J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2017

The Declaration as Historiography

Inspired by the Course of Human Events blog’s “Fresh Takes” project, I’ve been thinking about the Declaration of Independence as a historiographical text. It presents a philosophy of history, describes historical events, and bases its argument on history.

Philosophically, the Declaration reflects Whiggish ideas about the origin of government and the legitimacy of some past revolutions:
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The document finds weight in the passage of time, expressing a respect for “Governments long established.” But it also acknowledges, again drawing on the past, that tyrannies have gone on too long: “all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

At the core of the Declaration is an examination of more recent history as ”a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object”:
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. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world. . . .
The grievances that follow can all (sometimes with a little squinting) be connected to at least one event in the preceding ten to twelve years.

Finally, in addressing the British nation, the Continental Congress wrote: “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” While looking ahead, the Congress was looking back.


Jim Padian said...

History tends to ignore the role played by The Suffolk Resolves as the prime source document for Jefferson.

J. L. Bell said...

Pauline Maier’s American Scripture showed how many American political documents fed into the Declaration. The second paragraph of the Suffolk Resolves does indeed list grievances that were echoed in the Declaration. I suspect the same complaints appear in other county resolves, probably not expressed as passionately as Dr. Joseph Warren wrote. The actual Resolves themselves address a different state of the resistance to Parliament, stopping well short of independence from the king.