In 1774 the delegates for the Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia. Hostilities had already broken out and the delegates, although all from the wealthier classes of society, were under pressure to adopt a more radical stand. Originally the majority of the upper class Americans did not want independence. But the mood of the masses made all thought of compromise impossible. The situation was explosive and this favored the most radical elements in Congress. As a result, on July 4, 1776, the Thirteen United States of America declared their independence from Great Britain.
The task of drafting the declaration was given to a committee composed of John Adams (cousin of Samuel Adams and future President), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson, a 33-year-old Virginian landowner and left-winger, was charged by the committee to write the declaration. He wrote one of the most inspiring revolutionary documents in history.
Here was an act of tremendous boldness and one that required great courage. The revolutionaries had thrown down the gauntlet to the most powerful imperial state in the world. Their lives were now forfeit and could only be saved by outright victory and they knew it. There could now be no turning back, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out when he uttered the famous words: “We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”. Later, when Jefferson was the American ambassador in France, he wrote:
“If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts,” he asked, “where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman’s. You began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood: we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers: we put our existence to the hazard, when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country.”
The Declaration of Independence, with its ringing endorsement of the idea of liberty and equality for all, was a clarion call to the downtrodden and oppressed everywhere. It was as revolutionary in 1776 as The Communist Manifesto would be in 1848.
This document seems the more remarkable because of the state of the world in which it was written. In 1776 there were kings on the throne of England, France, Austria and most of the other great powers of Europe. Russia was ruled by a tsar (or tsarina), the Ottoman Empire by the Sultan and China by its imperial dynasty. Democracy was therefore a novel and highly revolutionary doctrine.
This epoch-making document still has the power to inspire today. In it the idea of liberty is magnificently expressed. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are proclaimed as inalienable rights. But no citizen of Russia, China or the Ottoman Empire could say the same thing. Nor could the citizens of France, Austria or Prussia, and even England was a monarchy ruled, in practice, by a corrupt and reactionary oligarchy of wealthy landowners. The Declaration shook the world. When it was announced, it caused a tremendous stir in every American city. It was read aloud to exited groups of citizens on the streets of Philadelphia. Here was something really worth fighting and dying for! “And for the support of this Declaration”, Jefferson concluded, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”
The document would doubtless have been even more radical had it not been for the fact that it had to be subscribed by all thirteen colonies, including the slave-owning colonies from the South. In fact, the most obvious and glaring weakness of the document is that it does not deal with the issue of slavery at all. There was a considerable slave population – 539,000 or one fifth of the total population of the colonies. It seems that Jefferson wanted to include a reference to slavery and made several proposals for its abolition, but all were rejected. Finally, following the protests of the slave-owning states, all mention of the institution of slavery was omitted from the final draft. Jefferson began to temporize on the issue, postponing it to some unspecified future date. In this way, the seeds were laid for a bloody Civil War and a second American Revolution.
On the thorny question of religion, however, Jefferson was implacable. He insisted that, though the citizen had the right to hold any belief he or she chose, governments did not have the right to favour any faith. Therefore the state and religion must be radically separated. At the time when this democratic principle was proclaimed, the states had their own laws on religion, mostly of a retrograde character. Some states prohibited Roman Catholicism. In Jefferson’s own state, Virginia, heresy was a capital offence. The radical separation of the state and religion is a basic democratic principle, but it is now under attack from the so-called religious right. These people wish to introduce religion into the schools and interfere with the curriculum to teach the First Book of Genesis instead of the scientific theory of evolution. These elements wish to throw America back to the Dark Ages, to the age of superstition and the Salem witch trials, and to ditch an essential feature of the Declaration of Independence.
Today the principles of the Declaration of Independence are the heritage of every American citizen. All Americans believe in these principles – at least, they would like to believe in them. Yet, if we are to be honest, there are contradictions in the very text of the Declaration and the American Constitution itself. When it is said that all men are created equal, this is clearly not in accordance with the facts. Although we may come into this world in a more or less equal state as human beings, there is inequality from the very start. The world is divided into rich and poor, and the former rule over the latter, exploit and oppress them. This was already the case when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it is a million times truer today.
In the 18th century, it was still possible to dream of a democratic republic comprised of small farmers (this was Jefferson’s ideal), in which the differences between rich and poor would be reduced to a minimum. Over 200 years since the American Revolution, the U.S.A. is entirely dominated by a handful of giant corporations that act effectively as a law unto themselves, much as the old aristocracies of 18th century Europe did. Although theoretically the U.S. is a democracy and a republic, in fact all the important decisions are taken by small groups of unelected persons. Moreover, the power of the President, and the clique that surrounds him, is colossal and tends to constantly encroach on the rights of the citizens, the law and the Constitution itself.
For the wealthy merchants in Congress, freedom meant first and foremost freedom of trade and free enterprise. But free enterprise, as Marx explains, always begets monopoly, and today, the U.S.A. is more monopolized than any other country on earth. In place of Jefferson’s democracy of small farmers we have the dictatorship of Big Business. The roots of this contradiction can already be found in the 18th century, as we shall show.