How the Declaration of Independence
became a beacon to the world
The Declarationâ€™s international reach
By Charles Edel
Charles Edel is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of
Sydney, and previously served on the U.S. Secretary of State’s policy planning staff.
July 3, 2019 The Washington Post
â€œThe truths of the Declaration of Independence are not limited by time or place,â€ John
Quincy Adams wrote in 1839. â€œThey belong to the nature of man in every age and every
clime. They may be subdued, but they can never be suppressed. They are truths at
Constantinople and Pekin, at London and Paris, at Charleston and at Philadelphia.â€ To
Adams, the document showed that America was an idea and an ideology as much as it
was a place.
The original writers of the Declaration intended to produce a document to reassure
Americans of the justness of their cause, and to appeal to potential supporters abroad.
But over time, the Declaration of Independence took on a much greater meaning. It was
used as an announcement of a new nationâ€™s founding, as a diplomatic appeal for
recognition, as a statement of political philosophy and as a call to defend liberty at home
Today, as our democracy comes under pressure at home and from hostile actors abroad,
the Declaration is as relevant as ever. Not because our times mirror those of 1776 but
because they are another step in the continuing evolution of the Declarationâ€™s meaning,
both within the United States and across the world.
One of the original purposes of the Declaration was to persuade the 13 colonies about
the perilous and necessary undertaking they were about to embark upon, and to affirm
what their political revolution was for and what it was against. It was also intended as an
international declaration: a diplomatic statement that the citizens of the newly
independent United States were not mere rebels, but sovereign actors who had legal
claims to independence, diplomatic recognition and material support.
Over the years, however, the Declaration took on new meanings. According to the
historian Pauline Maier, the document was almost completely forgotten by the new
American government. But it was later revived by Jeffersonâ€™s supporters as a means to
justify an alternative political vision, and was subsequently â€œelevated into something
akin to holy writ, which made it a prize worth capturing on behalf of one cause after
another.â€ And, in Abraham Lincolnâ€™s potent hands it â€œbecame not a justification of
revolution, but a moral standard by which the day-to-day policies and practices of the
nation could be judged.â€
While it might have been written at a particular moment, its expansive language meant
that over time, other groups and people would reinterpret the Declarationâ€™s demands for
equality, liberty and â€œunalienable rights.â€ At the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848,
women inserted themselves into this self-evident truth with the claim that â€œall
men and women are created equal.â€ A few years later, one of their supporters,
abolitionist Frederick Douglass, transformed the words of the Declaration into a call for
racial justice and emancipation. He sought not to reject â€œthe great principles it containsâ€
or â€œthe genius of American Institutions,â€ but rather recognized that it was the very
transferability of the Declarationâ€™s principles to contemporary circumstances that gave it
But if theirs were calls for the rights inherent to all Americans, there were others who
saw the value of the Declaration abroad as well. Hence John Quincy Adamsâ€™s belief that
the Declarationâ€™s message would one day have resonance in Istanbul and Beijing like it
did in Charleston or Philadelphia. Delivering his famous July Fourth address of 1821,
Adams, then serving as secretary of state, proclaimed that the central message of the
Declaration was â€œthe successful resistance of a people against oppression, the downfall
of the tyrant and tyranny itself.â€ For Adams, and for many subsequent Americans, this
was Americaâ€™s mission, and it had universal application.
Shortly before World War I broke out in 1914, Woodrow Wilson reflected on the
Declarationâ€™s meaning for a nation well over a century after its writing. He called on a
crowd in Philadelphia to breathe new life into the document, to find ways to translate its
lofty ideals into real-world policies. Four years later, having taken American into a war
to make the world safe for democracy, he expanded his call, arguing that â€œit is our
inestimable privilege to concert with men out of every nation what shall make not only
the liberties of America secure but the liberties of every other people as well.â€
If the notion of bringing the promises of the Declaration to the world was not new, the
rise of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany transformed the Declaration yet again. As the
storm clouds gathered before a second, and even more violent, world war, Franklin
Roosevelt on July 4, 1941, noted â€œin the past few years-a new resistance, in the form of
several new practices of tyranny, has been making such headway that the fundamentals
of 1776 are being struck down abroad, and definitely they are threatened here.â€
No longer was it sufficient to simply promote freedom at home or link arms with other
nations to restore the peace, as the United States had done in 1918. To Roosevelt and his
successors, the rise of these new ideologically committed and powerful tyrannies
demanded that the Declarationâ€™s cause become one of proactively responding to threats,
harnessing the collective powers of the free world and leading the fight against
In the early years of the Cold War, after North Korea shattered the rough peace by
invading South Korea, Harry Truman updated the Declaration for the new leadership
role the nation was assuming. Broadcasting from the Washington Monument on July 4,
1951, he warned that â€œfreedom must be fought for today, just as our fathers had to fight
for freedom when the Nation was bornâ€ because freedom was under attack on a
worldwide basis. It was an attack, Truman declared, that must be met: â€œIf we with all
that we have in our favor do not succeed, no other free government can survive â€”
anywhere in the world â€” and the whole great experiment that began in 1776 will be over
and done with.â€
Truman also believed that fulfilling the â€œwhole great experimentâ€ required seeing
Americaâ€™s domestic and international efforts as two sides of the same coin. â€œIt is for this
reason,â€ Truman declared, â€œthat persecution of minorities, which is wrong anywhere, is
worse in America.â€ This meant that that the nationâ€™s legitimacy as a sovereign nation
would always be judged against the promise of its ideals and measured next to its
commitment to extending those rights to others. And if the country ensured those rights
at home, America could be a model to the world as it lent a helping hand to those
struggling against oppression anywhere.
The Declaration was written to justify the independence of the early American republic.
But its message of unalienable rights, equality and liberty have echoed through time and
across borders. As the historian David Armitage has observed, the Declaration served as
the model for some 193 other nations including Haiti in 1804, New Zealand in 1835,
Vietnam in 1945, Israel in 1948 and, more recently, Kosovo in 2008. This message
speaks to men and women seeking freedom from oppressive governments. The
resonance of the Declaration of Independence might be in its universality, but its power
derives from its ability to speak to changing circumstances, and as Fredrick Douglas
declared, its demand to â€œmake it useful to the present and to the future.â€
The Fourth of July offers an opportunity to reflect on Americaâ€™s birth, history and
mission. It also serves as a reminder that Americaâ€™s influence derives from the power of
our example, that Americaâ€™s motivating ideology has always been resistance to tyranny,
and that the American Revolution was a moral statement embodied in the Declaration
of Independence: equality for all under the law, a government subordinate to the people
and a commitment to promoting liberty at home and abroad.
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