Which Declaration of Independence?

800px-summerfest_2008_fireworks_70551When you are at your Fourth of July cookout or fireworks display this week, see if anyone mentions the Declaration of Independence.  If they do, ask “which Declaration of Independence?”  After all, there are more than one.

 In her 1997 book American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, historian Pauline Maier describes the events leading up to July 4, 1776 and points to multiple “other” Declarations of Independence issued by local legislative bodies earlier that year.  Declarations were issued in a variety of places, including Buckingham County (Virginia), Charles County (Maryland), and Natick, Massachusetts.  In most cases, these “other” Declarations took the form of instructions from the citizens of a particular geographic area to their elected representatives in the state legislature or in the Continental Congress.  After recounting the unjustified treatment of the colonies by the Crown, these documents authorize the peoples’ representatives to vote in favor of severing ties with England.  However, some of these Declarations take a different form, such as a judge instructing a grand jury on the source of their legal authority in the absence of a Royal Governor.

Virtually all of these “other” Declarations are similar in structure and content to the “real” Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson and the Committee of Five that was charged with explaining the reasons for the Revolution by the Continental Congress.  Critics of Ms. Maier have questioned whether it is accurate to characterize these written records as if they were in fact standalone Declarations of Independence from Great Britain.  There may in fact be a bit of hyperbole in Ms. Maier’s designation.

 It is nonetheless striking to observe how rapidly the general public in the colonies, spread across a vast and somewhat isolated territory, arrived at a common understanding of both the need to separate from Great Britain and the philosophical justification (morally and politically) for taking such a step.  At the close of 1775, most colonists still sincerely hoped to resolve their differences with the Crown and to remain a part of the British Empire.  More significantly, their elected leaders serving in the Continental Congress shared that hope.  By the time that Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the “real” Declaration of Independence was adopted in July of the following year, the public mood was decidedly in favor of independence. 

Is it possible that a spontaneous change of opinion swept across the colonies over the course of six months?  Admittedly, the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and that pamphlet’s rapid circulation, did much to create a common framework for colonists to re-think their relationship with England.  However, there is also evidence that a larger plan was at work.  Maier’s analysis of the “other” Declarations of Independence reveals how a relatively small group of thinkers concluded that revolution was unavoidable and set out to move public opinion away from continued membership in the British Empire. 

 These “other” Declarations served two purposes in furtherance of this plan.  First, they united the general public around a similar factual chronology of abuses and around a similar legal justification that King George had broken his social contract with the colonies.  Second, the instructions transmitted to the elected representatives of the people put pressure on reluctant lawmakers to support independence.  Colonial assemblies where revolutionary spirit was the strongest adopted resolutions that had strikingly similar language, and these resolutions were then circulated among colonies that were dragging their heels.  When the Pennsylvania assembly refused to change its instructions, denying their delegates the authority to vote in favor of independence, the Continental Congress issued a veiled call on the people of Pennsylvania to topple their standing government and replace their legislators (which they did).  This sequence of events has all of the hallmarks of a coordinated modern campaign to generate “grassroots” support for a particular legislative objective.

 The “other” Declarations of Independence were clearly pieces of an overall strategy designed to lay the groundwork for a vote authorizing revolution, although the identity of the main architect of this strategy is lost in the mists of time (Maier sees John Adams’ fingerprints).   Hundreds of years later, Walter Lippmann would revolutionize the way that we understand politics by focusing on the means by which policymakers “manufacture” the consent of the general public.   Today we take for granted attempts by politicians to frame the public debate, to create a compelling narrative, and to otherwise define the way in which the general public will perceive a complex factual environment.  These are the essential components of building public support for government initiatives in a democracy.  Maier’s recounting of the history of the Declaration of Independence reminds us that these tactics are not modern inventions, but have an ancient pedigree.

George Orwell warned us of the need to be vigilant against the abuses of these tactics.  It is easy to be cynical about the perpetual motion machine of think tanks, “talking heads,” and press releases that is designed to influence what we believe and to mold our opinions.  History also shows how the tools of propaganda can be used to divide and oppress people.

However, efforts to mold public opinion can also be a very powerful force when harnessed in furtherance of an expanded public good.  The Civil Rights movement can be viewed in this context.  When the Continental Congress voted to adopt the “real” Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it was the culmination of a concerted campaign to promote a radical expansion of human freedom.  The result was an achievement that we rightly celebrate this week.  Let the fireworks begin!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Richard M. Esenberg

    Good holiday themed post. I believe the term for this today is “earned media.”

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