Three Misconceptions about the Declaration of Independence

“The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit — as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration.”– Garry Wills


Americans have always celebrated Independence Day as an important moment in the development of the American character. Still, I wonder if Americans today don’t have a radically different understanding of the Declaration of Independence than earlier generations did. Indeed, the original meaning of the Declaration seems to have been eclipsed by subsequent events. In particular one could argue, as Gary Wills does, that Americans understand July 4, 1776 through the lens of November 19, 1863- the date of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

That short speech has become a fixed part of the American psyche and I would argue that we are worse off for it. In those 10 sentences lie not only the foundational elements of Lincoln’s political thought, but also a blueprint for a drastic recasting of the American constitutional order. So, on this Independence Day, I would ask the reader to take a moment to consider exactly which “Declaration of Independence” it is that we are celebrating- is it the “Declaration” of Lincoln or that of the Founders? For the two are wholly incompatible.


Much of what Lincoln says in the Gettysburg Address can be seen as a direct commentary on the Declaration. Notably, it is the Declaration and not the United States Constitution that Lincoln sees as the centerpiece of the American political order. There are three underlying principles of Lincoln’s political thought that can be drawn out through a close examination of the Address, and all have to deal, more or less directly, with his peculiar interpretation of the Declaration:

1) America was founded, as a “nation”, in 1776.

2) America has been, since its inception, established upon universal truths.

3) America is, at its heart, revolutionary.

These propositions deserve individual treatment. Each of them represents not only a misunderstanding of American history, but a deeply flawed political theory. And each of them has been increasingly accepted by each subsequent generation of Americans.


1) America was founded, as a “nation”, in 1776.

The line “four score and seven years ago” points back, from 1863, to the year 1776 and not, as one might expect when talking about the founding of America, to the ratification of the Constitution. Lincoln has two reasons for emphasizing the Declaration over the Constitution: one philosophical, to be discussed in the following section, and one practical, based on Lincoln’s historical understanding of the American founding.

To Lincoln, the issuance of the Declaration of Independence symbolized an era of pre-Constitutional national unity: the American colonies were engaged in a united struggle against British rule and joined together to collectively announce their new identity as a nation. Lincoln saw this moment as the precise beginning of the national American government.

Advancing this theory of the founding was absolutely critical for Lincoln. He was fighting a war against a Southern polity that was premised around an opposite conceptualization of the founding. The Southern states considered themselves to be sovereign nations in their own right and parties to a “compact.” This “Compact Theory” of the Constitution posited that the 13 original states, after they had won their own individual independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War, had then only surrendered a portion of their sovereignty to the national government in ratifying the Constitution. As sovereign states, they had as much a right to withdraw from that compact as the modern US does to leave the United Nations.

Lincoln’s narrative precluded such an argument. If the American nation- starting with the Declaration- was historically prior to the states as political entities, then any efforts to reclaim a state’s residual sovereignty were invalid attempts to get in between the “American people”- considered in the aggregate- and their government. As a rhetorical ploy, Lincoln’s narrative works well; the only problem with it is that it is not supported by the historical record. The Declaration did not symbolize the birth of any pre-constitutional American “nation,” chiefly because, just as the states were engaged in fighting their own wars for independence, they authorized their own declarations for independence as well. By July 4, 1776, delegates to the Continental Congress from 12 of the 13 colonies had already received prior authorization by their state governments to declare independence. The delegates from New York had not been authorized by their state legislature to vote in favor of independence and thus abstained from voting until weeks later. Even though the states collaborated with one another in fighting for, and declaring, their independence, there is absolutely no historical evidence that they saw themselves as comprising a singular “nation” in the sense Lincoln used the word.

2) America was, at its inception, built upon universal truths.

Lincoln’s reliance upon the Declaration of Independence was also due to the fact that the Declaration, unlike the Constitution, easily lends itself to a political theory based on abstract, universal principals. Lincoln wrote in 1859 that the Declaration put forth “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” In the same letter, Lincoln goes on to write that the “principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.” In the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Lincoln claimed that the writers of the Declaration “meant to get up a standard maxim for free society…. which declares that ‘all men are created equal.’”

To see the Declaration as advancing this kind of timeless principle is perhaps even more common today than in Lincoln’s time, but it is nonetheless a very flawed reading of the text. For one thing, once the reader gets past the first four sentences of the Declaration (if the reader gets past the first four sentences of the Declaration), it becomes very clear that the author is much less interested in the kind of “standard maxim for a free society” that Lincoln is advocating. Rather, the reader finds a laundry list of violations of the traditional British common law. In other words, the Declaration of Independence is very much bound to its own historical setting. The great conservative scholar M.E. Bradford picks up on this, arguing that “to anyone familiar with English letters and the English mind in the 17th and 18thcenturies, the Declaration of Independence is clearly a document produced out of the mores majorum- legal, rhetorical, poetic- and not a piece of reasoning or systematic truth.”

3) America is, at its heart, revolutionary.

So Lincoln’s conception of the Declaration as a work of abstract philosophy is, once again, based on bad history. Yet there is an even more dangerous consequence of Lincoln’s reliance on universal principles. Implicit in basing a political theory on abstract philosophical principles is a belief that society must be constituted upon those principles and that any society that is not must be replaced.

To this effect, Lincoln spoke repeatedly throughout his career about the need for a “new act of founding” which could potentially undo the damage done by the ratification of the Constitution and return the country to the principles embodied in the Declaration. His entire conception of America as being a “new nation” recently “conceived” demonstrates the extent to which he saw 1776 as a radical break from the past. Yet how closely does this conform to the historical record? Exactly how “revolutionary” was the Revolutionary War? It certainly didn’t uproot the social hierarchy or even drastically alter the political and legal institutions that made up colonial America. In other words, the American “Revolution” was not “revolutionary” at all- at least not in comparison to those historical revolutions which have truly been based upon abstract, universal principles.

Nevertheless, in spite of his status as a recent conservative icon, Lincoln’s political theory celebrates radical, truly revolutionary political change. Indeed, this approach of leveling society and then rebuilding it to conform to a set of abstract philosophical principles has always been the foundation of every revolutionary political ideology: from Plato on down through Rousseau and the French Jacobins, and then up to the modern revolutionary crisis with Marx, the story remains the same. Lincoln, however pleasant his “universal principles” might sound to the modern ear, was willing to do incredible things in order to conform America to the abstract vision in his head. Just how far he was willing to go is up for debate. But a hard look at the historical record leaves Lincoln looking more like a revolutionary than a conservative, despite modern attempts by “conservatives” to appropriate him.


Each of these political principles appears as a factual proposition. As a historical matter, each of these propositions proves false. As a matter of political theory, each of the propositions lends itself to very dangerous results. Whatever the Revolutionary War and the original Declaration of Independence might have lacked as “revolutionary” political actions- with the word “revolutionary” understood in its most radical and deadliest sense- has been compensated for tenfold by the revolution that followed directly from Lincoln’s vision of America.

So, once again, my question for the reader: when you celebrate the Declaration of Independence this 4th of July, exactly what are you celebrating? Is it the Declaration of state sovereignty, historical particularity, and continuity with the past? Or is it the Declaration of the American “nation,” universal abstraction, and revolution? I’m afraid I already know the answer.

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Categories: Declaration of Independence, Federalism, Ideology, Secession, The Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “Three Misconceptions about the Declaration of Independence

  1. Pingback: July Fourth Reflections on the Declaration of Independence - Front Porch Republic

  2. Lincoln is for the Fathers, what Paul is for the Evangelists. He is a Re-Founder of the United States, and this is undoable. The question is what to do with it…

  3. prsancho

    Oh! And Happy Fourth of July

  4. Greg

    I am sorry, but I can’t allow this flawed analysis to go by on the Fourth of July. The issue with the Confederacy was that they argued that they had a constitutional right to secede — which, according to any plain reading of the U.S. Constitution, is a perversion of the document. They certainly had a revolutionary right to secede, but this wasn’t their argument…and it was interesting that their own constitution did not preserve the right to secession. Was this because it was self-evident? If so, based on what principle? Historical or natural? Speaking of natural, the argument against Lincoln’s “abstract rights” argument doesn’t not seriously confront his point: the universal truths in the Declaration were not “abstract” in the sense of being inapplicable. They were eminently real-world principles — aka, individuals have the right to liberty, to own property, to produce stuff. These rights were concretized in British common law, but the end of such rights were not British common law in the American conception of rights. They were universal natural rights guaranteed to all individuals, and not just the right of Englishmen. And before this reasoning leads people to yell “Straussian!” or “Abstractions,” please consider that these arguments are also made not by people who consider themselves Straussians, and by people (like me) who are critical of Straussians in some respects (as in his misguided criticism of Burke). The Fourth of July signifies a political, not social revolution. Ben is correct in that the American Revolution did not uproot social hierarchy, but American independence did signify substantive shifts in societal practices from British aristocratic culture, such as America’s preoccupation with forming civic groups and its denunciation of the artificial aristocracies of British culture. For all of the incredible benefits of British political culture, it simply did not cultivate a political culture as vibrant and participatory as America’s Tocquevillian political environment. For that reason, among many, America is exceptional…which does not mean it has always been right; which does not mean that it was right in going to war with Iraq; which does not mean it is not immune from criticism. But it does mean that America has done more than any other nation in human history in defending the poor; defeating evil; honoring the dignity of each individual, regardless of social status; and allowing individuals and communities to pursue their relationship with God in a profound and intimate manner.

    For those reasons, America is exceptional.

    Happy Fourth of July.

  5. Lincoln said: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

    My take on what Lincoln meant was:

    “Eighty-seven years ago the founding fathers gave birth to (conceived of) a free nation, based on their common understanding of a universal principle that all men were created equal. The Civil War was testing whether or not this kind of founding would ever work. That is to say, the Civil War was a test of both veracity and sustainability of those universal principles.”

    Lincoln is generally portrayed as a humorist, a great storyteller, but also as rail-splitting country bumpkin who could barely find his way to Washington. Did he really think that deeply about the manifest destiny of a philosophical abstract like universal equality of all men at birth? Or was Lincoln just a man on a mission to end slavery, like may other abolitionists. Was his appeal to the Declaration over the ratification of the Constitution due to his habit of speak poetically. Maybe “four score and seven” sounded better than “three score and twelve.”

    I have to agree with Ben, though — Lincoln was over-reaching and appealing to some revisionist history. Most notably, those 1776 founders, which included delegates from the slave states of Georgia, the Carolinas, and most prominently from Virginia, were anything but mutually dedicated to a proposition of the universal equality of all men.

  6. He was a practical man, in the middle of a war. It was out of necessity that he needed to justify his side of the struggle. His speech is a rethoric piece, targeting Americans of his own time. What one should do with it once it became History, it is another matter entirely.

    [I cannot go on. Be back later]

  7. Greg,

    Secession is perfectly legal under the U.S. Constitution, provided that you see the document as a voluntary treaty between fully sovereign and fully independent states- the Confederate states obviously did, Lincoln obviously did not. This is a historical question, not a legal one. It’s also a question that many states took for granted (see the Hartford Convention, as well as New York and Virginia explicitly retaining the right to secede when they ratified).

    Does the U.S. Constitution do a good job of explaining exactly how “federal” or how “consolidated” the new government will be? No. Does it make clear how much of their sovereignty the once-independent states would retain? Not really- the arguments for retained sovereignty based on the 10th Amendment are counterweighed by the language of “we the people of the United States” (the language of a social contract, not a confederation of existing states). I would argue that the historical record, though, makes up for that ambiguity with cases such as Rhode Island, which initially refused to ratify the Constitution and were treated as an independent nation until such time as they did. One could also argue that if the Constitution were designed to completely strip the states of their sovereignty, it was incredibly short-sighted to not explicitly state so. However, whereas the U.S. Constitution is somewhat ambiguous on this question, the Confederate Constitution *explicitly* establishes a “Confederation” of states. Printing a right to secede in their Constitution would be incessantly redundant, as it would have been completely taken for granted.

    As to Lincoln’s “abstraction” I would argue that any political theory based on “definitions,” “axioms,” and “general maxims” is going to be inherently abstract. Lincoln’s political theory may have gotten after “real-world principles”, but it is undeniable that he found in the Declaration “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” My point is that this is a questionable reading. Yes, they make brief usage of the Scottish Enlightenment/Lockean language of natural rights (and I’ll go ahead and concede that it is quite poetically done, at that), but a fair reading of the whole Declaration makes it clear that their list of grievances is quite historically specific. You or I might take it for granted that the “suspension of our legislatures” is a violation of our rights, but then transposing that to the rest of the world outside our peculiar Anglo-American legal tradition (which I am exceedingly thankful for) seems to ignore how long it took our ancestors to develop that tradition. Or, in more Voegelinian terms, it mistakes the Existence of Order for the Order of Existence.

    I am *highly* interested in hearing your evidence for unvalidated two claims you seem to make: 1) the Americans were interested more in abstract, universal rights than in their traditional rights as Englishmen (the Declaration by itself doesn’t seem very convincing; 2) the type of civic involvement and social participation that Tocqueville describes was a consequence of the Revolution.

    Like you, as grateful as I am for the British common-law constitution heritage, I am glad to also have the American heritage of localism, Nisbettian social associations, Tocquevillian democratic participation, etc. I see these elements as the absolute best parts of the American tradition. I also see them threatened by an overbearing centralized state, excessive social atomism, and the replacement of authentic local pride with an abstract, nondescript nationalism. America might have, at one time, been exceptional in the way you describe, but we’ve spent the past 150 years trying like hell to become like the rest of the world. Like him or not, Lincoln’s America was a huge step in the direction of losing that which Tocqueville praised.

    • Greg

      Lots to address, but I’ll zero in on your two specific points of contention: “1) the Americans were interested more in abstract, universal rights than in their traditional rights as Englishmen (the Declaration by itself doesn’t seem very convincing; 2) the type of civic involvement and social participation that Tocqueville describes was a consequence of the Revolution. ”

      I reject the premise of your conception of “abstract’ — the long list of specific grievances against the Crown in the Declaration emphatically showed that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were anything but “abstract.” There were real-world consequences that flowed from a rejection of this natural right to life, liberty, and property, and the Founders were acutely aware of this reality. If the “rights of Englishmen” thesis were accurate, then the Founders would have continued to appeal to these particular rights after 1776, but this simply did not happen. Constitutional debates after 1776 shifted colonists’ political rhetoric from the “rights of Englishmen” to “natural rights” — and the fact that Patriots universalized this principle of rights further highlights a significant political and philosophical shift from British to American political thought.

      And to clarify: I wholeheartedly agree that American civic engagement was not a direct consequence of the American Revolution, as levels of civic engagement predated 1776. My point simply was to show that people who attempt to characterize the United States as a mere appendage of British political and social culture blithely overlooks significant differences between the two cultures — one of which was, as Tocqueville observed, the proliferation of voluntary civic groups in a place (America) where there was no artificial monarchy and aristocracy. To quote from an essay I wrote elsewhere (

      “One sharp difference between America and Britain, as Tocqueville noted in Democracy, was that voluntary associations flourished in America precisely because the new nation broke from particular features of British political and social culture: namely, the English maintenance of aristocratic hierarchies. “[T]he English execute very great things in isolation. . .” Tocqueville wrote, because “[i]n aristocratic societies men have no need to unite to act because they are kept very much together.”[xv] Since the democratic peoples in the United States were “independent and weak[xvi]” and did not rely on a state-supported aristocracy to champion causes in America, the only way to draw strength to accomplish goals and address community problems was to unite into groups.”

      1776 affirmed this political and social shift from Great Britain.

      You can have the last word.

  8. Reblogged this on aurorawatcherak and commented:
    I find agreement with the first argument and need to think on the others. It’s a good discussion, however, of the Founding and how Lincoln and post-Lincoln rhetoric have changed modern views of the Founding. The comments that follow are as instructive as the post itself.

  9. Ben,
    As someone who has clearly given a lot of thought to this topic, I am curious how you would respond to the following criticisms:

    1. How does viewing the Constitution as a “voluntary treaty” meaningfully impact the legality of secession? Governments derive their legitimacy from the governed, so there doesn’t seem to be a practical reason why the masses could not choose an American sovereign over the sovereignty of their individual states. Treating non-members as independent nations before they joined does not necessarily mean those entities retain an independent status afterwords. The American nation could be thought of like a marriage, with no ties until the point of union when “[w]hat therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

    2. Is it really possible to understand the state/federal relationship under the Constitution without comparison to the Articles of Confederation? You’ll note that the Articles were very clear about defining the states as retaining full independence. How would you conceptualize the changes in description from the Articles to the Constitution, especially in light of the Constitution being drafted as a response to the failings of the Articles, in a manner that retains full state sovereignty?

    • Jon,

      1) I find it interesting that both sides of this debate agree that “the people” are sovereign, but the question then becomes “which people?” Is it “the people of the United States” considered as some undifferentiated mass, or is it “the people of Georgia,” “the people of South Carolina,” etc. If the latter, then “the masses” might shift their allegiance to the national government, but as long as the sovereign people of a particular state are willing to assert that sovereignty, they have every right to do so. If memory serves me rightly, the marriage analogy is one of several that Lincoln makes. But for it to make sense, you would have to see the Union as something more than a voluntary confederation of sovereign states- something that isn’t patently obvious, given either the text of the Constitution or the historical record. Once again, I doubt that very many people would deny that the US has every right to unilaterally withdraw from the United Nations, should it so please. From the point of view of the “Compact Theory,” there would be no difference (except of course the practical consideration that Northerners and Southerners share strong cultural, ethnic, and historical ties with each other that they largely don’t share with the rest of the world).

      2) There was certainly widespread debate at the time of the ratification over whether the proposed Constitution was “national” or “federal” (meaning confederal) in nature (a distinction that gets confusing when one considers that the so-called “federalists” generally supported a National constitution and the so-called “anti-federalists” supported a Federal one). Some members of both camps voted for ratification. There was no widespread agreement on the nature of the Constitution at that time and, to obfuscate the historical record further, some federalists like Hamilton lied through their teeth to make the Constitution seem less National than it actually was. On the other hand, one thing Lincoln never fully explains is why the Constitution, if it were purely “national,” was ratified on a state-by-state basis. At any rate, I would agree that the Constitution was intended to institute a stronger government than the Articles of Confederation would allow for. I would also point out that the states were *explicitly* guaranteed continued authority over all but a handful of areas of public policy (10th Amendment). It’s a complicated issue, but on the whole I find nothing to convince me that the states weren’t free to leave the Union unilaterally.

      Or am I missing something?

      As always, thanks so much for reading!

  10. Jon White

    Mr. David, I hope this might be helpful and germane. “The Wayward Sisters: North Carolina and Rhode Island in the Ratification Debate.”

  11. Pingback: Misconceptions? What Misconceptions? | Beyond the GOP

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