Political hucksters—both Left and Right—are dusting off copies of the Declaration of Independence in preparation for the July 4th observances.  At most, they are making sure to quote correctly the language of paragraph two which speaks of self-evident truths about liberty and equality. Seldom does a modern rhetorician even glance at the remainder of the document.

On this Independence Day, Americans should invoke the rule of completeness against such abuse of the Declaration.  Under the rules of evidence, if a party introduces part of a statement his adversary may demand introduction of other parts that in fairness ought to be considered to provide full context.

With the Declaration, full context casts doubt on claims that the United States is built upon a proposition (i.e., equality) and destined to have a powerful government capable of exporting democracy and liberal values across the globe.  The Declaration—read as a whole–is a document of secession in which the thirteen colonies removed themselves from Great Britain’s jurisdiction and claimed the right to govern themselves in local assemblies.

The main body of the Declaration is an indictment of George III for assisting Parliament in hindering self-government in the various colonial assemblies.  The distant British government had sent “swarms of officers to harass our people,” “alter[ed] fundamentally the forms of our government” without consent of the people, and ignored the ancient rights of Englishmen that protected the King’s subjects in North America.

“A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant,” the Declaration avers, “is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”  Tyranny to the Revolutionary generation, in the words of James Madison, was “[t]he accumulation of all powers . . . in the same hands.”  George III and Parliament, living 3000 miles away from the colonists, claimed all power despite having no knowledge of local colonial circumstances.  In the Declaratory Act of 1766, Parliament announced it had the authority to legislate “in all cases whatsoever” regarding the thirteen colonies.

To address the tyranny of British centralization, the Declaration calls for “separation.”  The thirteen colonies “are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.”  Under the law of nations, the Declaration continues, such states have “full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent States may of right do.”

Modern readers should notice use of the plural: States.  While the colonies presented a united front in challenging Great Britain, the Declaration is clear that the self-government sought would be conducted in 13 different bodies, not one great continental legislature.   If the Declaration was a charter of nationhood as some scholars suggest, the states would not have needed to form a confederation after July 4, 1776.  The fact that they did draft and adopt the Articles of Confederation contradicts the assertion popularized by Abraham Lincoln that the union preceded the states.

Indeed, the Articles specifically declare that the union is “a firm league of friendship” among sovereign states for purposes of combating Great Britain and other limited objectives.  The colonists were not seeking to trade one distant and centralized government for another.  That would have defeated the entire purpose of the American Revolution.

Unfortunately, Independence Day celebrations will have few honest orators on the meaning of the Declaration.  An honest disquisition would cause the people to ask tough questions.   Why does Congress seemingly legislate in all cases whatsoever regarding the internal affairs of the states?  How did the three branches of the federal government absorb all power at the center to easily qualify as a tyranny under Madison’s definition?

Why do we tolerate swarms of federal officers harassing our people? Why have we allowed the federal courts to strike state constitutional provisions on marriage and other matters without consent of the people? Why have we willingly traded our ancient rights for the dictates of administrative agencies?

As for the much-ballyhooed principle of equality, anyone who has played a pickup game of basketball or taken a grade school math class knows that it is nonsense to claim that all people are created equal.  Equality is a lie, yet it has become a guiding governmental principle to achieve equal outcomes in school, the workforce, and other aspects of life.

On second thought, maybe the crowds at Independence Day events should not invoke the rule of completeness.  We have strayed so far from the real principles of the Declaration that July 4th might turn into a day of mourning rather than a celebration of the accomplishments of the Revolutionary generation.

William J. Watkins

William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the book Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America's First Constitution. He received his B.A. in history and German summa cum laude from Clemson University and his J.D. cum laude from the University of South Carolina School of Law. Mr. Watkins is a former law clerk to Judge William B. Traxler, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and he is President of the Greenville, SC, Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society. He has served as a prosecutor and defense lawyer, and has practiced in various state and federal courts.


  • Joseph Johnson says:

    We essentially live under Federalist/Whig/Hamiltonian/Lincolnian/Puritan/Jacobin hegemony. There’s seemingly no escape.

  • Matt C. says:

    After the fact (the successful Revolution), I side with the states and then with the South in the subsequent war in 1861. Before the Revolution, or when it when it was at the door, I stand with the Loyalists arguments. “God against the Revolution. The Loyalist Clergy’s Case Against The American Revolution,” by Gregg L. Frazer persuaded me.

  • David LeBeau says:

    Before Thomas Jefferson listed the 27 grievances against King George III, he stated; “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.” I ask the Nationalist, who dominate the political realm of DC, notice that Jefferson said “States” in the plural?

    • Gordon says:

      Needless to say, the Nationalists who dominate the political realm of DC are Hamiltonians.

      Speaking of Jefferson and States Rights, RE Lee wrote a few years after the Late Unpleasantness of his hope for a return to “Jeffersonian” principles, an admirable but forlorn hope in hindsight. It’s funny that Lee’s daddy, Harry, and Jefferson hated each other, partly for prevailing political differences of their time, partly for petty accusations by Harry against Jefferson’s courage as Virginia governor during Tarleton’s invasion of Virginia.

      Robert wrote warmly at times of this father but it’s telling and confirming of his sympathies that he took council from Mr. Jefferson.

      • Thos. Jefferson rode day and night to persuade Virginians to fight during his tenure as Governor. My ancestral sister, Elisabeth Thornton Walker, got Tarleton drunk so he could miss capturing the Legislature. That was a close one, what with the colonies, especially New England, growing tired of the conflict.

        All men “created” equal does not mean “equality”. One foreign observer noted about the Southland “wherever negroe slavery exists there is at least equality amount white men”. Which merely means respect and honor. Something not even the likes of Leo Tolstoy could comprehend (his novel “Resurrection”).

        Thanks this 4th for the Abbeville Institue!

        • Gordon says:

          I’ve enjoyed pointing out to the unaware that while colonists in the Northeast were peacefully co-existing with the British army Francis Marion, Daniel Morgan and Nathanael Greene – Light-Horse Harry, too – were wearing out and chasing away Cornwallis. They also convinced many a Loyalist to maybe reconsider. Also, Jack Jouett is the man. Paul, who?

          Where can I find the story of Elisabeth Thornton Walker? I’ve found only her mother so far.

        • Valeie Protopapas says:

          Jefferson’s claims of “equality” were very specific. He didn’t need to identify them because of the age in which he lived. The claim that “all men are created equal” dealt with a system that had “aristocracy” vs. the lower class(es). He was speaking of WHITE EUROPEAN MEN, not other races or other ethnic groups (Chinese etc.) or women, but white European men. Nobody has the right to be a duke or an Earl or a KING by virtue of birth. Even the farmer is “equal” in the eyes of God. But, of course, having very little in the understanding of either history or language, modern people have made this into a declaration of equality for (and of) everybody and what happens then is you have all of this nonsense of “I’m as good as you.” Read C. S. Lewis to see where THAT goes! And so we go from viewing all people (today) as “equal” before the law and in the sight of God, to “equal” as BEING THE SAME. Hence you give trophies for showing up, assure a man who wants to be a woman that he can recreate reality and so forth. This is a program leading to disaster and all because one man wrote five words in an old document.

    • scott thompson says:

      i expect noone of the era challenged Jefferson on it?

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    “Political hucksters—both Left and Right—are dusting off copies of the Declaration of Independence in preparation for the July 4th observances.”
    The first sentence predicts the contents remaining. Great article.

  • Nicki Cribb says:

    And we are seeing today, the same injuries and wounds and gashes in the continued attempts by the Left and the Democrat party under Barack Obama and Joe Biden, to subvert and pervert the Declaration of Secession and Independence, and the Constitution itself to their idea and vision of the America that they desire and wish for, and ruling by Executive Order rather than Congressional authorizations.

  • Hugh Mcdanel says:

    What was matters little today, for this nobal document is trampled under the feet of socialist , communists, and people who have usurped our natural rights. Today our enemies are many, and among us.

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