A Decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind

4 July 2019


This cartoon from 1754 is attributed to Benjamin Franklin.

When the Declaration of Independence was signed on 04 July 1776, it was a manifesto to explain, defend, and justify the action of the Founders in breaking from Great Britain and founding an independent political entity. The boldness of this gambit is difficult to appreciate today. Benjamin Franklin said after signing the document, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” It was a very real possibility that the Founders would be rounded up and hanged on the gallows. They had signed their names to a treasonous document, which was published for all to read.

Any Royalist with a grudge could have taken down the names of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and used it as a checklist for revenge and retaliation, even if the Founders were successful. And, had the British put down the rebellion, execution would have been certain. Less than a hundred years previously, following the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, the Bloody Assizes executed hundreds and transported hundreds more to the West Indies under the auspices of Judge Jeffreys, made Lord Chancellor by King James for his services to the crown in the wake of the rebellion. The spirit of the assizes had not subsided, as less fifty years later, the Bloody Assize of 1814 in Canada saw eight executed during the War of 1812 for aiding the Americans. If the revolution had failed, the bloody assizes of 1776 would have been legendary.

To rebel against what the world could only consider a “rightful sovereign” demanded that some explanation be given the world, hence the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” was a necessary diplomatic move, perhaps the first diplomatic initiative undertaken by what would become the United States of America. But at the same time that a world ruled by monarchs and autocrats, Tsars and Popes, kings and princes, emperors and aristocrats, Caliphs and satraps, would not look kindly upon the rebellion of subject peoples, the Founders could also expect that, in the Great Power competition, other powers would come forward to help the nascent nation simply in order to counter the presumed interests of Britain. The Declaration of Independence provides plausible deniability for any who came to the assistance of the rebels that the cause of the rebels was not mere lèse-majesté that other sovereigns should want to see punished.

The litany of abuses (eighteen items are explicitly noted in the Declaration; item thirteen is followed by nine sub-headings detailing “pretended legislation”) attributed to George III were intended to definitively establish the tyranny of the then-present King of England. I doubt anyone was convinced by the charges made against the British crown. If someone supported the crown or supported the colonies, they probably did so for pretty transparent motives of self-interest, and not because of any abstract belief in the divine right of kings on the one hand, or, on the other hand, any desire to engage in humanitarian intervention given the suffering the colonists experienced as a consequence of the injuries, usurpations, and oppressions of King George III.

King George III made an official statement later the same year, before the Revolutionary War had been won or lost by either side, and the crown’s North American colonies south of Canada might rightly have been said be “in play”: His Majesty’s Most Gracious Speech to Both Houses of Parliament on Thursday, October 31, 1776. A number of newspaper responses to the Declaration of Independence can be found in British reaction to America’s Declaration of Independence by Mary McKee. I don’t know of any point-by-point response to the grievances detailed in the Declaration of Independence, but I would be surprised if there weren’t any such from contemporary sources.

Subsequent history has not had much to say about these specific appeals to a decent respect to the opinions of mankind. The Declaration of Independence has had an ongoing influence, and might even be said to be one of the great manifestos of the Enlightenment, but the emphasis has always fallen on the ringing claims of the first few sentences. These sentences include a number of phrases that have become some of the most famous political rhetoric of western civilization. The litany of grievances, however, have not been among these famous phrases. The idea of taxation without representation occurs in the form of “For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent,” but the more familiar form does not occur in the Declaration.

If the Declaration has intended as plausible deniability for any power that assisted the rebellious colonies, that is not the message that has been transmitted by history. The message that got through was the forceful statement of Enlightenment ideals for political society. In this, the colonies, later the United States, was eventually successful in their appeal to the opinion of mankind. Few today dispute these ideals, even if they act counter to them, whereas other statements of ideals of political society — say, The Communist Manifesto, for instance — have both their defenders and their detractors. It is no small accomplishment to have formulated ideals with this degree of currency.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Pulling Down the Statue Of King George III, New York City, Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, 1852-1853

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Grand Strategy Annex

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