The Declaration of Independence was one of the most crucial points in the historical evolution of the United States of America. Actually, it is in the Declaration of Independence that the combination "United States of America" was used for the first time. The document was crafted to proclaim the political intention of the colonies to become independent from the British Empire. In a long-term perspective, the Declaration launched a series of deep and far-reaching historical changes that eventually turned the U.S. into the most powerful state. The historical legacy of the Declaration is difficult to overestimate. Yet, its relevance and the actual meaning in present-day realities raise a number of questions. On the one hand, the Declaration creates and maintains a unique democratic rhetoric based on human dignity and inalienable human rights. On the other hand, democracy does not end with the protection of equality and individual rights. Such privileges should work for the benefit of every American citizen, but many Americans still struggle to feel, touch, and use the advantages promised by the founding fathers. The Declaration of Independence has set the stage for the birth of the democratic spirit in America, based on freedom and the protection of inalienable individual rights, but it is losing its relevance due to the rapid erosion of and failure to translate individual freedoms into productive growth in the American society.
The Declaration of Independence: Summary
The Declaration of Independence is the foundational pillar of American democracy. It is the starting point of the historical, political, and social development of America to its present state. The Declaration was passed and published by Congress on July 4, 1776. It creates a comprehensive picture of America's striving to be independent from Great Britain. The document begins with an Introduction – probably one of its most widely cited components. It refers to the Laws of Nature and Nature's God. Such references reinforce importance of equality and individual rights and justify the need for separation from the British Crown:
"it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them."
The passage is followed by the legendary reference to the inalienable rights of humans. These rights were presumably granted by the Creator. The reference also explains why governments are entitled to defend these rights and why subjects have the right to rebel, when these obligations are not followed. Overall, the Introduction creates a unique political atmosphere and justifies the importance of the document and its intent. The key message sent to the public is that the British Government has failed to protect the inalienable rights granted by the Creator, which is why its American subjects have the right to demand separation and independence.
The List of Grievances follows the Introduction. It adds specificity to the general comments provided in the Preamble. The 27 charges against the British King specify and describe various political and social violations the British Crown infringed upon their American colonies. For instance, the King of Great Britain "has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of people". The Declaration blames the King for not passing the laws that would benefit Americans.
The authors of the Declaration believed that the British Crown was too aggressive, establishing and maintaining standing armies during peace times. They were deeply dissatisfied with the continuous harassment of many colonists and the unfair trials that followed it. Even when the public discontent with the politics of the British Crown became evident, the Empire was not willing to handle the situation and solve the existing controversies. It is possible to say that the Declaration became the last straw in the fire of a continuous conflict between the American territories and the controlling power of Great Britain.
The conclusion of the Declaration presents a logical conception of how America would have to look and act to meet the political and social demands of its people. "We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, […] solemnly publish and declare, that these United Colonies are, and right ought to be, free and independent states". The authors also list the rights and powers the colonies will possess after gaining independence from Britain, including war and peace decisions, trade arrangements, and political alliances.
Generally, Thomas Jefferson and his allies compiled the Declaration of Independence to present a compelling picture of public dissatisfaction with the politics of the British King. Jefferson used the principles of traditional rhetoric, describing the main factors of such dissatisfaction and calling for action and change. The document was written in ways that would make it easier for the general audience to read and understand its political message. It became the starting point in America's movement towards independence, but its present-day relevance raises a number of questions.
The Declaration of Independence: Still Relevant Today?
Many people would argue that the Declaration of Independence remains the most important document in the American history. Definitely, the historical importance of the Declaration and its legacy can hardly be overstated. It was the starting point in the creation of the United States of America. It set the stage for the evolution and transformation of the U.S. into a free and democratic country. The rhetoric of equality and unalienable rights used in the Declaration was particularly important for the subsequent abolition of slavery. By the beginning of the 19th century, the message of equality spread beyond abolitionism, empowering many population and social groups in the U.S. to call for greater protection of their professional and individual rights. Unfortunately, with time, the promise of equality and the voice of justice became much weaker. At present, the society questions the legacy of the Declaration and its utility in contemporary political conditions.
As of today, the Declaration of Independence remains relevant to the extent that confirms the importance of individual rights and freedoms and the state's obligation to protect and enforce them. For most Americans, their rights and freedoms have become an inalienable ingredient of everyday routines. As a truly democratic state, the United States in America is governed by the principle of people's sovereignty. Most Americans perceive themselves as being powerful and capable of changing the political direction of their country and defending their rights in courts.
At the same time, the Declaration of Independence is losing its relevance due to the failure to translate individual freedoms into productive growth in the American society. It is wrong to believe that the words of the Declaration alone can suffice to bring peace and democracy to the American nation. Most Americans have learned to take their rights and freedoms without questioning them. They are deeply convinced that they are free to make individual decisions and act independently in their own interests, as long as such interests do not violate the rights of others. They are guided by an almost genetic desire to live their lives as they want, creating the best conditions for satisfying their personal needs. Yet, the American state has failed to create equal conditions for everyone's growth and development. For many population layers, the phrase 'inalienable rights' is a myth rather than a reality. It is possible to say that the Declaration has failed to fulfill its equality promise.
The middle of the 20th century witnessed an unprecedented rise of civil rights movements. Racial segregation and gender inequality did not fit into the picture of independence and self-realization proposed by Thomas Jefferson. Today, the spirit of equality has become the dominant theme of the political and population rhetoric in the U.S. Nonetheless, many forms of inequality and injustice remain deeply veiled. Tyson speaks of the growing income gaps in the U.S. Such gaps translate into limited education opportunities across various population layers. The democratic prosperity promised by the Declaration of Independence is nothing but a cover to the soaring inequality facing the entire country. Gender differentials in wages continue to persist. The latest events in Ferguson have uncovered serious racial tensions that keep influencing the American society. For many people in America, the Declaration of Independence is merely a piece of paper that does not bring any visible protection against discrimination and abuse.
No less controversial are the relationships between the society and the Government. The latter is being blamed for being too coercive and excessively powerful, thus infringing upon the rights and freedoms of American citizens. American officials have immersed themselves into a bloody quest for power. The severity of the charges against the British King in 1776 pales against the severity of the usurpations imposed by the American government on its people. "The growth of executive power has gone beyond what King George himself would have imagined, with the president asserting the right to assassinate anyone, including US citizens, without due process". The violent armed campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries suggest that Americans no longer have any strong voice in political decisions. They have to reconcile with constant surveillance and give up their rights for the sake of transparency that does not seem to have any limits.
The threat of terrorism and violence does not sound compelling enough to justify such violations. People in America are losing their powers. Individual and collective violations erode the democratic spirit the Declaration of Independence was intended to promote. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he hoped that the document would help his people to create and maintain better relationships with the ruling powers, including the Parliament. He also hoped that every citizen would have enough space, freedom, and power to become a productive member of the American society. It is high time for the present-day government to look back and see what the Declaration of Independence has to say. It still has the potential to become a powerful instrument of positive change in the hands of its people.
In conclusion, the Declaration of Independence is the foundational pillar of American democracy. It was the starting point in the evolution of America to its current state. The Declaration signified the birth of democratic spirit in America; unfortunately, it is losing its relevance due to the lack of equality and the rapid erosion of individual rights. The current state of economy and social life in the U.S. implies the need to revisit the Declaration of Independence. Since the middle of the 20th century, civil rights protection has been the country's top political priority. Today, gender and racial discrimination, wage inequalities, and unequal education opportunities create a barrier to democracy and deny the relevance of the Declaration of Independence in the challenging political environment. Nevertheless, the document still has the power and potential to become a driver of positive change in the hands of Americans.