The World in the Declaration of Independence

Harvard University Press
7 min readJul 4, 2019


In The Declaration of Independence: A Global Story, a stunningly original look at the American Declaration of Independence, David Armitage reveals the document in a new light: through the eyes of the rest of the world. Not only did the Declaration announce the entry of the United States onto the world stage, it became the model for other countries to follow.

Armitage examines the Declaration as a political, legal, and intellectual document, and is the first to treat it entirely within a broad international framework. He shows how the Declaration arose within a global moment in the late eighteenth century similar to our own. He uses over one hundred declarations of independence written since 1776 to show the influence and role the U.S. Declaration has played in creating a world of states out of a world of empires. He discusses why the framers’ language of natural rights did not resonate in Britain, how the document was interpreted in the rest of the world, whether the Declaration established a new nation or a collection of states, and where and how the Declaration has had an overt influence on independence movements — from Haiti to Vietnam, and from Venezuela to Rhodesia. Here is a brief excerpt looking at the version of the Declaration ratified by Congress on July 4th, 1776.

In the version of the Declaration ultimately ratified by Congress and published to the world, the rhetorical climax of the long train of alleged abuses was the accusations that George III had attempted to stir up “domestic insurrections” — that is, slave rebellions like those the British governor Dunmore had encouraged by proclamation in Virginia in 1775 to undermine the colony’s plantation economy — and had drawn “the merciless Indian Savages” down upon the colonists.

These charges implied that the king had effectively placed the colonies “beyond the line” of civilized practice in warfare. The customary law of European nations in the eighteenth century formally excluded such incursions from the pale of civilized behavior. The Declaration implied that to readmit illicit violence and savagery — in the form of freed slaves and indigenous modes of warfare — within the bounds of the colonies themselves was an affront to an emerging international order and not just to the sensibilities of particular colonists. Such a charge could of course easily be turned around, as the British demonstrated during the American War when they similarly accused the colonists of engaging in savage practices contrary to the prevailing European laws of war.

In Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration, the final charge against the king made an even more explicit appeal to the law of nations and to the norms of contemporary European civilization. George III, Jefferson contended, has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain . . . and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also has obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

This passage seems doubly anomalous, both because Jefferson himself was embroiled in the institution of slavery and because these words would inevitably be excised from the final version of the Declaration by the representatives of those states that wished to continue the slave trade or had been implicated in it before 1776. As Jefferson reported, “the clause… reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia . . . our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they have been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” Nonetheless, in the context of Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration, the passage marked the logical climax to the train of abuses with which the king had been charged.

However implausible it may have been to lay personal responsibility for the slave trade on the shoulders of George III, the comparison between “the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain” and “infidel Powers” like those of Morocco and Algiers who engaged in “piratical warfare” against Europeans, outside the norms of the law of nations, recalled the charge in the Summary View that the king had “preferr[ed] the immediate advantages of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice,” by refusing to countenance the abolition of the slave trade.

It also hinted at one of the most troubling implications of American independence: that the Royal Navy would no longer protect American shipping from assaults by the Barbary corsairs who preyed on merchant vessels in the Mediterranean. When the United States entered into its first defensive alliance, with France in February 1778, the provisions of the Franco- American Treaty of Amity and Commerce included the crucial clause offering French protection for “the Benefit, Conveniency and Safety of the said United States, and each of them, their Subjects, People, and Inhabitants, and their Vessels and Effects, against all Violence, Insult, Attacks, or Depredations on the Part of the . . . Princes and States of Barbary, or their Subjects.”

The longest passage that Congress excised from the Declaration was inflammatory not least because Jefferson had rendered equivalent both the free inhabitants of British America and the enslaved by calling each a “people.” In the opening paragraph of his original draft, Jefferson had written, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained,” which Congress amended to become the more familiar, “When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for One people to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another” (my emphases). In the Declaration adopted by Congress, Britons and Americans alone were called “peoples” in two mutually reinforcing senses: as the inhabitants of two territories constituted politically as sovereign bodies, and also as two of the units within the traditional law of nations, or what legally minded contemporaries would have called the law of peoples (what in Roman law had been called the jus gentium and what, in contemporary French and German legal language, was called the droit des gens or Völkerrecht). The excision of the passage relating to the slave trade and the alteration of the opening sentence of the Declaration removed any such parity between Africans and Americans, as “peoples” or as the victims of “subordination.” Yet these would be just the terms in which Jefferson would later argue for emancipation in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785): the Virginia legislature could free the enslaved by sending them to colonize the western lands, with a duty on the Virginians “to declare them a free and independant people, and to extend to them our alliance and protection.”

The wider world imagined in the Declaration — both in its drafts and in its final published version — was a world of peoples linked by both benign and malign forms of commerce. It was also an arena of warfare between Americans and Britons, as well as among their various allies and enemies. This interna- tional community was populated mostly by mutually recognizing sovereign states, but it was threatened by outlaw powers who acted more like pirates, those traditional enemies of humankind engaged in warfare against humanity itself. In many ways this was a recognizably modern world, in which commerce and war are the most conspicuous forms of interaction between different peoples and states. Even among European thinkers, that conception of the interactions between states was barely a century old in 1776. Yet it was also a world in which metaphysical norms — “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” — could still be appealed to, alongside the “known Rules of Warfare” and cultural standards like civility and barbarism.

This was the world into which the members of Congress believed they were introducing the United States of America by means of the Declaration of Independence. In its self-justifying pamphlet Observations on the American Revolution (1779), Congress took independence to be a settled but embattled fact: “we must hold ourselves ready to repel force by force wherever as- sailed, and firmly retort to every infringement of the law of nations with unfailing perseverance.” If the independence of the United States could be defended, and the law of nations upheld, then the United States would become what Thomas Paine and others had predicted: an asylum for oppressed humanity, a beacon of knowledge and benevolence, and a universal entrepôt for the commerce of the world.

This would also be the millennialist vision Ezra Stiles, the Congregationalist preacher and president of Yale College, promised in the immediate aftermath of British recognition of American independence in 1783:

This great American revolution, this recent political phenomenon of a new sovereignty arising among the sovereign powers of the earth, will be attended to and contemplated by all nations. Navigation will carry the American flag around the globe itself; and display the Thirteen Stripes and New Constellation at Bengal and Canton, on the Indus and the Ganges, on the Whang-ho and the Yang-tse-kiang . . . knowledge will be brought home and treasured to America; and being here digested and carried to the highest perfection, may reblaze back from America to Europe, Asia and Africa, and illumine the world with TRUTH and LIBERTY.

As Stiles noted in the second edition of his sermon, The United States Elevated to Glory and Honour, published two years later in 1785, this vision was already becoming a reality, with the return to the United States of the first American East-India ships from Canton, Macao, and Calcutta. The Declaration had imagined a new world only for the pursuit of American sovereignty. Now, its consequences would shape that world, thanks to the “new sovereignty… among the sovereign powers of the earth” that it had helped to bring into being.