The Declaration of Independence Disconnect

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s a rainy day here where I am in Thailand and I’ve had the house to myself so with no other distractions it’s a time to return to blogging. My rss feed informs me that a number of biblical scholars have chosen today to write about (or simply quote) the Declaration of Independence as if it were a sacred document. I hate being left behind so I’ve been catching up on some American history myself and one piece of research that seems to make a lot of sense to me is Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (2010). So here are two extracts.

The first reminds me of my undergraduate studies of interest-groups behind Federalist Papers, the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and that have continued to hold power up to today:

For more than two hundred years, citizens of the United States have followed Timothy Dwight in proclaiming their nation “the favorite land of Heaven,” a place of “peace, purity and felicity.” The rolling cadences of the Declaration of Independence, we insist, proclaim us a land of liberty and equality, our Constitution, a government of law and justice. But, shadowing the image the founders sought to project as wise and disinterested statesmen, observers caught sight of the hidden figures of speculators, price gougers, embezzlers, deceivers, and rogues.

The economically and politically discontented — Daniel Shays’s hardscrabble farmers, the Whiskey rebels of western Pennsylvania, Antifederalist critics — were not the only ones to see the new nation’s mercantile and political elite in this light. Many European Americans across the economic and regional spectrum continued to hold dear the civic ideals of classic republicanism: its fears of credit and speculation, its commitment to disinterested heroism and Spartan discipline. Others espoused the commercial republican celebration of industry and frugality.

Both groups watched with mounting ill ease as the national elite grew increasingly at home with the new ways of fiscal capitalism, their embrace of spectacles and the spectacular, of risk and, yes, deception. (p. 414, my bolding and formatting)

The second extract from the conclusion to the book hits a nerve — social divisions, rhetorical and literal violence — that is far more exposed today than it was when the book was first published: 

Deeply divided along religious, ethnic, economic, and cultural lines, the founding generation (and, indeed, all subsequent generations) had no common history to “stabilize, to fix … [or to] guarantee an unchanging oneness or cultural belongingness.” The new Republic came into being at a time of radical change and uncertainty, of imperial rupture, popular uprisings, and unforeseen futures. This was, after all, the Age of Revolution, when political and economic discourses multiplied, new roles developed, meanings expanded and fractured. New men and new women strode forth, deploying new discourses — and old discourses newly interpreted — to demand new rights. Using Thomas Jefferson’s ringing phrases, African Americans challenged the moral and constitutional legitimacy of slavery. Socially and politically marginalized sailors, day laborers, and hill-town and frontier farmers turned their ire against eastern elites in phrases that same elite had taught them. The most radical ideological disjunction of all was, of course, that between an Enlightenment embrace of freedom and human brotherhood and a growing acceptance of the tenets of scientific racism. Cut off by their own volition from reassuring membership in one of the world’s most powerful empires and rich Enlightenment cultures, clinging to the edge of a largely unknown and savage continent, the founding generation existed between, and thus outside of, the Enlightenment‘s stabilizing categories of metropole and native, European and savage, civilized and wild.  

In many ways, we continue to do so. We claim to be Americans, but we do not merge our identity with those of other American nations. Instead, we claim a racialized distinction between ourselves and nations lying south of us. They are the Others that establish our continued identity as European Americans, that is, as racially (and culturally) like Europeans. At the same time, we claim that being braver, more self-reliant, and more independent than Europeans marks us as Americans. Claiming to be exceptional, we are a liminal, uncertain people.  

With so contrary a sense of national identity, we anxiously guard the boundaries of our nation and our sense of self. Busily, we manufacture figures to mark those boundaries — all those who are not “white,” as we understand the category; those who do not celebrate Christ, as we claim to understand him; the poor, poorly educated, and unpropertied; gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons. The list goes on. But, as we have seen, the differences that mark the boundaries between our Others and ourselves continually dissolve. Our dangerous doubles, our (m)others, in Simón Bolívar’‘s terms, our (br)others around the Americas and the world, figures we simultaneously dread and desire, will not remain other, external to the nation, different. Refusing difference, they destabilize us. And we turn upon them with rhetorical and literal violence. Out of the uncertainty of our sense of national belonging, out of the contradictions that destabilize our national discourses and compromise our embrace of our Declaration of Independence, comes our penchant for violence, our need to punish the Others who will not help us resolve our national, our U.S., dilemma. (pp. 466-67)



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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The Declaration of Independence Disconnect”

  1. This whole subject is redolent of Biblical scholarship, so it’s no surprise that Biblical scholars are writing about it. “Foundation” myths are essential to both. Believing that your tribe, race, or nation is “chosen” or “favored” by a Deity is so engrained in our chimpanzee neurons that, to dislodge such childishness, would lead to mass confusion and disillusionment. Thus we remain forever immature, locked in a cosmic melodrama that only exists in our minds.

    1. All values are human values (by definition, in my book). They are framed in different ways, I think, to give them their respective national identities and appeal to a certain tribalism or at least feel-good and feel-special patriotism. So when politicians talk of “fair go” being an Australian value they are giving a local idiomatic twist to what elsewhere might be expressed as “liberty, brotherhood, equality” or “a just society”. Those latter expressions have cosmopolitan or foreign twinges to them so don’t serve the same political functions as, say, appealing to a vision of a “fair go” in Australia.

      There have been serious inroads of American political strategies into Australia for some time now, and in more recent years we have been witnessing the emphasis on a kind of fundamentalist or at least conservative religious influence, but we are still a long, long way from anything approaching what seems to be a literal worshipful awe of a certain interpretation of our history and constitution or political traditions.

      There seem to be two broad understandings of what “Australianness” means in Australia, now, and one of those understandings reflects the same fears we see being played out in the US and Europe.

      I’d like to see an end to all sense of national identities which seem to me to be a form of artificial tribalism magnified for political ends with all sorts of disastrous results.

  2. May I suggest a reading of
    Brothers at arms : American independence and the men of France & Spain who saved it / Larrie D. Ferreiro. New York Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. ISBN:9781101875247 LC: E249 .F47 2016

    The opening chapter shows that the Declaration of Independence was so framed to make it clear that that there was to be no reconciliation with the British Crown so as to to show that this new country was to be completely independent. This was so as to ensure that financial, logistical and military assistance would be forthcoming from both France and Spain.

    Below is Publishers blurb.

    The remarkable untold story of how the American Revolution’s success depended on substantial military assistance provided by France and Spain, and places the Revolution in the context of the global strategic interests of those nations in their fight against England. In this groundbreaking, revisionist history, Larrie Ferreiro shows that at the time the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord the colonists had little chance, if any, of militarily defeating the British. The nascent American nation had no navy, little in the way of artillery, and a militia bereft even of gunpowder. In his detailed accounts Ferreiro shows that without the extensive military and financial support of the French and Spanish, the American cause would never have succeeded. France and Spain provided close to the equivalent of $30 billion and 90 percent of all guns used by the Americans, and they sent soldiers and sailors by the thousands to fight and die alongside the Americans, as well as around the world. Ferreiro adds to the historical records the names of French and Spanish diplomats, merchants, soldiers, and sailors whose contribution is at last given recognition. Instead of viewing the American Revolution in isolation, Brothers at Arms reveals the birth of the American nation as the centerpiece of an international coalition fighting against a common enemy”–
    “The remarkable untold story of how the American Revolution’s success depended on substantial military and financial assistance provided by France and Spain, and places the Revolution in the context of the global strategic interests of those nations in their fight against Great Britain”–

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