Essays & Reviews

To Make a People: Strategic Rhetoric and the Declaration of Independence

With characteristic drollness, Mark Twain announced to a thousands-strong audience on Independence Day, 1886, in Keokuk, Iowa, that his most substantive contribution to the celebration would be to end the speechifying. But before doing so, Twain reminded his audience how they’d just listened to a recitation of the entire Declaration of Independence,

with its majestic ending, which is worthy to live forever, which has been hurled at the bones of a fossilized monarch, old King George the III, who has been dead these many years, and which will continue to be hurled at him annually as long as this republic lives. You have heard the history of the nation from the first to the last—from the beginning of the revolutionary war, past the days of its great general, Grant, told in eloquent language…[.]

All there remained for him to do, Twain noted, was to “add the verdict…and that is, ‘It is a successful day.’”

The CSD Masthead wishes to all of our Classics of Strategy & Diplomacy community and readers a most successful and celebratory holiday weekend, whether feeling fossilized after this year of COVID or not. And while we might not task you with a full tour of American history, we may hold out hope that as one part of your celebration, you’ll take a moment to follow an old American tradition, and read the entire Declaration of Independence beyond its famous phrases proclaiming the belief in the self-evident truths of human liberty and political equality. We may even hope that afterward, you’ll sit awhile with the latent considerations of politics and statecraft, diplomacy, international relations, and grand strategy—of Grand Politics as it were, (or at least, Politics with a capital “P”)—that the act as well as the words of the Declaration represent.

For the Declaration is a diplomatic event, however revolutionary (and therefore contentious) its tone and intent. It is the public rationale that the Continental Congress issued to the world, explaining “with a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” why it had voted on July 2nd, 1776, to break from Great Britain. In that respect, writes American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Gary J. Schmitt:

the Declaration was as much a foreign policy document as a simple statement of the governing principles by which both our break from London and our future government was to be judged. A government’s failure to take account of the fact that “all men are created equal” and a failure to secure men’s individual rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means that a people, any people, has justifiable grounds for “abolishing” its ties, its allegiance, to that government.

As was obvious to both the Founders who drafted and approved the Declaration, and the monarchies and despotisms that ruled the vast majority of the rest of mankind, the American declaration of these principles was a revolutionary moment not only for a sliver of the North American continent but, potentially, for the rest of the world. The United States, initially weak relative to the other great powers in the world and, as such, disinclined to involve itself in their conflicts, set itself inevitably on a course that is aptly captured in the title of Robert Kagan’s history of early American statecraft, Dangerous Nation. Here, for the first time in history, was a government whose legitimacy explicitly rested on the claims of human nature and not on common blood, soil, language, religion, or ancient tradition.

This is the true root of American exceptionalism and why it is more apt that we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th rather than July 2nd. It is the creed, the principles, of the Declaration that define the United States—not our successful break from British rule.

Today, we tend to think of the Declaration as the beginning point of a truly “American” politics, and as the first salvo of fighting words used to propel the American colonies as an entity onto the international stage. But in truth, the Declaration is just as much a terminus. It’s the endpoint to a project begun years earlier by men such as the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, to make a people out of the numerous, disparate peoples of the thirteen American colonies.  However much a government’s legitimacy does not depend on a common blood or soil, as the Declaration affirms, the Founders knew full well that a government not the product of such accidents and forces was uniquely dependent for its survival on a people made distinct by their mutual acceptance and belief in a common set of principles. Thus, before the Declaration, Jefferson was already engaging in a type of stealth diplomacy across the Thirteen Colonies, drafting public documents ostensibly addressed to King George III that detailed long trains of abuses to the colonies from the hands of the British Parliament, but which were intentionally directed closer to home, toward shaping the sentiments of the American colonists—into being Americans.

Seen in this light, Jefferson’s 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America is less easily dismissed as some clumsy, naïve telling off of the king. Political theorist Ralph Lerner argues in Naïve Readings: Reveilles Political and Philosophic, that there’s a strategic reason Jefferson never refers in the Summary View to his fellows as Britons or Englishmen living in America, “for he is intent on preserving as great a gap as he can between the transplanted or emigrant man of America and those whom that man or his forebears left behind in old Europe.” For this reason, Jefferson expounds—to King George—on the Saxon Urureltern for some paragraphs in order to focus—for the sake of the American colonists—on the Saxons’ “priceless bequest—a readiness to live free or die.” Summarizing the argument in Jefferson’s voice, Lerner writes:

From such stock are we, the free inhabitants of the British dominions in America, descended…. [T]he striking parallel between the ancient Saxon emigration to Britain and the modern emigration of Englishmen to America offers a telling example of the proper relation of a mother country to its expatriates. Can one imagine the indignation and scorn with which today’s Britons would greet a latter-day German monarch’s claim to reassert his dominions over descendants of those early Saxon emigrants now resident in Britain?  And yet George III and his ministers and Parliament presume to assert such “visionary pretentions” with respect to the descendants of early English emigrants now resident in America.

Not only was Jefferson highlighting for his American peers a historical trait of a love of political liberty handed down from Saxon to American colonist, but he was also putting words to an argument vaguely felt rather than crystalized in the colonists’ heads. The litany of complaints he makes to the king in the Summary View ring familiar to us today because they anticipate the grievances in the Declaration, not to mention in the Declaration and Resolves of the First Continental Congress (October 14, 1774) and in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms of the Second Continental Congress (July 6, 1775). But in 1774, no one yet had suggested a single answer to two perplexing questions: “Why were the British brethren so deaf to the Americans’ appeals to justice and consanguinity? Further, why were the expatriated colonists so long accepting of metropolitan encroachments, usurpations, and high-handedness?” Lerner’s insight into the Summary View is that Jefferson answered both questions through the listing of evolving political complaints. “It was rather a failure on both sides to fully grasp that modern Britons and modern Americans (whatever their shared biological inheritance) had become two different peoples.” Because British authorities failed to acknowledge that Americans had become a breed as well as a land apart, “they persisted in treating New Hampshire as though it is old Hampshire.” Meanwhile, the Americans had let themselves be consistently mistreated, because they also had been slow to recognize how historical circumstances had “altered the political spirit of the two peoples.”

Jefferson’s end goal with the Summary View was thus for his fellow American colonists to become one American people, “capable and worthy of shaping their own destiny,” by means of coalescing around the then-radical principles he was giving voice to in writing the Summary View. The less-than-radical-propositions and conclusions expressed to King George in the Summary View (for example, a type of British Empire over which the King would preside, as a neutral umpire) are mere cover then, for the truly revolutionary political principles Jefferson is already crystalizing for his peers in 1774, and which they will officially publish to the court of the world’s public opinion with the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

To get to July 4, 1776, required no small amount of strategic thinking, of prudent statesmanship, of expert melding together of situational awareness, rhetorical prowess, alliance-leveraging, and political maneuverings. Jefferson was acutely aware that among the American colonial politicians of his day, there was an “inequality of pace with which [they] moved” towards the end goal of political independence from Great Britain, and that therefore a great “prudence [was] required to keep front and rear together,” for them ever to hope to be successful in the undertaking. How Jefferson and the more zealous members of his set built up to the Declaration of Independence is arguably a masterclass in statecraft, with publication of Jefferson’s Summary View as their opening move: Unsolicited, Jefferson drafted and sent to Patrick Henry and Peyton Randolph a set of supposedly anonymous instructions

to be adopted by a body of Virginians meeting as a specially elected albeit irregular convention. These instructions, if adopted, would be carried by Virginia’s deputies to what we now know as the First Continental Congress and proposed to that body for adoption as “an humble and dutiful address” to King George III. At each level, then, there [were] objections to be met, opinions to be won over, and ultimately actions to be taken.

Lerner gives a short summary of what happens next: Randolph brings the draft to the attention of the members of the First Continental Congress, who, though they feel it is “too bold for the present state of things,” nevertheless still print it in pamphlet form under the title of “A Summary view of the rights of British America.” The rhetoric, and the principles argued, by some supposedly anonymous “Native, and Member of the House of Burgesses” in the Summary View could now reach an audience of thousands, if not millions, and on both sides of the Atlantic.

The rest, we could say, is history. But it is worthwhile to note along with Lerner, that it was a junior member of the Virginia colony’s political establishment that took it on himself to set all this in motion. Without Jefferson and a Jefferson-led similarly-minded and similarly-spirited coterie of individuals, when and what type of declaration of political independence would the American colonists have produced? As one Abraham Lincoln would later write, despite his failure to ultimately resolve the political problem of slavery:

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression.

The human element—of Grand Strategy as of Grand Politics—endures. And that, one might argue, is properly the central study of those who would do either successfully.