserves our particular attention. it is the clause in which jefferson denounces the king for seeking out native american allies and encouraging them to make war against the patriots. in the same charge, jefferson also condemns king george for the actions taken by one of his commanders, a man named lord
10:30 am
dunmore, the british general who famously promised freedom to any black man enslaved by patriot masters who were willing to desert their patriot slaveowners and fight for the british. that made jefferson furious. in these lines, you see them here up on the screen, jefferson was channeling many patriots' anxieties by the threats posed to their security by runaway slaves and by warring native americans. but to our modern ears, there is something distasteful about the way he's reacting to dunmore's encouragement of slaves to free themselves. how angry it makes jefferson. and there is something willful about jefferson's refusal to acknowledge the decades of colonial incursions on native land, are a true source of
10:31 am
tension between patriots and natives. rather than acknowledge that truth, jefferson's declaration portrayed native americans, and i am about to quote robert parkinson, it portrayed native americans as passive, mindless, bloodthirsty barbarians too naive to realize they were being duped by a tyrant. and jefferson leaves no doubt as to who that tyrant is. that tyrant is not the british people, it is not parliament, it is not even the monarchy. it is one specific monarch, and he looks like this. it is king george iii. look at the way that most of the crisp, brief sentences in the middle section of his draft begin "he has." he has combined. he has incited.
10:32 am
the he is he. the he is george. george is rendered here not as a puppet of parliament or as a gaffe prone bumbler making one back decision after another, he is rendered here instead as an all-powerful desperate with an intentional program of harm. this is george as nero, george as richard iii. this is george as attila the hon. it's a rhetorical decision jefferson has made to personify the enemy, to give readers something to root against and hate. given that goal, it should not surprise us to find that jefferson's list of grievances is full of hyperbole. he exaggerates, he gilds the lily. he tells readers there are
10:33 am
swarms of tax collectors in the colonies when there were really just 50. he tells readers that tax collectors pose the same sort of threat as occupying soldiers, which is hardly true. he blames american slavery and the slave trade on king george, a man who came to the throne 16 years earlier, not 160 years earlier. what i am saying is simple and i hope uncontroversial. what i am saying is don't look to this list of grievances for just the facts and objectivity. this is not journalism. this is not the lists's job. its job is to be polemical. its job is to fire up readers and give them a story that in john adams's words shall make their ears to tingle.
10:34 am
as a catalog of prosecutable crimes, it is surprisingly vague. there's lots of emotion but not much detail. notice that jefferson includes no places, no dates in this list of injuries and usurpations. and he names no other name except the king. as a result, you might not be able to place the king's atrocities on a timeline, or know precisely what they refer to. that abstraction is intentional. it marks jefferson's efforts to universalize the colonists dilemmas and to frame the
10:35 am
king's transgressions in such a way that they could spark general outrage no matter where they are being read and no matter who is reading them. following his list of grievances, jefferson's draft concludes, and it does so by insisting that despite these extraordinary provocations, the american colonists have been patient. they have been patient sufferers who have sought peace at every opportunity. and every stage of these oppressions, jefferson wrote, our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. it is king george's fault that things have come to this. independence is his doing, the colonists have no other choice. we know jefferson showed his draft to franklin and adams.
10:36 am
it's not reported if he bothered to show it to livingston or sherman. but he did show it to franklin and adams because, as he later explained, they were the two members of whose judgment and amendments i wish to have the benefit before presenting it. both men, adams and franklin, read the jefferson draft carefully, but according to jefferson, they thought it was genius. [laughter] prof. bell: according to jefferson, their alterations were two or three only and merely verbal. he made the changes happily and the committee of five then submitted their combined work to congress on june 28. this is a portrait by john turnbull of the moment the committee of five turned in the draft, the homework to the larger congress. it is not the july 4 signing or anything like that, which didn't happen. it is them turning in their homework.
10:37 am
i want to draw your attention for one hot second, this is john adams on the left. look at that man's hand on his hip. once you see it, you can't stop looking at it. he is very proud of his work, and why not? the delegates have three days to read over the draft, and on july 3 -- on july 1, the debate in congress finally began on richard henry lee's original resolution. that resolution was that these united colonies are, and by right ought to be free and independent states. it had been several weeks since lee's motion had been tabled. in the meantime, there have been lots of arm twisting and lobbying. several colonial governments that had taken reconciliationist
10:38 am
positions, places like delaware, pennsylvania and new jersey, had gone in different directions, giving delegates permission to vote however they saw fit. other colonial legislatures, notably maryland, had sent strict instructions that their delegates in philadelphia must vote for independence. by july 1, most men's minds were made up. the british fleet off the coast only added to the momentum for independence. john dickinson from pennsylvania did stand up and speak in opposition to independence, but he was answered point for point by another brilliant lawyer, john adams. on the morning of july 2, after some drama involving the
10:39 am
delaware delegation, and i will show you that clip from the musical "1776" right now if we had the rights, but we don't. imagine it in your head, there's music playing. after some drama involving the delaware delegation, everyone voted. several delegates voted no, although john dickinson himself stayed home. the no votes were massively outnumbered and the majority of delegates from every voting colony asserted support for independence. it was how many colonies voted yes that mattered. this is good enough to be considered unanimous. congress adopted lee's resolution, and by the end of that momentous day, july 2, 1776, a philadelphia newsprinter had the news and he squeezed it into the last free spot on his late edition. the announcement in the
10:40 am
pennsylvania evening post was two lines long. "this day, the continental congress declared the united colonies free and independent states." that was it, you just witnessed history. congress had not yet touched the committee of five's draft of the public declaration. they took up that task the following morning on july the third. to edit the draft, the delegates ordered a batch of printed copies of the committee's language. all of those printed copies of the committee's language must of been destroyed afterward because none of those printed copies of the committee's draft survive today. then they started scribbling on the printed copies. they amped up some of the
10:41 am
language describing the king's crimes, but they struck out jefferson's lengthy rant about george and the slave trade. they added two new appeals to god because they thought the american people might like that, but they deleted most of jefferson's conclusion in favor of concluding language cribbed directly from lee's original resolution. the delegates worked for two days on this, and debated hundreds of changes, eventually making no less than 86 alterations and ultimately scrapping almost one quarter of the committee of five text. the more changes they made, the more miserable jefferson got. [laughter] prof. bell: franklin apparently tried to placate him and told him to cheer up, by telling him
10:42 am
a story about a hat maker. a hat maker who had come up with a great new idea for a sign to put outside his shop. the sign was supposed to read this, "john thompson, hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money." but he made the mistake of asking friends for feedback and the friends were not shy in giving it to him. one suggested that hatter was redundant. bye-bye. who else sells hats but a hatter? another said makes was irrelevant because customers are only come into a shop to buy something, not see how it is made. bye-bye. a third friend thought "for ready money" was equally unnecessary.
10:43 am
bye-bye. when they were finally finished editing, they were left with this. [laughter] prof. bell: that was a franklin's story, and it was supposed to cheer him up. whether it did or not goes unrecorded. jefferson was certainly no fan of the editors in congress, he called them his critics and not in a nice way. but like that hat maker's friends, his editors in congress were actually doing good work. the raft of changes the delegates made reined in and tightened jefferson's draft. here is the jefferson version of this sentence. the history of the king of great britain is a history of usurpations, among which there is no solitary fact to contradict the uniform tenor of
10:44 am
the rest but all have in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. that is the committee draft. here is what the delegates finally end up with. the history of the present king of great britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. this is no hack editing job. the delegates who labored over the declaration had a splendid ear for language. they made it better. their job was to make it a more powerful piece of writing. a quick question, why do you think they were in such a hurry to get a printed proclamation out following that vote on july 2? why do you think the delegates worked so hard and so quickly to get this written declaration
10:45 am
finished, signed off on, and out the door? what's the hurry? raise your hand and tell me what you think. >> they wanted to go to the beach. dr. bell: they wanted to go to the beach. i love this man. yes. >> [indiscernible] prof. bell: they might have their eyes abroad. yes. anyone else? >> [indiscernible] prof. bell: fearful of their necks. announcing something treasonous as quickly as possible is a good move? ah, they wanted someone at their back if someone was coming for them. >> [indiscernible] maybe they wanted to do it while the getting was good, while the public was with them. prof. bell: we have the momentum, the public is with us, we don't know how long the public will be with us, let's
10:46 am
move this along. one more hand. yell it out. >> [indiscernible] prof. bell: it is hot and they did not want to stay anymore. they would rather be at the beach. >> [indiscernible] prof. bell: the british are coming, the british are coming. one more hand in the back. >> [indiscernible] prof. bell: all right, they wanted to get signatures down quickly, that is a possibility as well. i will take many of those. let me move on and try to answer part of this, because i wanted to favor one of the arguments over the others. we tend to assume that the motive for all of their hard work on the public statement was so that it could be promptly circulated to the american people, to up the stakes in the escalating military conflict, to give soldiers something to fight for, or perhaps it was aimed at king george. a very public retaliation for his previous contempt.
10:47 am
most, though not all of the explanations -- the one about the beach is questionable -- they are compelling but not even half the story. in truth, as one gentleman said, the delegates had their eyes on france. their new declaration of independence was their hail mary, their best hope of securing foreign assistance. they desperately needed to resume trading with europe. they urgently needed to borrow lots of money. they needed hard currency and loads of it. and they needed french soldiers, sailors, and ships to join them in the fight to push the british back into the sea. to earn this critical foreign assistance, the colonies had to prove to the world that they were rebels against the crown, and the best way to do so,
10:48 am
thomas payne argued in "common sense" back in january, the best way to prove they were real rebels was to announce that fact in a manifesto that the delegates could dispatch. this is thomas payne. dispatch to foreign courts, setting forth the miseries we have endured, and we have refused to address, declaring at the same time to not be able any longer to live happily or safely under the cruel disposition of the british court. we have been driven to the necessity of breaking off all connections with her. at the same time, assuring all such courts of our peaceable disposition towards them and our desire of entering into trade with them. every delegate who had voted on
10:49 am
july 2 knew thomas payne's argument backwards and forwards. richard henry lee certainly did, and he wrote that in april 1776, no state in europe will treat or trade with us so long as we consider ourselves subjects of great britain. they weren't going to make treaties, we weren't going to trade with anyone in europe except britain if we are still subjects of great britain. indeed, two months later when richard henry lee wrote his june 7 resolutions, he didn't just propose independence, he proposed two other things in the larger language. he also proposed to prepare and digest the form of a confederation, and offered a third resolution to draw up a plan for forming foreign alliances. in the same breath we say how about independence, we are
10:50 am
saying how about foreign alliances? these things are the same thought. seen in that context then, the declaration is a means to an end and everyone at the time understood that, even though today we don't. on its own, congress' proclamation could not make the colonies free and independent. but maybe with france's help, it could. this is why the delegates have their declaration translated into french immediately and why they sent copies addressed to king louis of france and the king of spain on the first ship bound for europe four days later on july 8. it's why they had been published in european newspapers, why the congress authorized john adams to draw up a list of talking points for negotiations with
10:51 am
france within days. it's why congress dispatched benjamin adams -- benjamin adams? it's why congress dispatched benjamin franklin to paris later that fall. but before we get to paris, or london, or any other european council, before we travel with the declaration over the sea, let's pause for a moment more in the american colonies, or should i say now the united states. congress proclaimed the official text of its declaration on monday, july 8, 1776. issuing it as a printed poster known as a broadside, prepared by john dunlap, the official printer. broadsides were the perfect size to paste up everywhere and the typeface was just large enough to be legible outdoors and easily read aloud in public settings. and so they were read aloud outside, these broadsides, these
10:52 am
declarations. first in philadelphia that same day, july 8, a day when colonel john nixon of philadelphia's committee of safety read the broadside from a wooden platform outside the state house. when nixon reached the conclusion, the gathered crowd erupted into repeated huzzahs. then members took down the king's coat of arms and threw them on a bonfire. the celebration continued for hours afterward. as john adams remembered, the city's bells rang all day and almost all night. congress ordered other copies of dunlap's broadside to be sent far and wide, to committees of safety, counsel and state assemblies with the request that it be proclaimed in such a mode as that the people may be
10:53 am
universally informed of it. over the following days, these declarations, dozens and dozens of them, were read in churches, public squares, and the troops of the continental army. when one of these declarations was read in baltimore, just up the road from here, a band of jubilant patriots marked the occasion by dragging a dummy of our late king through the town in a cart and then setting it on fire in front of a large crowd. while only 25 copies of the broadside exist today, historians believe that he churned out more than 200 of them in the first july 8 printing and there were many other printings and dozens of newspaper transcriptions as well that summer. the london papers, the london
10:54 am
papers printed text of congress's declaration in the second week of august. you might expect it to have caused uproar over there, but a calculated shrug might be more accurate. parliament was on summer recess, by the way. most ministers were out of town and there was no immediate official public reaction, not even a press release, or the 18th-century equivalent thereof. this strategy, i think, was to try to starve the colonists of attention and deny the legitimacy of the declaration, and in so doing, refused to recognize the rights of britain's enemies and france to interfere in the british empire's internal business. clever, right? in london at least, the document only generated two public
10:55 am
rebuttals. one was by thomas hutchinson, the former governor of massachusetts. the other was by a young lawyer who was secretly in the pay of the british government. he published a pamphlet taking the american declaration to task point by point, and as you might imagine, it is a pretty fascinating read. he was not much interested in the now famous opening paragraph of the american declaration, all men are created equal, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. he did not care. of the preamble, i have taken little or no notice. the truth is, little or none does it deserve. hubris much? i don't know. instead, he focused his energy on trying to pick apart the list of 27 grievances in the final text, and doing that took him a while.
10:56 am
congress's declaration was 1310 words long. lind's rebuttal was 130 pages. [laughter] prof. bell: which is to say, no one read it. what about the rest of europe? copies of the declaration reached ireland, austria, the dutch republic, and spain by the end of august and then copenhagen and florence by early september. ironically, given the delegate's focus on france, the declaration turned up there quite belatedly. the dunlap broadsides that congress had sent to silas deane in paris have been lost in transit. they were lost in transit and replacements did not arrive until early november.
10:57 am
by then, two french translations had appeared in paris newspapers, but is not certain if senior members of the french court had yet read them or acknowledged them. what is certain is that when they did, the french were unimpressed. silas deane was under instructions to obtain as early as possible a public acknowledgment of the independency of these states from the french king, but no such acknowledgment was forthcoming. weeks passed and then months. the french court said nothing. john dickinson, the lawyer from pennsylvania, had predicted this would happen. in his speech against independence back on july 1, dickinson had stood up to ridicule the notion that a written declaration would somehow be sufficient on its own
10:58 am
to convince foreign powers of our strength and unanimity. what rubbish, dickinson had said in that speech. what rubbish, before taking sides, the french will wait for us to start winning on the battlefield. the event of the military campaign, dickinson said, the event of the military campaign will be the best evidence of our strength, not some piece of paper you guys write today. dismissed at the time, dickinson proved to be prescient. it was only when the continental army routed the british forces at the battle of saratoga more than a year later, in october of 1777 that france began the formal negotiations that would culminate in the treaty of
10:59 am
commerce with the united states. signed in 1778. it was only then when france finally got out of the sidelines and other european rivals agreed to do the same. in spain, they were the next to sign on against the war against the british. in so doing, they recognize the united states as a free and independent country. after britain's defeat at yorktown, britain, too, would have to do the same. an article i of the treaty of paris, signed in october 1783 to mark the end of the war in the coming of the peace, british peace commissioner originally endorsed an agreement in which is for tannic majesty acknowledges -- is britannic majesty acknowledges the united states to be free, sovereign and
11:00 am
independent states. up, i want towrap move past the dunlap and newspaper transcriptions in the foreign language translations and turned to another set of declarations that has been hiding in plain sight. i'm thinking here about all of the subsequent declarations of independence. more than 100 of them that rebels, separatists, and state makers have crafted in other parts of the world since 1776 in direct imitation of ours.
11:01 am
the practice began quite quickly. by the time thomas jefferson and john adams passed away -- someone tell me on what day in what year they passed away. july 4, 1826. 50 years to the day since they finished their work. by the time jefferson and adams passed away, people in flanders, in haiti, in colombia, venezuela, mexico, argentina, guatemala, the united provinces, bolivia, and uruguay had all written their own declarations of independence. all of them modeled on ours. we know american travelers in chile and in mexico distributed translations of our declaration there in the years before they liberated themselves. and multiple translations of our declaration made their way to
11:02 am
colombia, venezuela and ecuador over the course of the 50 years after 1776. at half century known to scholars as the age of revolutions. you could call it the age of declarations, too. a harvard historian, david armitage, has shown that age of revolutions was just the first of four great waves of declaration making in global history since 1776. a second wave swept around the world in the immediate aftermath of the first world war. between 1918 and 1939, declarations of independence were central features of the demands for self-determination. the mark of the destruction of the ottoman empire, the romanoff
11:03 am
empire and the habsburg empire. and again, the debt to our own american declaration was obvious at every turn. for instance, when a czech nationalist signed the declaration for the mid-european union in october 1918, they did so with ink from an ink well from philadelphia's independence hall. two more great waves of declaration making have remade our world since the end of world war ii. once again immediately at that wars and and maintained momentum nd and maintained momentum for the next 30 years. historians regard of those three decades from 1945 until 1975 as the golden age of decolonization. a tumultuous, chaotic period in which some 70 new states, most of them former colonies of the british, french, and portuguese empires in africa and asia,
11:04 am
declared independence. a fourth wave of declarations crashed ashore more recently in the early 1990's following the collapse of the soviet union, as one former soviet socialist republic after another regained independence. now in 2019, a majority of the countries on this planet have their own declarations of independence. among them, bangladesh, belgium, finland, ireland, korea, liberia, malaysia, the philippines, singapore, syria and taiwan. some of these declarations, like the republic of vietnam 1945 declaration, quote our declaration word for word, which you can see on your handout.
11:05 am
others simply express their debt to our declaration with a bit more subtlety. in june of 1826, two weeks before he died, thomas jefferson wrote a letter to a friend in which he called america's 1776 declaration "an instrument pregnant with the fate of the world." how right he turned out to be. in the past 2.5 centuries, people around the world have used jefferson's declaration, our declaration, as one of the weapons of choice to try to extinguish and obliterate empires. our declarations pointed assertion of sovereignty and statehood is its most important global legacy, and it's significance can hardly be overstated. in our lifetimes, decolonization movements empowered by the original american declaration have continued to sweep the globe.
11:06 am
continuing to mark the unmistakable emergence of a world of states from the wreckage of a world of empires. here in the united states, our declaration has spawned hundred of american imitations. other declarations devoted to other causes that draw on the 1776 original to advance their own claims to freedom from other types of tyranny. the most famous of these is on the screen, the declaration of rights and sentiments written by elizabeth cady stanton, the 1848 women's rights convention in seneca falls, new york, a document which holds that all men and women are created equal. it goes on like that, replicating the language and moderating it and adapting it
11:07 am
throughout the document. it is not alone. really this is just the tip of the iceberg. there are many more american adaptations. in 1829, the utopian activist robert owen wrote a declaration of mental independence designed to free americans from private property, from organized religion, and the tyranny, ladies and gentlemen, of monogamous marriage. [laughter] prof. bell: the tyranny of monogamous marriage. [laughter] prof. bell: that same year, 1829, george henry evans authored the working man's declaration of independence, which did exactly what you think it did. the list goes on and on. if we skip forward, in 1970, african-american church leaders published the black declaration of independence. here is a quick excerpt. "the history of the treatment of
11:08 am
black people in the united states is a history having in direct object the establishment and maintenance of racist tyranny over this people. to prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world. the united states has evaded compliance to laws the most wholesome and necessary for our children's education. the united states has caused us to be isolated in the most dilapidated and unhelpful sections of all cities. the united states has allowed election districts to be so gerrymandered that black people find the right to representation in the legislature's almost impossible of attainment." there were dozens and dozens of these alternative declarations, and in 1976, the year of the bicentennial, a historian published a wonderful collection of these alternative declarations. i urge you to find that and read it. still, counting the number of
11:09 am
times americans have adapted the entire 1776 text, that is hardly the only way we can measure the enduring value of our declaration on the shores. a great many more americans have drawn much more selectively on the text of the declaration, focusing in of course on its second paragraph, the one that british lawyer had dismissed as a worthless preamble. "we hold these truths to be self-evident," jefferson and the delegates had written, "that all men are created equal." to be clear, jefferson was referring to the equality of peoples, plural, the american people and the british people. most readers since then have taken him to mean that all individual people are created equal.
11:10 am
a wonderful, powerful misreading that is imparted to our modern world a veritable golden rule for modern rights. a credo invoked in almost every aspirational, progressional advancement in history. think about our declaration's role in the fight against slavery in the united states. black americans, slave and free, heard in its ringing lines, a call to arms. an invitation to turn its abstract claims about equality into vibrant reality by any means necessary. in 1829, the free black radical david walker concluded his famous appeal to the colored citizens of the world by
11:11 am
inviting white americans to compare your own language extracted from your declaration of independence with your behavior, with your cruelty, your murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers and by yourselves on our fathers and on us. frederick douglass drove the same point home in rochester, new york on july 5, 1852. what, to the slave, is the fourth of july? how can black men and women enjoy that hallowed day or appreciate its significance as the birthday of this country's political freedom when white people hold securely in bondage a seventh part of the inhabitants of your country? what to a slave is the fourth of july?
11:12 am
these are free black people i have been quoting, and slave rebels also understood the declaration's power. it was the ideal of our declaration that inspired nat turner to plan his slave revolt for july 4. white abolitionists too returned to the declaration again and again, finding in its line their own consciousness. as virginia's john cook put it in 1829, if those words meant that no one man is born with a natural right to control any other man, the system of slavery in which men were born as subjects, and indeed the property of others is profoundly wrong. no one did more to constitute our declaration as a beacon toward which the people of the united states must hew than
11:13 am
abraham lincoln. the great emancipator. the declaration was, said lincoln, our manifest destiny. constantly looked to and constantly labored for. the assertion that all men are created equal was of no practical use in affecting our separation from great britain, lincoln wrote in an 1837 essay denouncing the recent dred scott decision. those lines were placed in the declaration not for that, but for future use. its authors meant it to be a stumbling block to all those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful path of despotism. when the civil war came, lincoln stuck to that same line of argument.
11:14 am
when he came to gettysburg, pennsylvania to dedicate the cemetery there for the union dead, the president noted that that decisive 1863 battle at gettysburg had taken place on that field on july 4. in his gettysburg address, lincoln argues that the union triumph was nothing less than a vindication of the proposition that all men are created equal. the union dead, he said, had heeded the declaration's challenge, bringing to this nation under god, a new birth of freedom. we survivors, he said, must finish the work the declaration had started. in lincoln's hands, the declaration becomes a living document that i think it remains today, a secular creed, a set of
11:15 am
goals to be realized over time. we can hear its echo in almost every call to expand freedom, equality, and civil rights in this country ever since. the declaration's promise of equal rights was a touchtone for advocates of the 13th amendment that abolished slavery, and the 14th amendment that guaranteed former slaves citizenship and equal protection. the declaration's language and ideas -- let's go back. the declaration's language and ideas reverberate through fdr's four freedoms of speech about global human rights and the threat of totalitarianism in 1941. during martin luther king jr.'s march in washington, he told crowds that our declaration was a promissory note to which every american was to fall heir. king's dream is actually the declarations dream.
11:16 am
king's hopes are rooted in the famous second paragraph. i still have a dream, he said, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. we can find the language of the declaration and the public debate surrounding every single civil rights act ever passed in american history. here is president lyndon johnson, sorry it is such a big quote -- here is president lyndon johnson speaking at the signing ceremony for the 1964 civil rights act, which took place not coincidentally on july 2, the anniversary of the date when the constitutional congress had declared independence. this is lyndon johnson. 188 years ago, a small band of valiant men began a long battle for freedom.
11:17 am
they pledged their lives, their fortune and their sacred honor to forge an ideal of freedom. not only for political independence but for personal liberty, not only to eliminate foreign rule but to establish the rule of justice in the affairs of men. we believe that all men are created equal, yet many are still denied equal treatment. we believe that all men have certain unalienable rights, yet many americans do not enjoy those rights. we believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty, yet still millions are being deprived of those blessings not because of their own failures but because of the color of their skin. in our own time, numerous civil rights activists, including disability advocates, labor advocates, immigration advocates, and gay marriage advocates, have all invoked our declaration. even as they have sought constitutional remedies, usually via the 14th amendment. while our declaration has never
11:18 am
have the full force of law, it has found its purpose as a means for rights seekers to seize the moral high ground. our declaration is the voice of idealism and humanity. it is what pricks our american conscience and reminds us what is right. it is what shames us and stirs us to lift our heads and do better. it is what pulls us forward. and there is a beautiful paradox in all of this, isn't there? this declaration of ours is an 18th-century document conceived, written and authorized by a group of white men of considerable privilege and power that has over time become a clarion call for everyone else, for african-americans, native americans, propertyless white men, and women to claim their equality of their birthrights.
11:19 am
this is where i will stop. as the harvard political scientist danielle allen has explained, the declaration matters now because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality. thank you very much indeed. [applause] prof. bell: we have time for a few minutes of questions and comments. if i call on you, please wait for the gentleman with the c-span microphone to come to you so you can be picked up for posterity, meaning forever and ever. lady right here. >> [indiscernible] was there not an original
11:20 am
calligraphy copy of the declaration sent to england immediately after it had been signed? or did it not get there until the dunlap broadsides? prof. bell: i'm not aware that there is an original calligraphy copy sent to king george as a fancy f-you sorry, c-span. [laughter] i tried really hard. it is the dunlop broadsides or something like it on the ship on july 8. the calligraphic thing in the rotunda now is ordered up at the end of july. it is engrossed, which is the word for some dude writing it out in fancy handwriting, at the end of july, start of august, and the signing of the delegates begins august 2, not july 2, as it mistakenly says in your handouts. it begins august the the signing second. does not all happen. there are not 56 people waiting
11:21 am
to sign, it is whoever is in the building on august 2. john hancock signs first and then there are dribs and drabs. it takes until the early months of 1777 to get all 56 signatures that you see today on to that document because people move around and some have not even been elected to that congress on july 2. subsequently signed the calligraphy. you may know this and you may not, there is a secret pattern to the order of the signatures. they are sort of grouped by geography. i think i have this right. if i am the declaration of independence, if john hancock's at my knees, the georgia delegation is to your bottom left, then we go from south to north until we end up with new hampshire at the bottom right. there is no secret on the back of the declaration of independence like nicolas cage
11:22 am
would tell you in national treasure. that that is the secret. i have a feeling you have a follow-up. >> with the broadsides, were the signers' names put on? prof. bell: no. my understanding is only john hancock's name was printed, not signed. this gentleman is correcting me. and the secretary. his name was? charles thompson i am being told is the name, i defer to the expertise of my audience. another hand, another question. the gentleman in the lime shirt. >> i have two questions. number one, in light of the 1829, 1830 statement, i believe you mentioned john locke? i forget the name. who had said all people are created equal at that time. how can roger tanny have the
11:23 am
audacity to say that slaves are property? and my second question has to do with it, i was always under the impression that king george iii was not really an absolutist as most of us seem to think, but that parliament had a great deal of influence in what was going on. prof. bell: thank you for the two questions. the first one, i would just point out that one of the reasons roger tony and other members of the supreme court could hand down opinions like the famous dred scott opinion from 1857 is that the declaration of independence has no force of law. it is our constitution that has the overriding force of law. interestingly, some judges even today confuse the two. there was a famous case, i won't
11:24 am
name the judge's name, partly because i can't remember, in 2013, the judge's name in virginia, her opinion quoted the constitution's famous line that all men are created equal, which is not in the constitution. many generations of scholars will tell you, the original 1787 constitution is at best ambivalent on the rights and liberties of black people, and many scholars would say you can pin down 10 or 12 proslavery provisions in the constitution, most famously the 3/5 compromise. that is why he could do that in 1857. the second question about the characterization of king george iii, i think you know where i'm going to go with this. which is to say that jefferson has an obvious reason to paint king george in the most diabolical, authoritarian,
11:25 am
all-powerful terms he can. it serves his polemical purpose. the truth is more nuanced. the role of parliament, as suggested, is more than jefferson allows in his charges. put another way, you can see the enduring effect of the declaration has been to demonize and stigmatize king george iii, who was all his many faults, was a pretty straightforward random 18th-century ruler, no better or worse than any other king of england or many other kings of europe at the time. not all-powerful, scheming despot, but that image remains. if any of you have seen "hamilton," king george is featured in several songs, very funny, and i hope you go see the show, but he is depicted as a psychopath, who to show his "love" will send a fully armed battalion to slaughter them all.
11:26 am
that lingering image of king george as a tyrant is proof positive of the enduring influence of jefferson's characterization. one more. >> in the 1990's, there were initiated american democratization groups sponsored by the u.s. government, the national democratic institute, the national republican institute that did training in europe to countries like hungary, etc. that were making a transition from dictatorship to democracy. they also looked at portuguese, etc., that was then. now, what do you see as the direction in which, including in our own country, particularly in the u.s. where the declaration
11:27 am
does not have the force of law, that there is a trend away from -- or is there? do you see a movement away from the equal rights, etc. that the declaration has laid out? prof. bell: it's hard to answer that with specificity because that's such a broad question about the role of the declaration in the modern era. i will say very simply that the constitution is not as bad now as i made it out to be in my previous answer. there are plenty of things to look to in the constitution for protection of liberties. the original constitution was drafted and to get ratified required a bill of rights. it was added to the constitution. we often look to the bill of rights as modern-day guarantees of liberty and protections and
11:28 am
so on. that continues in american political life today. i would also add that in every progressive advancement that bubbles up in 2019 and that will bubble up going forward, we will continue to find activists drawing on that wellspring of ideas, that we have a founding document, though it does not carry the force of law, which tells us that equality is important. i draw your attention to this new book by danielle allen, it came out a few years ago. it was on the previous slide. there it is. you notice the subtle book plugs of my own book there. this book makes that exact point, that for every example of people drawing on the declaration's promise of equality we have seen so far, we can hope and expect there will be just as many people drawing on it as we go forward. so if we use the declaration as our guide, i think the future is
11:29 am
bright enough. i will stop there. thank you, indeed. [applause] ♪
11:30 am
>> next on "the presidency," and encore from the c-span series "first ladies: influence and image." we will hear about sarah polk, who served alongside james k polk from 1845 to 1849. we will also hear about margaret taylor and abigail fillmore, first ladies during the administration of zachary taylor and millard fillmore.


info Stream Only

Uploaded by TV Archive on