David Armitage
The Declaration of Independence

After its publication, the Declaration rapidly entered national and international circuits of exchange. Copies passed from hand to hand, desk to desk, country to country, often with (to us) remarkable speed, but sometimes with perhaps less surprising inefficiency and mishap. To some, the Declaration could easily be ignored, while others sought it out, pored over it, or painstakingly translated it out of its original language. To yet others, it was a subversive document in an age when treason and revolution could be ignited by papers as readily as by rebels. 'The independence of the Anglo-Americans is the event most likely to accelerate the revolution that must bring happiness on earth,' remarked the French royal censor the Abbe Genty in 1787: 'In the bosom of this new republic are the true treasures that will enrich the world.' As if to fulfill this prophecy, for more than two centuries the Declaration provided others with just the template they would need to communicate their own political intentions to 'a candid World.'

Once the Declaration had embarked upon this international career, it broke loose from the circumstances of its birth. It took on a life of its own and became the model for what would in time become a global genre: No document before 1776 had ever been called a declaration of independence; in fact, the Declaration itself did not carry that title, nor did the word 'independence' appear anywhere in its text. For months before July 1776, however, contemporaries had been speaking of the need for 'an independency,' a 'declaration of independency,' or a 'declaration of independence.' On July 8, 1776, Jefferson sent 'a copy of the declaration of independence' to his fellow Virginian Richard Henry Lee. There could be no doubt, then, that the document issued by the Continental Congress and dated July 4, 1776, was a 'declaration' (as it called itself, in both its printed and manuscript versions), and that what it declared, first and foremost, was 'independence.' Once it had done so, and after it had traveled far and wide as a document, it could be imitated, plundered, and paralleled by the many other documents that constitute the genre of declarations of independence.

Urgent international pressures had compelled Congress to issue a declaration in the early summer of 1776. Accordingly, the Declaration reflected a range of concerns about security, defense, commerce, and immigration. As a document that announced the transformation of thirteen united colonies into the 'United States of America,' the Declaration marked the entry of those states into what would now be called international society. Its authors addressed it to 'the Opinions of Mankind' in diplomatic and legal language designed to render it acceptable to its audience beyond America. The Declaration thereby reflected changing conceptions of the international community of the Atlantic world. It helped to change that community by expanding its boundaries westward into North America and by opening American commerce to a wider world outside the limits previously set to it by the laws of the British Empire.

The American Declaration, like its successor declarations, was a document of state-making, not of nation-formation. It declared that what had formerly been dependent colonies within the British Empire were now independent states outside that empire's authority. It did so without mentioning 'Americans' or using the word 'nation.' Instead, it concentrated on the emergence of ‘one People’ assuming a separate and equal station 'among the Powers of the Earth' and declared that 'these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES.' The Declaration's statements regarding rights to 'Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness' were strictly subordinate to these claims regarding the rights of states, and were taken to be so by contemporaries, when they deigned to notice the assertions of individual rights at all. Thus a contemporary report in August 1776 noted that when the Declaration was first read out to the Continental troops at Ticonderoga, in western Pennsylvania, 'the language of every man's countenance was, Now we are a people! We have a name among the states of this world!' The first loyalty oath issued by the new United States similarly asked officials to 'acknowledge the UNITED STATES of AMERICA to be Free, Independent and Sovereign States, and declare that the people thereof owe no allegiance or obedience to George the Third, King of Great-Britain.'

American and foreign audiences found many different meanings in the Declaration during the decades immediately following 1776. Shifting international contexts in those years—of War, revolution, and state-formation—helped to change even the American understanding of the Declaration's central message from an assertion of statehood to a declaration of individual rights. Meanwhile, the circulation of the Declaration outside the United States encouraged a wider debate about the rights of states—especially new states, like the United States—to enter the international arena. The claims regarding individual rights in the Declaration's second paragraph played little part in these broader discussions. They would not be seen as crucial to the Declaration's meaning for an international audience until the advent of a global rights movement in the second half of the twentieth century.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.